Contrasts animate the exhibition Garten der Irdischen Freuden or The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Martin Gropius Bau museum in Berlin. Last week on display for the show dedicated to gardens and paradises that started mid-July with the beginning of the summer and runs till the last day of November, disappearing when the last month of the year starts. The beginning of the end, a catastrophic statement for a catastrophic planet that sees its ecosystem agonizing: Anthropocene, climate change, seed politics in addition to humanitarian disasters as the refugee’s crisis, migratory flows or the legacies of colonialism and historical segregation.
The name of the exhibition is taken from lustful Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–15). Bosch conjures naked bodies throng in ecstasy, flying fishes, people intertwined with fruits or inside shells entangled with each other among oversized birds feeding naked human figures, some half-animal, one sodomised by a bouquet of flowers. Heaven and hell, pleasure and pain are closely linked in this work. The scene is a dance in which the norms of guilt and punishment are rejected and the coming together of humans and animals presents an alternative reality that is freed from supposed opposites. A copy from the central part of the original triptych held at Museo del Prado in Madrid painted by the Bosch School is shown at the Martin Gropius Bau.
Next to the Hieronymus Bosch, an exquisite 18th-century carpet depicts a pairidaeza. The Persian term pairidaeza, derives from pairi (around) and daeza (wall) and defines the garden as an enclosed, protected and protective space. The carpet shows a paradise garden from a bird’s-eye view, where geometrically arranged watercourses give rise to a structure of rectangular beds nurturing an abundance of trees and plants.
Around the majestic painting after Bosch and the overwhelming extravaganza of the pairidaeza, the show features works by 22 diverse international artists that also bring to life the sensual dimensions of gardens: immersive installations and video works show an intensive abundance of nature, but also the fragility of the paradise-like state.
The central magnificent atrium of the building hosts the installation Antoine’s Organ by Rashid Johnson. A multitude of objects and plants in a grid-like structure form a lush ecosystem with standardised and domesticated potted plants raising the issue of the tension between nature and culture. Johnson also adds questions of Black identity to the work via books and recordings of his early performances.
Elsewhere, the horticulture is surreally artificial: Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s Las Vegas temple-like installation 2012–2555, Paintings Untitled is inspired by the fascination that Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights provoked in the artist. The background of the installation has, as well, adapted a historical painting, Raphael’s School of Athens (1509–1511), in front of which a structure decorated with plastic flowers and surrounded by flames is set up. At the front, two screens show Arunanondchai’s grandparents’ own garden.
For her piece Lawn I, Lungiswa Gqunta has laid out jagged broken glass bottles in upturned rows to form a parody of a lawn. The danger is real: signs warn visitors to stand well back and to hold children close. The technique is inspired by wealthy white homeowners in Mrs. Gqunta’s native South Africa, who attach bottle shards to the tops of their garden walls to keep out intruders.
Libby Harward’s Ngali Ngariba (We talk), meanwhile, probes the link between gardens and colonial power. She has placed small, fragile-looking bell jars in the centre of a white room. Each contains a plant species which was once uprooted from its Australian habitat to European botanical gardens. Hidden speakers play plangent snippets of indigenous Australian languages.
Three works of the show were at the last year Manifesta biennial in Palermo, where the central pillar was also the gardens, in that occasion “The Planetary Garden.” In La Notte di San Lorenzo by Renato Leotta a room is full of terracotta tiles, over which the visitor is invited to walk barefoot. The tiles had been left uncooked beneath Italian lemon trees during the harvest season, so the falling fruit left an impression in the clay. Theatrum Botanicum by Uriel Orlow is a refined and articulated stage containing videos, sounds, and photographs in which plants are spectators, protagonists, or messengers of historical events triggered by colonialism. For instance, a red geranium known as a “typical Swiss” flower, in reality, comes from South Africa. The third one is Zheng Bo’s Pteridophilia series, a four film installation that documents a group of boys engaging in sensual relationships with plants—from flirtation to delicate rubbing to fetishist posturing to explicit fucking.
And one cannot omit to mention Tacita Dean’s Michael Hamburger, a 16mm film portrait of the eponymous British poet and translator who, in order to avoid speaking of a difficult past (which included escaping Nazism), stick around a passionate description of the crossings of various apple varieties he cultivated.
Heather Phillipson’s video installation Mesocosmic Indoor Overture, placed in a room with decaying vegetation on the floor and trippy pink light up walls, introduces the visitor to a talking skunk cabbage. Complete with digitally rendered eyes, the carnivorous plant mumbles about the necessity of composting humans in case of ecological collapse.
The rich and complex exhibition also features works by Hicham Berrada a Moroccan artist that shines a special light onto night-blooming jasmine plants, tricking them into releasing their sweet odour during the day. Yayoi Kusama’s With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever, covers giant potted plants with polka dots.
Seductive oval-shaped video Homo Sapiens Sapiens by Pipilotti Rist —where a warm coloured sequence alternates close-up shots of hands rubbing testicles with those of squeezing a pair of peaches— is part of a sumptuous installation completed with floor to ceiling drapes, dreamy music, and orange and green serpentine floor pillows.
Thus, the garden as a secluded and circumscribed place of yearning full of meditative, spiritual, and philosophical possibilities, is viewed in the exhibition as a place of duality and contradiction: between reality and fantasy, utopia and dystopia, harmony and chaos, between being shut out and being included.
Text: María Muñoz