The World As Our Garden of Earthly Delights at Gropius Bau

July 23, 2019

The contemporary moment is more than ever marked by the ongoing debate regarding climate change and the actions required to slow down or ban processes which cause major damage to natural resources. Now, the urgent call to action has the history of its own. Namely, in the 1960s environmentalist movement started publicly agitating for more control over industrial use of the land and natural habitats and the pioneering activists already then anticipated the horror we are living today.

Aside from the socio-political context, nature, whether wild or cultivated in the form of gardens, has always inspired humans and was treated with the utmost respect under philosophical and religious standpoints. To be more specific, especially the garden was a place of refuge; a perfect spot for contemplation, leisure, solitude, and inspiration. It is not a wonder that so many artists were inspired by the garden, a little piece of heaven (or if speaking in Judeo-Christian terms - Paradise) where the imagination becomes limitless and freedom conquered.

Reasonably, the garden was interpreted differently depending from the perspective of the beholder; however, in the light of recent and already mentioned observations of what nature is or in this particular case what garden is, the upcoming exhibition at the Gropius Bau in Berlin tends to provide a fresh contribution.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is curated by Stephanie Rosenthal with Clara Meister, who decided to articulate the contemporary notion of the garden by focusing on dualities and contradiction it reflects, such as naturalness and artificiality, utopia and dystopia, harmony and chaos, eros and perversion, etc. By selecting the works by the artists of different sensibilities such as John Cage, Tacita Dean, Pipilotti Rist, and Jumana Manna to name a few, the curators aim to show the versatility in the articulation of the given theme.

In brief, from potted plants inside a steel framework, a blossoming garden outside of the Gropius Bau, over the project exploring the Global Seed Vault seed bank, to the interventions focusing on local engagement and responsible usage of resources, this exhibition will provide a new interpretation of the garden and tackle various issues concerning human relation to flora including ecology, migrations, borders, identity, and colonialism.

The Garden of Earthly Delights will be on display at Gropius Bau in Berlin until 1 December 2019. To bring you closer to this exciting exhibition, we asked one of the curators, Stephanie Rosenthal, a few questions hoping her answers will clarify in details the curatorial process. We have also involved four of the exhibiting artists, Zheng Bo, Heather Phillipson, Hicham Berrada and Maaike Schoorel, to tell us what the concept of the garden means to them.

Zheng Bo - Pteridophilia 2
Zheng Bo - Pteridophilia 2, 2018. Still of video, 4K, color, sound, 20 min © Zheng Bo

Re-Thinking The Garden

WideWalls: According to the press release, it seems that you were fascinated with the notion of the garden as a specific place of (political) transgression. Could you elaborate a bit more on your comprehension of the flora? Can we rethink new social models by focusing specifically on plants?

Stephanie Rosenthal: The garden for me represents the world in miniature. It represents the human relationship to nature as well as aspects of inclusion and expulsion our society is struggling with. We definitely can rethink new social models by focusing on plants. For instance, Zheng Bo questions eco-social environments in his new installation Pteridophilia. He is convinced that we will learn from a deep connection with the world of plants. His film shows men seeking naked body contact with ferns. With their approaches, the men do not encounter the plants as mere objects, but rather as counterparts and thus sensitize for a more caring and equal treatment of nature.

WideWalls: What was the process of preparing the exhibition and discussing with the artists like?

SR: That is definitely one of the aspects of exhibition-making which I enjoy the most. It was a pleasure to work with the artists to discuss existing works and their relevance for the exhibition and realizing a new piece like Heather Phillipson’s work. The artists that we [NB: Clara Meister, the co-curator, and I) have selected are truly engaged with the Anthropocene and environmental concerns which we can no longer ignore. So the discussion gave me a lot of food for thought.

I think it was a pleasure for the artists to realize works specifically for this building. Gropius Bau could be considered the ideal building for a show like this as its architecture has many floral features and the large atrium already feels like an impressive greenhouse.

WideWalls: The focal point of the exhibition is the iconic masterpiece by Hieronymus Bosch, which, looking from the contemporary perspective, perfectly illustrates the current status of things, since we are living in an increasingly chaotic time. What is your interpretation of the painting in regards to the issues of migration, hybridity or symbiosis, terms related to plants but applicable to the current socio-political issues?

SR: We are showing a version of the middle plate of Bosch’s triptych painting. It doesn’t show heaven or hell, but the way I read it, a stage in-between where humans, plants, and animals are living together. Lust might be one major theme, but also the co-living aspect is very present. Humans are born out of eggs and are crawling back into them. They have intimate physical relationships with each other, but also with animals and plants. The work is one of the very early paintings which shows different ethnicities and brings different cultures together.

After Hieronymus Bosch - Garden of Earthly Delights
After Hieronymus Bosch - Garden of Earthly Delights (centre panel), 1535–
1550. Oil on wood, transferred to canvas, 182 x 168 cm, private collection

The Programming and Plans

WideWalls: Could you tell a bit more about the program accompanying the exhibition? What can the visitors expect?

SR: The opening of the exhibition is celebrated through a two-day program (26-27 July) aptly titled Two Days of Earthly Delights. The program not only offers activation with the works featured but also extends the dialogue of the exhibition in the form of lectures and artist talks (on concepts of paradise, ecology, post-colonial entanglements), and broader collaboration within the Gropius Bau, such as performances involving artist-in-residence Otobong Nkanga.

WideWalls: What are your further plans as a curator? Do you intend to continue exploring this particular subject?

SR: The show engages with a subject matter I am very interested in. From the indigenous people in Australia, I learned; «The land owns us; we don’t own the land». In the next years, I am planning to explore further the relationship between humans and land which will definitely pursue crucial strands that are being explored in this show.

Pipilotti Rist - Homo sapiens sapiens
Pipilotti Rist - Homo sapiens sapiens, 2005. Audio-video installation (video still) © Pipilotti Rist, Courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine

(Contemporary) Garden of Earthly Delights

WideWalls: How would you describe your own garden as a metaphor for the state of the world?

Zheng Bo: The world we (humans) have built is collapsing. We are killing other species, and will eventually kill ourselves if we do not change the way we live fast enough. The idea of the garden could help us move away from an anthropocentric worldview. In the garden we could encounter other species, caress them, smell them, taste them, learn from them, dance with them, and even form erotic relationships with them.

Heather Phillipson: My answer is very simple - 'a mess’.

Hicham Berrada: Mesk-ellil is an enclosed garden made up solely of plants of the same name, where day and night cycles are switched. It allows the visitors to experience the powerful scent of this night-blooming plant, but during the daytime. It plays on our relationship with energy and humans fantasy of governing nature, through the concept of the garden as nature marked out and dominated – a pre-packaged, made-to-measure garden where temperature and humidity are under strict control. Combining this with the reversal of the flowering cycle demands substantial resources and quantities of electricity; and the result of this expense of energy is a simple perfume, diffuse, invisible and evanescent.

Maaike Schoorel: I recently moved to Berlin and have a small but surprisingly beautiful garden in the middle of the city. It’s an oasis of rest and light. Every day I look at the subtle magical changes that happen. The painting of the Berlin Garden is capturing one of these moments. I had a friend visiting who was sitting in the garden with the dog. They were surrounded by incredible light of a rain of gold green leaves.

All the paintings shown at Gropius Bau are made specifically for the exhibition. They depict different gardens in Berlin. Conservatory is a large diptych of the waterlilies in the botanical gardens. In a conservatory one is surrounded by light, warmth and steam to maintain the huge leaves of the exotic lilies. 

The experience of standing in a garden can be similar to the process of making or looking at a painting. The intimacy, the calming nature of a garden affirms the interdependent relationship between things. Similar in a painting, we experience color and texture through light.

My paintings move slowly. At first glance there might seem not be so much there. Similar to entering a dark or extremely light space, your eyes have to adjust to the surroundings. Slowly one sees more things; several orange brushstrokes that creates the shape of a flower or the reflection of plants in the water of a pond.

For the exhibition I got a specific garden bench was made by S.T.I.F.F. design (in Berlin). The circular bench consists of several parts that have been opened up like a brushstroke.

Maaike Schoorel Bench
Maaike Schoorel's Bench, courtesy the artist

Featured images: Rashid Johnson - Antoines Organ, 2016. Black steel, grow lights, plants, wood, shea butter, books, monitors, rugs, piano. Installation View, Rashid Johnson. Fly Away, Hauser & Wirth, New York NY, 2016. © Rashid Johnson, Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Uriel Orlow - Botanical Dreams, 2018. Archival pigment print on baryta paper, 55 x 75 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018; Jumana Manna - Still from Wild Relatives, 2018. 64 min., HD video © Director of photography: Marte Vold. All images courtesy Gropius Bau.