Peter Johnson, 2016 - Heterotopian Studies, Bath Uk

     Gardens are involved in the histories of leisure, of social classes, of religious symbolism, of utopia and paradise, of jokes and festivals, of journeys and exploration, and of theatre; and they touch on the theories of sculpture, painting, perspective, geology, botany, medicine, and hydraulics, to name a few (Elkins).

     Fiona Ackerman makes a mirror box, an enclosure, a theatre, a disruption of images, as both an invention and exploration of gardens. Rather than the tradition of depicting gardens, bounded spaces, the canvasses embody the process of gardening, cultivating an impossible space: a medley of sculptured cut-outs, with branches, grasses, leaves entangled and entangling. The density of foliage is ceaselessly reflected and refracted in texture, colour, size and dimension to produce something that is both a display and a performance. Am I in a glass house or outside?  These inventions seem in-between. I am positioned close-up as if I could reach inside or outside, but to get where?  Glasslands prompt the questions: what is a garden and what are the possibilities of these curious spaces…….?

Some etymological lessons

     The landscape historian John Dixon Hunt explains how the Old Persian term pairidaeza derives from pairi (around) and daeza (wall). The word was Hellenised as paradeisos and reaches us as ‘paradise’. The derivation of the English word ‘garden’ itself is also closely associated with notions of a boundary: Old English geard (fence), Indo-European gher (fence) and ghort (enclosure), and Vulgar Latin gardinum (enclosure). The Hebrew origin of the word ‘garden’ carries a range of connotations linked to enclosure: ‘to protect, to shelter, to save, or to be passed over and survive as one survives a storm in the desert’.  

Gardens are a special space marked-off from the everyday. But what makes these places so distinctive?  

     Philosopher David Cooper takes a phenomenological position, suggesting that the distinguishing feature of a garden is ‘atmosphere’ or a certain deep ‘elusive feeling’. Gardens possess a presence. He cites fellow philosopher Roger Scruton’s Heideggerian reflection: a ‘tree in a garden is not like a tree in the forest or a field. It is not simply there… accidental. It stands and watches… converses…. with those who walk beneath it’; trees ‘gather’ other aspects of the garden in a network of ‘between-ness’.

And gardens are also persistently related to utopian thought and desire:

     The garden provides an image of the world, a space of simulation for paradise-like conditions, a place of otherness where dreams are realised in an expression of a better world (Meyer).

     Interestingly, the garden features strongly in Thomas More’s Utopia published in Latin in 1516. The conversations that form the basis of the book take place in a garden in Antwerp; the narrative suggests that the founder of utopia must have hada ‘special interest’ in gardening; and the inhabitants of utopia are said to be particularly fond of their gardens. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch goes so far as to suggest that in More’s utopia:

…. life is a garden.

     In his own utopian reflections Bloch describes the building of certain gardens as ‘wishful images in the mirror’, or manifestations of hope.  Domestic gardens are described as ‘the open air shaped in accordance with our wishes’.

     Garden and gardening have also become prominent in recent narratives about utopia. For example, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Marstrilogy, the invention and production of a new planet is expressed through the creation of a dazzling range of gardens:

     Some of the gardeners.... worked according to the precepts of Muso Soseki, others according to other Japanese Zen masters; others still to Fu Hsi, the legendary inventor of the Chinese system of geomancy called feng shui; others to Persian gardening gurus....

     Jennifer Atkinson links the above to what she perceives as a utopian impulse in the recent development of ‘guerrilla gardening’, the often clandestine practice of creating gardens in neglected and derelict spaces, conceiving horticultural potential in the most unlikely places.

     In two radio broadcasts in the 1960s, the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault reflected on our fascination for utopias, the mythical spaces of our imagination, our dreams. What particularly interested Foucault was what he termed ‘local utopias’, or heterotopias, dreams that become real, that are impressed with time. As a sort of half-way illustration, he describes children’s imaginary games played in huts or tents at the end of the garden or perhaps on their parents bed, becoming for a time  a ship tossed by the waves, threatened by pirates, or perhaps today a space-ship journeying into the unknown, meeting and overcoming dangers.

     But Foucault suggests such imaginary spaces are not just the preserve of children. He evokes diverse examples from gardens, to cemeteries to prisons, to brothels. In different ways, these inventions are both unreal and real, in place and out of place, in time and out of time. 

Gardens both mirror and transform what is outside.

     Gibson Burrell and Karen Dale have reflected that garden utopias are also ‘riven with paradoxes and contradictions’, embracing organising and disorganising tendencies that involve boundary, formality, planning and design, as well as spirituality, fecundity, pleasure, transgression, playfulness and unpredictability.  Each tendency sustains the other in a concentrated enclosure. 

     Others have suggested that the experience of a garden overcomes the customary distinctions between head and heart, ratio and emotion, instinct and intellect and encapsulates a ‘utopian time’ (Dean).

     The semiotician Louis Marin’s study of the textual play within Rousseau’s ‘Le Jardin de Julie’ - a letter within Rousseau’s epistolary novel La Nouvelle Héloïse  – is a wonderful illustration of such a utopian time. Marin delights in the ambiguous textual play within the description of Julie’s garden. He travels through the text as if taking a stroll. The garden, Rousseau’s text and Marin’s own commentary become digressions, simple delight and pleasure, a form of daydreaming, a certain idleness. Marin reflects on how the garden in Rousseau’s text is an intensely ambivalent place. A typical example is found in the way Julie describes the construction of the garden:

     …. nature did it all, but under my direction, and there is nothing here that I have not designed. 

There is for Marin ‘the antique paradox’ of a garden:

the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek.

     Marin goes on to conceptualise Rousseau’s text as capturing a ‘non-place’, without perspective, neither inside nor outside, both opening and enclosing. He explores how Rousseau encapsulates the otherworldliness of the garden through a ‘promenade-reverie’, evoking a place that ruptures both time and space.

     Marin makes a concluding appeal to garden designers and artists – a call that reverberates throughout Glasslands:

     You who build gardens, don’t make parks or green spaces, make margins. Don’t make leisure and game parks, make places of jouissance, make closures that are openings. Don’t make imaginary objects, make fictions. Don’t make representations, make empty spaces, gaps…... 

Bloch, E. (1986) [1954] The Principle of Hope volume 1, trans. Plaice, N. et al, Oxford: Blackwell.
Burrell, G. and Dale, K (2002) ‘Utopiary: utopias, gardens and organisation’ in M. Parker (ed.) Utopia and Organisation, Oxford: Blackwell.
Cooper, D. (2006) A Philosophy of Gardens, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dean, M. (1997) ‘Nature as Book – a Book as Nature’, Journal of Garden History (17).
Elkins, J. (1993) ‘On the Conceptual Analysis of Gardens’, Journal of Garden History (13).
Foucault, M. (2009) [1966] Le Corps Utopique, Les Héterérotopies: Clamecy : Lignes.
Marin, L. (1992) Lectures traversières, Paris: Albin Michel.
Meyer, S.  (2003) Midlertidige Utopier [Temporary Utopia] Oslo: Museum of Contemporary Art.
More, T. (1965) [1516] Utopia, London: Penguin.
Hunt, J. D. (2000) Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory, London: Thames & Hudson.
Robinson, K. S. (1996) Blue Mars, London: HarperCollins.