Alfredo Jaar’s newest work, ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’ (2017), is the titular piece of Jaar’s current solo show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The garden is a grid of 101 potted ever-green trees: Black Pine, Scots Pine, Green Yew, Variegated Holly, Green Holly, White Pine and Western Red Cedar, all species already present in the landscape of the sculpture park. Among the trees are nine steel cells, all built upon a one-metre-square footprint in reference to the poem ‘One Square Metre of Prison’ (1986) by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was repeatedly imprisoned following the Israeli occupation of 1948. Varying in height, some are boxes, others are barred but all are cages. More than one has a small square cut out of its top, perhaps big enough for a hand to reach through to a sliver of sky; a peephole into the darkness. The work directs our attention to hidden ‘black sites’ around the globe, secret detention facilities operated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency where torture and the violation of human rights are purposefully concealed from public view.
Flanking the Underground Gallery which houses the rest of the exhibition, the open-air installation conceals less than expected: the trees are young and the placement regimented. The geometric steel forms are clean and new in the winter sun and gather silver pools of reflective rain water. Formally, they strongly recall the modularity of Donald Judd’s minimalist sculpture. Perhaps this suggests that these prisons are more obvious than we might like to admit; that they are designed with a banal intention and formal cruelty we would prefer not to bear witness to. How we see, or rather how we fail to see the darker shades of the world around us, is certainly an ongoing concern of Jaar’s practice. The works housed inside the Underground Gallery all pivot on this point. Utilising text and photographs, and extreme contrasts in light and dark that alternately blind and sear urgent images into the viewer’s field of vision, Jaar seems to ask, if we can see, can we keep on looking? In the dimmed light, shaded by the green and silver grove of ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’, this is the glowing question posed by ‘I CAN’T GO ON. I’LL GO ON’ (2016), the neon phrase sourced from Samuel Beckett’s ‘The Unnameable’ (2016) that greets visitors as they first enter the gallery.
Two further poetic statements in this hallway further elucidate Jaar’s position: the passionate pessimism of ‘BE AFRAID OF THE ENORMITY OF THE POSSIBLE’ (2015) taken from E. M. Cioran’s ‘On the Heights of Despair’ (1934), also in neon, and ‘YOU DO NOT TAKE A PHOTOGRAPH, YOU MAKE IT’ (2013), a quote supposedly attributed to Ansel Adams and printed as a stack of plain black and white posters for visitors to take away with them. Images, Jaar argues, are never innocent. Nor is our viewing of them. Jaar confronts the deadening of empathy in a world saturated by images in his three larger works each installed in a separate room along the gallery corridor: ‘The Sound of Silence’ (2005), ‘A Hundred Times Nguyen’ (1994) and ‘Shadows’ (2014). Each considers an image, or a handful of carefully chosen images, intensely in order to re-sensitise us to the lived reality depicted; burning through the image to what is not seen; burning the image into us. Each is quiet and exacting, and any theatricality is as awful and crushing and poignant as a Beckett play. The statements made are deceptively simple, standing firm on years of reflection before the work was made. ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’ has similarly taken time to germinate in its current form but the experience of walking through it is markedly different to Jaar’s other installations.
While pointed, the cold clarity of the work feels mute and somehow distant in comparison to the powerful empathy of Jaar’s other work. But it may be very much to its credit that, more than any other piece, ‘The Garden’ seems to pose the question ‘and, what now?’, when we have seen the cages and read all about the horrors they contain. What kind of freedom is possible? In its current, early form ‘The Garden’ frames the exhibition as a whole, recalling the fall of Eden, false innocence and corruption, and clearly channeling the fantastical painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (c.1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. However, ‘The Garden’ will continue to grow after the exhibition closes. Supported by a/political and gifted to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’ will take up permanent residence somewhere in the park. This might be the more interesting aspect of the work, that it can be returned to as an evolving site and will remain a counterpart to the black sites and other earthly hells hidden in plain view around the world.