The Potential of a Garden

[…] for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody. Loss has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all. And if we have lost, then it follows that we have had, that we have desired and loved, that we have struggled to find the conditions for our desire.

— Judith Butler, Precarious Life; The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 2004, p.20.

The word paradise is derived from the ancient Persian – a green place. Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them.

— Derek Jarman, Derek Jarman’s Garden, 2012, p.40.

It is August 2016. Accompanied by three artists, friends of mine, I've arrived at Prospect Cottage, the garden and seaside retreat of the English film director, poet and artist Derek Jarman (1942-1994). After a fairly brief journey via the tunnel at Calais to Dungeness, on England's southern coast, we're now waiting in the car with a certain trepidation. What's keeping us from getting out? Perhaps we're caught by surprise to some degree: I feel as if I'm a cross between a cultural tourist, a voyeur and a pilgrim. In my mind the garden has assumed mythical proportions, the landscape having been vast and desolate from the start. On arrival the day-to-day reality begins to seep in, probably as a result of the young gardener who is diligently weeding. He doesn't fit the picture of expectations.

Dungeness is a point of land in the south of England, a desert of pebbles. Here the desert reclaims land from the sea and continues to shift it back toward the horizon. Elsewhere the battle would no doubt be won by the sea. In this desolate landscape, where only a single shrub is hearty enough to take root, the wind constantly attacks the body. It is as though the gusts try to slam right through you, hoping to throw you off balance and break the pastoral silence with as much noise as possible. Howard Sooley, one of the best-known photographers of this garden and a good friend of Jarman, describes his first visit to Dungeness as "landing on the moon." It is a rather unlikely location for a garden. The notion that anything at all can grow here is enough to make one believe in miracles.

In the autumn of 1986, while seeking a location for the film The Garden, Jarman and his partner Keith Collins bought what is now known throughout the world as Prospect Cottage: the tar-painted fisherman's house and its surrounding garden. Here the artist was able to cultivate his interest in gardening, his knowledge of horticulture and his ecological convictions. Less than six months later, Jarman was diagnosed with HIV. The garden and the end of his life soon became intertwined, in form and in meaning.

The fusion of art and life was not foreign to Jarman, who had become famous as a filmmaker. His films, renowned for their experimental use of the camera and narrative structure, attest to a profound personal concern for social developments, (homo)sexuality and violence. While art historical references are combined with homo-erotic aesthetics in Caravaggio (1986), Jubilee (1978) is a document on the punk movement and The Last of England (1989) tells about Thatcherism and social disintegration in Great Britain during the 1980s. In Blue (1993), the film that Jarman produced at the end of his life, his daily experience of living with AIDS constitutes the main focus. Three voices narrate the fragmented story as the viewer looks at a blue screen. The color blue refers not only to Yves Klein's blue, interpreted by Klein as an "open window to freedom", but also to Jarman's diminishing sight and the blue haze that had suddenly descended upon his reality as a side effect of his medication.

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours. Lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time – the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

Derek Jarman, Modern Nature, 1994, p.30.

The garden at Prospect Cottage has no walls or fences. "My garden's boundaries are the horizon," Jarman wrote in his journal Modern Nature on 1 January 1989. In this desolate landscape he encountered, at the time, only a few fisherman's huts, two distant lighthouses and a commanding nuclear power plant. Thirty years later the landscape remains just as desolate, though nowadays it is littered with abandoned, half-charred boats and a touristy inn. Cars come and go. Prospect Cottage has an arresting presence with its black wooden exterior and contrasting bright-yellow window frames. On the front side of the house, the garden is more or less formal in terms of layout: a large square flower box and two stone circles, lush with growth, that mirror each other on the left and right. A dilapidated wooden fishing boat lies there casually. At the back the garden is more untamed and lacks any distinct structure.

While roaming the beaches Jarman scavenged stones, wreckage and rusting iron. In his garden all of these castaway remnants converge in the form of small improvised sculptures. The initial association on seeing these works is that they were produced by an amateur or some 'outsider' artist. Scrap iron around a small piece of flint. A chain of grey stones surrounding a triangular piece of driftwood, clad with iron that has now turned a deep shade of red. A chain, implements and small iron objects, all rusted away, make up a precise formation in the pebbles. At the back of the garden he erected, next to circles formed by rusting metal, 'totempoles' of partially petrifed and decayed wreckage wood. Extended and animistic, some of these sculptures bring to mind the elongated Personages of Louise Bourgeois. Other assemblages, scattered about the garden like small talismen, are more reminiscent of ritualistic objects meant to invoke spirits.

The sculptures and vegetation merge in an organic manner. Plants were very carefully chosen on the basis of their capacity to thrive in this dry environment of stones, where the wind moreover inhibits growth. Jarman made openings among the pebbles and created demarcations of stone and wood in which plants could grow. Part of his selection included native plants, such as the indestructible sea kale, which can be found everywhere in Dungeness. Thistles, fennel and camomile have been placed alongside cultivated roses and poppies. The plant growth, the circles of stone, the demarcations and sculptures converge in a single monumental, organic yet minimalist collage of conjuration.

As I consult the British Common Wild Flower Guide in order to identify the diverse plants in this garden, my eye is drawn to the guide's classification of plants into the categories "native", "archaeophyte" and "introduced (neophytes)". These three categories refer to the origins of the flora and how long they have been present in the British Isles: criteria that determine whether the plant should be included in the guide. The profiles are based on the argument that "...only those that have become well-established and are able to reproduce and maintain themselves in the wild and have become relatively common or widespread" were considered for inclusion in this guide. The words have a certain unpleasantness. I cannot read this argumentation without linking it to our present-day society and the daily reality of refugees, immigrants and those without papers; to the relationship between colonization and the notion of the indigenous.

Naming is control. It establishes, if not ownership, at least a relationship of some intimacy as well as a chain of bizarre equivalences: a set of wiggles in the muscles of the mouth and larynx = a set of phonemes = a constellation of letters = a star. It’s a pretty arbitrary chain, but it’s all that allows us to talk about the world. But what does it mean to name something that cannot hear you, in a world that doesn’t care?

Susan Tallman, The Collections of Barbara Bloom, 2007, p. 45.

Prospect Cottage became a refuge for the artist. Here, at a time when homosexuality and AIDS were taboo, he could occasionally escape his growing public role as an activist. A refuge in a desolate landscape enabled him to reflect and meditate as one does in a Japanese Zen garden. But gardening requires physical labor too. Shifting pebbles, hauling soil around, putting in plants, sowing seeds, getting things to grow and tending them requires a direct and active relationship with nature. The garden and gardening gave Jarman the chance to forget day-to-day worries, and to mourn for friends whom he was losing with increasing frequency due to the same virus, which still lacked any official status at that point. This garden, in this strange corner of the earth, became a hopeful environment, a place of struggle and growth through action and care. As such Prospect Cottage became Jarman's magnum opus on life and death.

Nature, like reality, is more ruthless. Gradually the garden acquired another level of meaning, as his partner Keith Collins describes in Derek Jarman's Garden (2012): "...the plants struggling against biting winds and Death Valley sun merged with Derek’s struggle with illness, then contrasted with it, as the flowers blossomed while Derek faded."

Gardens evoke associations with pleasantness, but Jarman's garden, in that incredible landscape, renounces the idyll. The war that he waged reminds me of another famous garden of an artist, located seven hundred kilometers north of Dungeness, in the vicinity of Edinburgh: Little Sparta, created by the writer and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006). In his Unconnected Sentences on Gardening (1980), he wrote: "Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks."

Little Sparta is, like Jarman's garden, both his life's work and an artwork. Here, in another barren landscape, the agoraphobic Finlay cultivated a parallel reality, meticulously distributed among eight different types of gardens: from the 'Roman Garden', the 'Wild Garden' and 'English Parkland' to a walled 'hortus conclusus'. As a poet he inscribed texts in stone and intrinsically linked these, as visual poems and comments, to the construction and layout of the individual gardens. A stone flower box perfectly illustrates the theme of Little Sparta. The words 'Et In Arcadia Ego' have been chiselled into its front side. The title comes from a famous painting by Nicolas Poussin, from 1637-38, a depiction of two shepherds who are astounded at their discovery of a tomb. Finlay replaces this pastoral motif with the bas-relief scene of a menacing tank. It is characteristic of this garden, in which the pastoral and the picturesque make a comeback, but always on a note of direct criticism. That utopia is no longer possible, he seems to say. Finlay's decision, in 1980, to name his garden after Sparta was a deliberate reaction against the city of Edinburgh, which calls itself the Athens of the North. But it is also a tribute to the ascetic, uncompromising and combative people of the classical city-state Sparta. Since Finlay considered the structure of a garden a direct reflection of society's (cultural and political) structure, he opted for the Spartan 'underdog' and thus anti-establishment stance. Little Sparta was his criticism of modern society, of its belief in progress and the gap between man and nature. To Finlay, the garden was not an escape or a defense, but a means of an attack.

Imagine a classical English garden. The plants, flowers, all that greenery seems to grow effortlessly amid order and calm. The green lawn is manicured, everything is just fine. This image stands in sharp contrast to Prospect Cottage and Little Sparta. Whereas Little Sparta makes a more direct political statement, Prospect Cottage is a space for hope and struggle. Quietly the gardens attest to conflict and trauma, both personal and historical. Here the central focus is not the individual; he or she is merely a minor element within the more expansive cosmology of the world.

In his essay The Radicant (2009) the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud describes the contemporary artist as a 'radicant'. A 'radicant' is a plant or organism that keeps on shifting, taking root anew each time. Its roots are superficial. The contemporary artist is supposedly someone who, contrary to the modernists, does not allow his identity to be determined by his roots. The contemporary artist, but contemporary man too, Bourriaud argues, is only at home on the road. As opposed to the radical, whose development remains anchored in his deep roots.

On the trip home we've again reached the border-crossing at Calais. We wave our Dutch passports. Unimpressed, the border police take their impatient dogs further. Getting to Dungeness was no trouble at all for us, and we've been free to leave that desert at any time.

To adopt a garden as the point of departure for a journey, and then for an essay, may initially seem like an irrelevant or escapist exercise. Am I exchanging the world which is ablaze for an aesthetic or contemplative experience? Was Prospect Cottage 'merely' a refuge for Jarman at the end of his life? Or can we also perceive the garden as an attempt to engage with that world? Can the garden be a momentary autonomous zone that helps us, in fact, to fathom it?

translation: Beth O'Brien