Taking its point of departure and title from Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1490-1510), the current exhibition at Gropius Bau brings together the wide-ranging work of twenty international artists. The state of the garden serves as a microcosmic starting point, from which expansive ideas and wider dialogues emerge about colonialism, systems of sharing, borders and structures of thought. With contributing artists including Yayoi Kusama, Pipilotti Rist, Hicham Berrada and more, the exhibition moves from the paradisiacal to the provocative, the reflective to the revolutionary, and shifts between global and individual lenses.
Take, for instance, the intensely personal perspective of Tacita Dean’s film, which examines Michael Hamburger. Through quiet observation, we see the poet and translator within his estate. His surrounding orchard is bountiful, with apples spilling into the home and strewn in every corner. Reluctant to discuss his own history, Hamburger turns to this compendium of apples, which becomes a medium, a narrative, through which he can communicate. The garden state here goes hand in hand with the private sphere and the exchange of seeds is synonymous with the exchange of friendship. In one rare moment of dialogue, Hamburger gestures to the apples grown from pips gifted by the late Ted Hughes.
In the film work of Jumana Mana, personal tales and local exchange are set against a more global backdrop. ‘Wild Relatives’ (2018) opens with the relocation of IDARF, an agricultural research centre, from Syria to Aleppo in Lebanon, due to the civil war. Forced to leave their seed bank behind, the centre creates a duplicate from the global vault stored in Svalbard, Norway. The methodical process of planting, harvesting and freezing is navigated through personal lives, from the stories of young female labourers working in the fields to the celebratory rhetoric of scientists behind the scenes. ‘Wild Relatives’ also looks toward alternative models of agrarian lives, such as Walid al-Youssef, a farmer with his own small library of seeds shared amongst his immediate community. In the face of scientific advancements and global transactions, the future for farmers like Walid appears precarious. Yet, as we see him passionately share his agricultural tips and describe his soil as “the richest compost in the world”, it is a future faced with hope and endurance.
The contrast between local and foreign systems of knowledge is explored in Uriel Orlow’s ‘Imbizo Ka Mafavuke’. The experimental documentary follows a discussion between traditional healers, activists and lawyers regarding indigenous knowledge and biopiracy―the theft of this very knowledge. The film itself forms part of ‘Theatrum Botanicum’ (2016): Orlow’s long-term project which spans photography, sound, video and installation, and investigates the relationship between plants and politics. ‘The Memory of Trees’, for instance, presents a series of black and white photographs of ancient trees linked to colonial history; utilised to border land, provide landmarks and hang slaves. Today, these trees stand as witnesses to a past still urgently tangled with the present.
Another of the most effective works within the exhibition, Renato Leotta’s ‘Notte di San Lorenzo’ (2018), comprises of a square of uniform tiles set into the floor. Transported from the artist’s Sicilian garden to the gallery space, the tiles are marked by the imprints of fallen fruit, subjected either to weather or time. Playing on the legend of the falling apple that helped Newton discover the law of gravity, these imprints can be read as eureka moments. Laid out as a visual score, the work also offers a contemplative space within which the passage of time is translated to terracotta and transported to the gallery room.
With each room, another garden state emerges. From the sexual plant-human interactions of Zheng Bo’s video work and the artificial dystopia of Heather Phillipson’s ‘Mesocosmic Indoor Overture’ (2019), the exhibition crosses a plethora of perspectives. As Hieronymus Bosch’s painting unravels diametric beliefs of the time - heaven, hell, happiness, pain - the exhibition moves from exile to community, desire to suffering, individual to global. Through this, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ points to the ongoing complexities of the world we inhabit and the processes through which we continue to understand it.