The secret garden

Susan White
Stills Gallery, Sydney.

Susan White provides a brief description of her installation:

The installation is made up of 56 rectangular cast aluminium plates finished in various ways. Some plates have been left in their rough state, others are ground to make use of reflective light patterns which change according to the position of the viewer, a number are polished and act as distorting mirrors, while others are embossed with organic sculptural shapes. Eighteen hold dark pools of sump oil which reflect a third dimension, intangible and ever changing. The metal plates are interspaced with approximately 500 6" x 4" XPII colour processed photographs of a wide colour and tonal range. The photographs document the daily and seasonal changes of the plants in my garden. The dimensions of the work are approximately 9' x12'.

In his essay, "Of Other Spaces", Michel Foucault makes a particular reference to the garden in relation to his discussion of the notion of heterotopias. Foucault comments:

We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its centre (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source). 1

In this brief review of a very complex exhibition it may seem that I give over inordinate space to the comments of Foucault. But there is something uncanny here in the aptness of this citation, and the lines of investigation it requires of the theme of heterotopias: to precisely site the kinds of territorial displacements enacted in Susan White's work The Secret Garden, the folding of one topos into another which we find here, the grafting of one budding stem onto another that makes this work itself a kind of fecund ground.

One can literally see the image suggested by Foucault of the rectilinear geometry of formal garden set out on a "rug" of vegetation, a folding of the many-cultured theme of the garden as a geometry of displayed and displaced nature, an artifice, coupled with the everyday domestic and suburban. A series of rectangular metal plates formally describe the pattern of a cross-axes, four-quadrant rectangle, overlaying a carpet of photolab produced images from the artist's backyard garden. The title for the exhibition comes from an ancient Persian text of the same name, suggesting precisely this folding of the Orient into the space of the local and familiar.

In her notes accompanying the exhibition, Susan White makes reference to the heraldic connotation of the rectangle, as a billet, and the further connotations of this word, its many slippages into 'ticket', 'barracks', or 'billet-doux', a love letter. Here the heraldic offers another heterotopic siting, in its own very complex history of border crossings between Europe of the Middle Ages and the Oriental cultures imbricated in the Crusades. We see, for example, the root Arabic word Baraka having its derivations in notions of dwelling and sheltering, and with notions of abundance and things that grow, with dwelling and cultivation.

The work is, indeed, finely traced with a series of interwoven concerns regarding European and Oriental connectivity during the Middle Ages, a kind of legacy to our inherited modes of thinking which belies the centrality of a Cartesian doxa for our epistemological genealogy. Thus the billet-doux is one of those wish-words which store a flowering of crosscultural meaning: the medieval philosophy of aesthetic perception of Bonaventure or William of Auvergne, with delight grounded in an awareness of proportion and reciprocity in the object, and this constituting a relation of love in subject and object which both lend themselves consciously and actively to the relationship. This love letter, with its drift via a Persian interweaving of cultivation and dwelling, itself marks, via the heraldic determination of the rectangle as billet, that most fertile moment when the East grafts its ways of thinking onto European Classical and Scholastic knowledge.

But The Secret Garden is one of those rugs which moves across space, to be folded and unfolded from time-to-time, occasionally changing its geometry or plantings, but remaining nonetheless that paradox of becoming, as Foucault suggests, the smallest parcel of the world and then, in the drift of a displacement of topos, the totality of the world.

notes: 

1. Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces", Diacritics, Spring 1986, p.25-26.