THIS SIDE OF PARADISE
Here's the paradise I was never promised in Sunday school: an arrant blissfulness interrupted, at regular brief intervals, by something making me so seismically unhappy that I appreciate the rest of it. Paradise as endless static flawlessness, by contrast, isn't easily comprehended and doesn't really sound like a workable concept, if happiness is the aim, because happiness is not steady-state but contextual. (Even its first Biblical couple, it would appear, wearied of Eden's becalmed certitudes.) Paradise as we know it in religion is relative, dialogical, a respite, an oasis: that's how it snags browbeaten believers. Paradise as we know it in reality is a cloudburst, transcendent space or time to be passed through and spat out of, in hopeful search of further paradises down the road. There is Paradise By Way of Kensal Green, a London public house promising alcoholic epiphanies. There is "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", an operatic '70s rock song hymning a historical tryst by the highway. ("It never felt so good / it never felt so right", etc.)
So we define our paradises against what we don't usually have. Paradise can be a sip of water to a chronically dehydrated body; paradise can be, let's say, a thousand grasses briefly blooming out of ten tons of topsoil, spread upon an access ramp connecting the car parking areas on the fifth and sixth floors of a 1980s-era shopping centre. Consider this humble connector, as Norbert Francis Attard's contribution to "Paradise Revealed: reanimation of place" requests. Multi-storey car parks are monuments to metropolitan function, their ramps sunk into visual obscurity and among the least noticeable parts of structures we barely graze with our eyes. (Assumedly there are connoisseurs of car parks out there, but they must be a quiet, small-numbered sect.) Consider it, and we're no longer fully here. Attard's adjustment – and implicitly that of the car park's resident pigeons, who've carried in a hodgepodge of seeds now miscegenating in the soil – not only makes the slope pop out as a previously obscured sculptural form, one greened through viridian painted borders and organic material, under a row of photosynthesizing daylight fluorescents; it also suspends us between indoor and outdoor, pastoral and urban. It illuminates the car-park for the semi-invisible utilitarian zone it is (prototypic of Rem Koolhaas's theorised "junk space" in being architecture we only pass through) but also rejuvenates that setting, sends us fragmentarily out of it.
Such partial departure, dream-laced and pragmatic – one foot on pasture, one on poured concrete – becomes a theme here in the functional uplands of Dover's Charlton Shopping Centre. Beauties that belong elsewhere twinkle, as in Alan R Page's arrangement, in three separate areas around the car park's grimy walls, of unframed four-panel arrays of wallpaper swatches based on Arts & Crafts designs. Birds, butterflies and leaves are not part of this greyed world. Again, we're made privy to the relativity of beauty. This is industrial design swiped from sample books, a pale echo of the natural realm it represents and, with its simplified graphic effects and Japonaiserie, far from comprising a direct romanticist relation to nature; but the historical moment of William Morris et al already seems appealingly distant to us, and, up against the bruising angles of a car park, the aesthetic pull is foregrounded still further. Here, and in distant texts from Ruskin's 1857 The Elements of Drawing – positioned, fittingly given their elevating prose, beside the bright blue doors of the elevator – it feels like morning has distantly broken.
The sacramental "white cube" effect, in which any old dirty object can suddenly look fine when framed with careful neutrality, has been extensively written about. Less so the converse effect of the sullied space repurposed for art, in which artworks can more overtly than usual take up the role of fragile benediction, fantasia of betterment in a blatantly imperfect world. Ebru Özseçen's intervention has the quality of a quietly cast spell: her coating of a small section of extant pipe work for the drainage system with rose oil has mottled its surface, corroded it, and sent fine particles of countrified scent into the air. But this work opens onto distant territory. The human sense of smell is astoundingly refined, allowing us to access worlds seemingly lost or far distant when a referential scent comes to us, and here the Turkish artist here references multiple removed spaces and experiences, turning the pipe into something that lives and speaks for them. Encoded in her intervention is the fact that Islamic holy buildings sometimes have rose-water running underneath them, and the fact that, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, the biggest mosque has a supermarket – and a car park – built underneath it. For Özseçen, additionally, there are sexual overtones to the pipework: a romantic idea of the scent of sex, and an idea reinforced, later, by her other contribution to the show.
All of this stems, notably, from the lightest of adjustments to what's already there. Similarly economic and allusive is Robert Jarvis's single-speaker playback of birdsong. The sibilant call of a male nightingale that's never going to find its way into these gritty purlieus, it drifts in and out of audition, across two or three floors of the building, phantasm-like and tacitly optimistic, according to one's position amid the venue's bouncing acoustics. The sound, however, is not entirely foreign to the space. The repetitive sound of the bird is unexpectedly analogous to that of a car's engine turning over, naturalising the artificial and mechanising the natural. Furthermore, instead of taking one psychologically out of the car park into a sylvan otherworld, it functions as a focusing device for what's there. One doesn't know where the sound source is, and in searching for it one becomes more aware of, and attuned to, the space in which one is moving: a space which is humanised by this overlay of nature. (Not surprisingly, the car park's owners wish to keep the work as a permanent installation.) And it is a work that rebalances the low-level ecology of the venue: other birds, asserting their own territory against that of the perceived interloper, have become more vociferous in their birdsong as a result. Elsewhere works exist in a state of potential, such as Claudia Pilsl's neatly hung rows of seed packets illustrated with images from a botanical encyclopaedia. There are, she discovered, 742 types of plant growing in this postcode area, CT15: Salvia Pratenis, however, a perennial commonly known as Meadow Clary, growing only along the chalkland of Dover's White Cliffs and in few other small UK locations, is close to extinction. Pilsl, inviting Dover residents to take some seeds and plant them in their own gardens, aims at a gentle, symbolic sustenance through participatory aesthetics.
What accrues, slowly, between the practices of multiple artists, is a hologram of a less corrupted world – albeit not one lost in dreaminess, for nature isn't necessarily benign or idyllic. Mark Parry's contribution, for instance, pitches itself complexly and comically between the faux-bucolic vibe of garden centres, the realities of the urban, and the genuinely rural, as if admitting the implicit farce of trying to turn this soulless space into something that reflects our unfocused desires for the natural. Suspended from the ceiling or perched on concrete abutments, fake mallards, magpies and kingfishers with flappable wings (sourced from budget shopping emporia, and looking like it) add up to a deliberately artificial aviary. Faux flamingos, bits of them snapped off as if attacked by the car park's real community of predatory pigeons – whose presence is an ironic reminder that sometimes where the natural world interfaces with the urban, it's the natural we try to eradicate – dangle from strip-lights or sit skewered on pigeon-repelling spikes atop a stranded apiary. Meanwhile, a circular arrangement of ten Jersey kale plants in buckets and stacks of tyres, slowly being consumed by caterpillars (and entitled Roundabout) narrates further tension and push-pull between the natural and the manufactured: these plants' stems are used, when full-grown and dried out, to make walking sticks.
Halfway to paradise, then – a condition exemplified by Lesley Beckett's semi-ragged planes of yellow, pink and pale blue hand-dyed silk, sewn onto netting outside of the car park. Dover, seen through their raw rectangular apertures or the colourful optic of their semi-opaque surfaces, is lightly transformed: the yin to a colourful abstraction's yang. The project, accessorised by snagged pigeon feathers bespeaking a history of traumatic flight and architectural intransigence, is too rough-edged to be therapeutic. It hedges, aiming not to take the viewer out of reality but to burnish the real as far as possible without sidelining the grit that's implacably there. It asks, and answers, a question of how the language of abstract art might be modified to fit the bleak reality it inserts itself into, without surrendering all its claims to elevating the viewer.
Of course all of this is specific not just to urbanism but to Dover, a hardscrabble town at the edge of the 'Garden of England' that is Kent, and a castled place of strategic military importance, one whose modern history is alluded to by Gary Perkins. His set of sculptures, scaffolding-pole crossbars resting on X's like formalist dumbbells, turns out to be modelled on the barricades outside Dover Castle, near the building's secret wartime tunnels – which led to control rooms where army signal traffic was phoned out to fool German intelligence, enabling the 1944 D-Day Landings at Normandy (and which rooms are now part of the WWII heritage site at the Castle.) On the wall beside them, meanwhile, are vintage English propaganda posters ("Beat 'Firebomb Fritz': Britain Shall Not Burn"; "Let Us Go Forward Together", etc.), several starring Churchill's visage. It is a bridge to the diametrically opposed, though geographically proximal, second site of "Paradise Revealed", where the same group of artists responds to an entirely different landscape.
Here in the manicured green environs of the six-acre Pines Garden in St Margaret's Bay, close to Dover's famous White Cliffs, is Oscar Nemon's permanently installed 1972 sculpture of Sir Winston in greenly oxidated bronze, rising out of a rocklike form and facing the English Channel like an immovable protector of Britain's borders. And inside the accompanying museum – the park is managed by an environmental charity, the St Margaret's Bay Trust, which runs a museum full of images and info regarding famous former residents such as Ian Fleming and Noel Coward – is Perkins' overt technological linkage between the Charlton car park and this rather more amenable environment. On screen, one sees a constantly shifting thermal image of the Churchill sculpture, while in the background of the work, used in a series of performances, was a Volkswagen Beetle – one of the only consensually acceptable legacies of the Hitler era's rapid and fatal industrializing. The statue and what it represents, considered as containing heat and thus an ongoing life, jostles complicatedly with the present moment, particularly in the face of Dover's current condition as first port of call for European immigrants. The seemingly innocuous, or at least settled, ramifies into a restless complex of issues about nationalism, fear, inclusiveness and industry, and the perseverance of history, and, rather than offering effortlessly absorbed blandishments, asks the viewer to pick a cognitive path through.
The Pines Garden, with its cascade and lake and labyrinth and scented beds, is handsome and tranquil enough to offer easy grounds for provocation, for irruptions of that which doesn't fit its carefully maintained gentility. An Iceland shopping trolley, for instance, placed forlornly on the lawns by Mark Parry as an awkward reminder that this self-enclosed and rigorously groomed world is not the only one: that there is a rougher landscape of budget supermarkets, and people whose economic circumstances compels them to use them, close by. His reversals – ersatz naturalism (ornamental birds, etc) injected into the urban; the urban imposed on the ersatz naturalism that is the Pines Garden – speak of the specificity of each place and the relation of one to the other, in a manner that again reveals the dialogical nature of 'paradise'. Ironically, the Pines Garden probably never looks more sumptuous, more like a place that shouldn't have a shopping trolley in it, than when there's a shopping trolley in it; the trolley might never look more blighting than here. A more controlled form of double-imaging, meanwhile, asserts itself through Norbert Francis Attard's creating of a connector between this space and the shopping centre: it was not haphazard, one realizes, that the Maltese artist chose a linking point between two spaces there. Here, in the hard technology of his digitized mock-ups of the car park's newly grassy ramp, we're positioned midway between a manipulated nature in the built environment (the verdant ramp) and a manipulated view of same (the photograph) in a manipulated nature that affects to be natural (the Pines Garden). Orienting oneself, and arranging the dichotomies in one's head, is not easy. As Attard suggests, little in this exhibition's Janus-faced entirety speaks of truly natural nature; rather, it reflects the assumptions with which we choose to freight citified and cultivated landscapes.
The Pines Garden is organic, in that it disavows pesticides and herbicides, but it is a composed paradise, reclaimed from scrubland in the 1970s and working up from the artifices of English horticulture itself. Its plants aren't indigenous but transplanted and fused, as Ebru Özseçen's characteristically subtle but allusive intervention – the attempted grafting of white floribunda roses onto the red ones already extant in the flowerbeds – reminds us. Most domestic roses are the hybrid product of a bud-eye being grafted onto another rootstock; for one thing, such a process enables the bush to grow much larger. Özseçen takes this as the starting point for a spiralling complex of associations. In a rose garden, with its associations of romantic love (and popularity as a venue for weddings), we're confronted with nature turned unnatural: with a world in which the grafted, tinkered-with flower turns into a metaphor for modification of bodies, genital and genetic manipulation, a hysterical oversexing. Yet, as in the car park, this work comments quietly from the fringes, an ambient reconfiguring of what's there.
Claudia Pilsl's sound piece is equally exemplary of this careful reticence, and an echoing of the 'scattering', networked nature of her piece for Charlton Shopping Centre. Tying people to the landscape as securely as her seed project, it features the voices of people connected to the site, either living here or working with the St Margaret's Bay Trust: their first and later impressions, their conceptions of the place's past and possible future, various bones of contention. Here, as a Babel of thoughts blooms unexpectedly, the location emerges as not only the product of many unseen hands, but as a porthole onto the unpredictable social.
The only other sound, aside from plashing waters, is of Robert Jarvis's recording, Rock Music, in an ornamental chalk house. Using flints found in the Pines Garden's flower beds and recordings of stone-age flint instruments from Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, it sets up a gamelan-like chiming rhythm. The sound again speaks of a more natural elsewhere, with its overtones of Stone Age invention (indeed, Jarvis has encountered research suggesting the putative existence of prehistorically xylophone-like instruments using flints) and of millennia-old Buddhist temple music. Again a compound of melancholia and brittle hope, it bespeaks nostalgia and absence but also the persistence of human invention. This pristine world is a product, we're reminded, of human interference with the natural: of our creating codes of meaning to be shared, judged, refined. Up in the trees, swatches of Lesley Beckett's hand-dyed silk are wrapped around the branches, drawing our attention to details of the natural – the directional flow and shifting traceries of pattern in the overlapping, wind-blown stems that are seen through them – and economically turning the organic wholes into proxy sculptures. Looking at them, we're also displaced back to the fifth floor of the shopping centre, with its segments of Dover's skyline visible through the apertures and the warming, colourful gauzes of her silks. We're amidships, navigating the real and its artful representation, just as we pivot between now and the 19thcentury, landscape and contemplative object, via Allen R Page's viewfinder inscribed with further advice from Ruskin in The Elements of Drawing. "Try always, whenever you look at a form," wrote the English master of art criticism, "to see the lines in it which have had power over its past fate and will have power over its futurity." Drawing may no longer be at the forefront of art, but looking beneath the waterline of the visible towards the deep truth of things is the rule of art in perpetuity. Not an embodied argument so much as an expression of dynamics and interrelation, 'Paradise Revealed: re-animation of place' is the Ruskinian imperative applied, using modern methodologies, to the heterodox appearance of circa 2008 Dover: a lattice of resonant lines connecting reverie and reality, past and present, concrete and clover.
This Side of Paradise
published in "Paradise Revealed Re-animation of Space" curated by
Christine Gist (catalogue&DVD)
The Pines Garden, St Margaret's Bay, Kent
Charlton Shopping Centre, High Street, Dover
15 May - 13 July 2008
(c) 2008 Martin Herbert writes regularly for Artforum and Frieze, and
is European editor of Modern Painters.