The ideal gardener is a shadow of a tree
Developing an artistic practice that cuts across different media and disciplines, Tiago Madaleno presents his latest exhibition at RAMPA, in Porto. This project was supported by the Porto City Council art creation programme Criatório 2019. In conjunction with the exhibition, a book of the same title has been published, comprising texts by Allen S. Weiss and Pedro Pousada, as well as a conversation between Madaleno and Nancy Perloff. Tiago Madaleno has been exhibiting since 2013, and was awarded the Novo Banco Revelação prize in 2017 with the work Clepsydra.
Eduarda Neves (EN): A Garden at Night, the title of your latest exhibition, articulates sound, video, light, painting, and text. You take as starting point a garden that belonged to Kurt Schwitters as a child which was allegedly destroyed by local children. Is this Garden at Night your Merzbau or your English landscape garden, one which is not guided by universal norms but rather one on which converge the aesthetic contemplation of nature and the awareness that the latter might represent a source material for art, evading the particular taste of a garden owner or of a gardener?
Tiago Madaleno (TM): One of the project's main challenges was the fact it is located on the threshold between the possibility and impossibility of representing that lost garden. Instead of focusing on a simulacrum of it, I intended to approach the battlefield inherent in the creative gesture: the paradoxes, ambiguities, and divergences between theoretical formulation and practical realisation.
Common to both the universe of painting and the universe of the garden, this battlefield is present in Kurt Schwitters' purported admiration for how landscape architect Harry Pierce, with few gestures, was able to manipulate nature, leading it to an idea of composition, and to simultaneously suggest a sort of organicity. Despite coming from different contexts—the former, an avant-garde artist; the latter, a landscape architect who followed the tradition of the English garden—they seem to meet in this desire of convergence on a "natural vocabulary," in this obsession for the play between form and formlessness.
The project uses the encounter between these two figures, their histories, and their contexts to construct a fiction that reflects on the ambiguities and tensions inherent in such a gesture. That's how the English garden becomes a reference. Although it first instantiated a return to Nature, it relies on the formal imaginary of painting and on an obsession with the construction of landscapes to consolidate its vision. This paradox materialises into the idealised figure of the wanderer, who, despite aspiring to wonder at every encounter with the unexpected, actually finds comfort in the immobility of some specific point of view that favours beauty or the picturesque. These contradictions between theoretical ambitions and technical limitations, between a desire for chaos and the boundaries of form, offer a great part of the fascination that led me to further look into these contexts and into finding common points in them.
However, even though it invokes such universes, I don't believe my project is a suggestion of a Merzbau or of an English garden. They both appear as spectres, invocations, as they're mentioned in the texts that inhabit the walls, but the project can't be regarded as the thing in itself. Although this project also occupies the space as an installation, neither the gesture of accumulation of detritus nor Schwitters' collectionist obsession, which is the backbone of the configuration of the Merzbau, are present in the exhibition. The garden instantiates the manifestation of a desire, a symbol.
A Garden at Night invokes these universes as elements for constructing an allegorical proposition. When it suggests a clear image, it hastens to negate it through the cycle of metamorphosis; when it presents immateriality and emptiness, it promptly contradicts it via the luminous, physical presence of the texts inscribed in the space; when it puts a form forward, it strives to keep the possibility of formlessness.
EN: Yes, of course. I'm not referring to any direct or total appropriation of the Merzbau nor of any English garden whatsoever, since that's an obvious thing in your exhibition, but I'm trying to figure out what is it in them that motivated you to put this project together. Let us say that the battlefield you mention as being common to the universes of painting and of the garden is also common to many other territories. When I first visited your exhibition, I associated it with the fact that both the Merzbau and the English garden suggest a perceptive and motor activity that expands in time and space. I'm going to use a notion you might find nonsensical within the context of this project; one, however, that occurred to me as I wandered through your exhibition: the notion of mystery.
TM: What motivated me was a fascination with the symbolical ambiguity underlying the event and the peripheral stories. For example, the meeting between Harry Pierce and Kurt Schwitters is replete with mystery, to use the word you invoke. It's almost as though Schwitters had come full-circle when, at the end of his life, he came upon what he could have been if that tragic event hadn't changed his fate.
It's said that it was in the wake of the epileptic seizure caused by watching his garden being destroyed, which left him bedridden for a two-year period, that Kurt Schwitters started drawing and painting. That is, the loss of his garden also becomes associated with a sort of artistic founding myth.
These associations and coincidences served as references for creating a fiction that organises the project which features Harry Pierce as a sort of double, or doppelganger, of Kurt Schwitters. As though he personified a repressed desire.
EN: You describe the overwhelming effect the destruction of Schwitters' garden had on his body, and you ask if it is possible to represent a garden that is not dominated by the authority of the human gesture, that embraces the sensation of vertigo or trauma… or even how can a garden import an idea of fragility in which the gardener's hand appears weakened? The possibility of bringing the traumatic event into the representation of the garden allows for understanding not only the reality of the event in itself but also its historicity, that is, what happens subsequently and is recognised by the subject, the latter's own history. To what extent can we find that objectivated possibility in your garden, whether through the gesture or the relationships you operate between light and darkness, movement and immobility, balance and imbalance, sound and silence, matter and empty space, which appear to us covered in words, in these weeds of yours that seem to lurk in all these rooms?
TM: In Obituary to the trees of Versailles (2000), Allen S. Weiss reflects on how the preservation of a garden, in attempting to fix a living element and in repeating the same gestures, associates its existence with a traumatic experience. As Nature subdued to human will, the wound underlies the existence of the garden. Behind the geometric, rigorous silence of the Gardens of Versailles, both the presence of the several storms that have ravaged it over the centuries and the persistent gestures of reconstitution of their shape, which have neutralised any vestiges of disorder, remain concealed.
What Allen S. Weiss seems to point out in that text is the link between trauma and the garden, between trauma and the desire for control. In the Gardens of Versailles, trauma manifests itself in the gesture and not in the shape of the garden. When I ask those questions you enunciate, I ponder on the difference between garden and Nature if the former is not subjugated to the human gesture. Does a garden exist if it's not a manifestation of a human gesture? How to encompass within the garden the grass that grows beyond the piece of cultivable land, beyond the gardener's desire? How to render that trauma visible in the form? And how could such an encompassment of chance paradoxically constitute an embracing of possibilities, of a new state of potency? It is this paradox that is underlain by the poetry within the synchrony which is put forward by the image of Kurt Schwitters having an epileptic seizure as he watches his garden being destroyed. The surrender of the space to violence meets the surrender of the body to disorder.
This exhibition searches for answers through a cyclical play of contrasts offered by its form. An account of an experience of loss and disorder presented in the first part of the video is followed by a set of tranquil landscapes that approximate an oneiric experience; the engrossing experience of forest sounds abruptly cuts to a deafening, mechanical tap dance; the luminous words emerging on the walls are denied their permanent visibility. Each end of the cycle implies a new restart, enunciating in such
a mutability a tension that seems to reject the possibility of comfort. Furthermore, I invoke the symbolical and political ambiguity that is present in the weeds through several text propositions that take hold of the space (Ervas Daninhas [Weeds], 2020), which play with an idea of territory and conflict of will. The texts don't agree with each other: some personify the delirious experience of dreaming, and some yield to an appeal for order. Several ideas of garden are manifested in accordance with the various ambitions of each set of plants.
EN: Some gardens let weeds live—that sort of disorderly, unpredictable chance—even though some sprout next to and are more resistant than cultivated plants or flowers, even competing with them. There are gardeners who don't impose their gesture, their desire upon the former. There's a massive political potential in weeds. They insist and persist, even when some gardeners neutralise desiring multiplicities.
TM: Yes, no doubt. One of the most fascinating things to me is the fact that weeds aren't even a specific plant species. That designation is defined by the gardener's desire. There is a correlation with an idea of conflict: weeds are usually seen as the intruder, the non-desired, that which invades the territory that does not belong in it. They ultimately establish a symbolical parallel with the condition of exile, which tormented Kurt Schwitters for a great part of his life, after he was forced to escape from Germany for being considered a degenerate artist.
EN: To what extent do the physical effects described by Schwitters in the wake of the epileptic seizure caused by the destruction of his garden project into your exhibition the idea that gardens, just like bodies, constitute performative spaces for the exercise of imagination? Or, if you will, to what extent can we understand them, in themselves, as narrative potencies for creating a "thought that knows how to dance," that knows how to spatialise itself?
TM: Influenced by the coincidence of patterns apparent in the Baroque Garden of Versailles and in the choreographic movements performed by the court of Louis XIV, one of the project's premisses was to examine how to approach that image of Kurt Schwitters' body dancing spasmodically as his garden was being destroyed. While in the former a seeming coincidence between the rationalism of form and movement was observed, in the latter one found the opposite: coincidence in chaos. The sound piece Sapatos vermelhos [Red shoes] (2020) is an attempt to further that symbolical fusion between Kurt Schwitters and the lost garden. The idea was to consider not a space that hosts a performance but rather a body whose performance turns it into a space.
It is reported that a dance epidemic that took place in Strasbourg in the 16th century lasted until the victims, who couldn't stop dancing, were taken to a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Vitus and red shoes were put on their bloodied feet. This story is ironically mirrored in Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes, in which the shoes instantiate a punishment for vanity and disobedience, forcing the protagonist, a little girl, to dance endlessly without being able to stop. This limit situation drives her to an act of affliction: she asks an executioner to chop off her feet. Despite the different outcomes, both stories establish an association between dance and despair that served as a reference for the development of my project.
Sapatos vermelhos [Red shoes] uses tap dancing excerpts I improvised inside the Merzbarn (Kurt Schwitters' last project) in order to compose a sound piece which accompanies this metamorphosis of the body. Through digital manipulation, those body-produced sounds gradually turn into a suggestion of a nocturnal forest landscape. Despite its apparent absence, the body remains omnipresent throughout the cycle of the exhibition in all the sound fragments. In its performance resides the narrative potential that allows the creation a space.
EN: To what extent does this latest work of yours continue a sort of symbolical summoning of the body, its markings, in which we're able to find a potency which is more significant than its immediate physical presence in the space?
TM: A Garden at Night carries on with an exploration I've been developing in my most recent exhibitions, in which a certain performative event comes about in the form of an installation. The presence of the body is manifested in the symbolical properties of the media employed, not through their physical existence in the space.
In this exhibition, for example, the body takes part in the sound piece, as I've mentioned, in the gesture that paints the texts on the walls, in the voice manifested in the subtitles of the first part of the video, or in the breathing of the silhouette that guides the shine of the trees in the second part. It's in these vestiges of presence, which metamorphose the body in accordance with the various languages, that I find the narrative potential that reclaims and reconstructs the event, turning it into a symbol.
EN: In the installation you present, the spatial conception, the video, the written text, and the sound piece seem to work as structuring vectors. However, to what extent do the spatialisation of sound and the photoluminescent paint summon up the temporal dimensions of this exhibition?
TM: The whole exhibition is configured as a cycle that fuels the properties of the photoluminescent paint. More than it shining in the dark, I was interested in the fact that this material requires some time to load its luminous properties, in order to be able to emit light when the latter disappears. Due to such a requirement, this material approximates an organic entity: just like a plant, this paint requires light; it has a certain lifespan that corresponds to its luminance period; and it requires the existence of a cycle. As such, the material symbolically builds a bridge between the universe of painting and that of gardening.
These features contributed to defining the structure of the exhibition, turning it into a synchronised whole. While it's clear that text, sound, and space establish a dialogue in the main room, on the other hand the video Silhueta de um estranho [Silhouette of a stranger] is what determines the switching-off or switching-on of the lights through the luminous intensity of its projection. It's the material properties of the different languages invoked (sound, video, painting, text) that establish the various symbolical plays or even the various times the exhibition puts forward. For example, it's the light of the projection that "waters" the painted text on the floor, enabling the latter to glimmer. Through the dialogue and inter-contamination of the different media, the exhibition forms its own time of life and death, like a garden that doesn't need a gardener.
Eduarda Neves has a degree in Philosophy and a PhD in Aesthetics. She is a professor of contemporary art theory and criticism, an area in which she has published various works, and an independent curator. Her research and curatorial activities cross the fields of art, philosophy, and politics.
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Tiago Madaleno: Um Jardim à Noite. Exhibition views at Rampa, Porto, 2020. Photos: courtesy of the artist and Rampa.