Ceci n’est pas un Jardin

By Tamara SINGH

Taming the Wilderness

Who might have imagined such a fuss over gardens and landscapes?

The now defunct DEA Jardins Paysages Territoires (Gardens-Landscapes-Territories) was an extremely enriching doctoral track simply because of the fierceness with which all contenders debated the properties and qualities of the things to be studied. Sorbonners and Architectural Institute students, we were not even out of the starting blocks when “Nature” and all of her wondrous bazaars came clashing down around us in cacophony. A number of our shorthand, stenographic, everyday terms, proved up for grabs. Gardens were a 7th Art, Landscapes appeared to us in Art-like manifestations,  Territories displayed whole political-historic dilemmas but with sensibilité, s’il vous plait. Enthusiastic questioning ensued over semantics and objects: urban landscapes, wilderness gardens, cultured nature? And then by sudden reversal and conceptual sumersault, Wildernesses were tamed, Gardens were Landscapes, and Landscapes were Gardens. Afterall, with the advent of man on the moon, from space, the whole of Earth looked like a garden, dixit Bernard Lassus, founder of the programme.

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In pure academic style, the jousting could be wearisome, repetitive, rocky, stormy but also reputation making. For example: Says who that the husbandryman or farmer is oblivious to his creations — ways in which agricultural activities modify the land? Yves Luginbuhl was always considerably sceptical about the specialist definitions of objects of study like “landscape” to the exclusion of the inhabitants’ use. Alain Roger’s key highbrow concept artialisation was a term that the then erstwhile programme director and my research mentor, liked most to operationalise diabolically. Lughinbuhl was fond of calling into question the political implications of such a high falutin’ idea, which appeared  exclusionary of the meaning making capacities of the “natives” of the land.  For Luginbuhl, it was always important to come back to the praxis of the earth and personal action. Moral and philosophical speculation about what a paysan saw or experienced or failed to experience artistically should not replace the everyday aesthetics involved in digging out a water source, collecting pollard hay from the fodder pollards or brindlewood from the coppiced ones. It might even be construed as an abuse of power.

A tactile person myself, surprised to have found myself in the JPT –as it was affectionately referred to– surrounded by plasticiens and artists who worked three dimensionally with materials, I remember distinctly the feeling of being challenged to upend any idea I may have had about the Garden.  In particular it seemed important to always come back to its users’ very sensual relationship. I was invited to deconstruct it as a cultural entity.

The bower of colourful dispersions and enlivening debates,  JTP facilitators and participants were faithful to the legacy of its founder and keen on taking care to watch over any biais that might easily surge should we forget the prisms of class conciousness, everyday aesthetics and bodily investments of space. Issues of scale that had kept Gardens on one side and Landscapes on the other, while architecture and urbanism remained contiguous, no longer had the same pertinence. Neither did the artificial separation of formal professional landscaper artist and hobby gardener.

Lassus’ classic 1960s study of the embellishment and meaningful transformations undertaken by some working class city populations, in their own humble residential spaces, was a landmark, no pun intended. The habitants-paysagistes as he called them, often worked without any concern for “practical use” or social acceptance of their  own gardens. A kind of ART BRUT or Outsider Art (without those precise claims) made room for something subtle in their creative landscaping. The concept of a sensibilité paysagère, an art de faire (an art of doing) worth the roving eye of some academics was born. I can’t recall if Michel de Certeau mentions Lassus or vice versa, but I see them as amicable intellectual twins. They share between them a kind of generosity as they rehabilitate poor art, poor subjects, poor doing, those estimed as powerless. The ordinary man, the common anonymous hero, tactically advancing using a sort of hidden script, as James C. Scott called it. Silently and arduously humble, overlooked, blue collar dreamers creating a micro-landscape, a world born of and blooming with imaginaire.



Today the degree granting JPT programme has been renamed. The new programme is entitled MA Architecture-Milieu-Paysages, and thereby announces proudly, or at least cosmetically,  contemporary ambitions. Expressing what I suspect to be evolving interests in ecology and environment, they are inevitably and continually excellent at what they are doing (with the likes of Augustin Berque still on staff). But the world has changed.  The stakes are heavier, larger, wider and more far ranging. The scale Global and Anthropocenic, or anthropocentric. And certainly less orthogonal, feet in mud, or haptic, hands in soil.

It is possible that Google Earth has somehow disenabled the cosmic WOW elicited in the astronauts’ view from space. Satellite images, produced and gathered rather than percevieved in situ by a human “out there”, suggests something disembodied and senseless. I mean sensori-less. A robot camera has no idea what tilling the earth might feel like. A boy, grown into an astronaut from Earth, might. The memory of manual activity, when replaced by a digital world of visuals….invites a distantiation.  The way a boy reports the garden earth…is invariably different from how a robot will report the garden earth. After all, the Garden  implies activity –everything from planting and pruning to the demand that we walk its grounds, making footfall, rather than just envisioning. In the Garden,  its only at arms length that we can actually get the leverage we need to do any proper digging.  And so a tactile embodied dimension of labour suddenly evaporated in the title of the new degree programme when they dropped Garden from the title. Action is replaced by some sort of mediated, visual or virtual life sketched out on paper, discussed in urban policy meetings, drawn up as blueprints, and what am I saying… draughtsmanship has been taken over by computer applications.

Although I admit bashfully to  not having done any journalistic legwork or investigative reporting to find out why the doctoral track was rebranded, I simply recognise that the renaming of the doctoral track is situated in a new context. It is a frightening context that speaks of our relationship as a species to our first and currently only home, and so our engagement too. But the point remains : learning how to question who is defining what and on what grounds.


Ceci n’est pas un Jardin

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Magritte’s famous painting  got him into a bit of a spot. It’s no wonder that the title of the work itself, representing a smoking pipe,  captioned, “ceci n’est pas une pipe”  (this is not a pipe), is  the Treachery of Images. The artist is said to have declared “had I written anything to the contrary, I would have been lying”. Because indeed, afterall, it is not a pipe, it is a painting, and you certainly cant fill it with tabacco.

My relationship to the Garden is similarly playful, irreverant, curious and questioning.

As a  practitioner of Horticultural therapy today, I am grateful to have been so skeptically equipped during my time in the JTP track . It allows me to see through to the Garden in a particular way, even if I am keen on some sorts of gardening and plunging my hands into the soil with the express intention of facilitating therapeutic rapport. This fierce questioning stance that was imparted to me allows me to take note of how Non-Gardens may function as Gardens.


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Except….Well what do I mean by the Non-Garden and the Garden for that matter? Maybe something like this…sometimes the only colours blooming in the dead of a city winter, are graffiti art, as Marie Viljoen says in her book 66 square feet-the delicious life.





What about these Parisian plantings? When does the creative disposition in space leave behind simple decorative display of potted plants to create a Garden?







And here?

A pile of “junk”?  Piled into shape, in an enclosure that is separate from the street. There is no grass only a sort of artificial turf meant to parody the grass of the pristine bourgeois well tended lawn. This pastiche garden is in the lower east side of manhattan, in a neighbourhood ubiquitous for a history of crime and drugs and poverty. A forgotten sort of place, as hurricane Sandy was kind enough to remind us, since the residents went for so long without basic amenities like water and electricity.


And what are we to make of gardens that have never left the page, but invite the solitary dreamer to explore with the sleepy feet of lead that hold us steady while we read as armchair gardeners. In Jardins de papier, Gardens of Paper, a recent french publication, the author delights us with exactly this.  When a person has an encounter with a garden that is not a real life garden, might not the user’s own internal space be activated,  inciting the imagination-to-work, stimulating not only a daydream state but the envisioning of a choreography of potential gardening gestures.The question could be framed innocently and is yet immediately telling : what sort of a thing is at work? I suspect we could call on the researchers of mirror neurons to help us here, but I am not comptent enough on the subject.

In the meanwhile, across the English Channel,  in a springtime garden show at the Royal Academy, a perpetually sold out exhibit catered to thousands of visitors. But these were no ordinary gardens. Patrons were frantic to see paintings of modern gardens and hear about them too. And the season is not over yet. Other London museums are preparing their suites of these favourite curated subjects: gardens, flowers, nature, landscapes.

Speaking of imagery and perfomance, installation art and reinterpretation can only bring me, predictably, to film, that other 7th art.  For example here a botanical poem, The Glimpse of the Garden,  1957 avant garde short by Marie Mencken. Images, as several environmental psychologists have noted in their various “view of” studies, appear to bestow wellness benefits on the onlookers. Mood improvement, restorative attention, lower stress. A number of research projects consist in using photos or exposure to a window facing trees or even short video clips to demonstrate the correlation.

The healing gaze as I like to call it,  seems to work in the same ways that guided imagery works. A  well described garden becomes a visualisation exercise that elicits its users to walk down a garden path or imagine themselves as a flower in the bud, using little more than verbal prompts and cues to drop into sensory experience. In a similar vein, and if I keep pushing the issue just so slightly, the new uses of cyber reality and virtual gaming systems, such as those used with positive results on burn victims in hospitals,  demand our attention. If it is already possible to create believable cold snowscapes that allow patients to tolerate extreme levels of pain, when will terminal patients be invited to travel to Monet style gardens for a bout through the delphiniums, albeit wearing an occulusrift. There is no reason to think that there will not be more of this sort of intervention offered in the future. Along with the research on psychotropic drugs for terminal patients, what better way to travel through Nature spaces when one can’t move.

From Thornton Dial outsider Art types, to Sir Ian Smith; from Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage to the parcels of Lassus’  habitants-paysagistes; from the miniature bonsai forests hundreds of years in the tending to the most recent landscaped superstars such as the NYC Highline; from the yards of southern African Americans to the window sills of Latinas living in harsh urban environments like Hell’s Kitchen NYC, from radical lush garden festivals like the international Chaumont to virtual reality, from pictural odes in the form of seed catalogue collage to sketches of gardens to come …what is at work?



Without attempting to unpack the history of garden design in a single bound or on a single blog post –there are historians and sociologists, anthropologists and architects who have devoted their careers to doing just that, and admirably– let’s say that we could define the garden from a series of objective attributes or sometimes agreed upon formal definitions (Hortus meaning enclosure….an intimate place to retire from the worldly).

But we could also decide to define the garden from the user/builder/person perspective, that’s to say from the point of view of subjective meaning. In terms of defining the Garden/Non Garden,  it may help that the user decides on what he attributes to gardening….and by extension, what they suggest is healing. Derek Jarman, the cinematographer who died of AIDS, planted glass bottles that washed up from the sea into rocky beds. Balanced with equanimity on iron rods and sticks of various heights, they were “planted”, his small parcel of objects “growing” according to his finds.


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Jarman’s Prospect Cottage


Clinical Applications

All of these excursions into extreme,  radical, and virtual Gardens is simply to stir up the pot of clinical work. What, as horticultural therapists, can we do with these Gardens that are Not Gardens? What can this mean for the populations for which we provide services ? It would suggest that we have much to consider, and many places to turn for inspiration and tools when we are imagining new ways to engage clients or patients.

Many of us are already used to channeling the excitement and enthusiasm that is born of just looking through gardening magazines and seed catalogues during dreary winter months. We spend time, healthy or ill,  dreaming about what to plant and how it will look where. We muddle through scenarii on when to plant and what variety…all before we even get our hands in the ground. Its as if our minds and sensory organs start to salivate (for lack of a better metaphor) and enjoy before actually doing any garden work.

In the same ways drawing, painting, collage work, photography, sculpting garden accessories takes us into our imaginary gardens and is very popular with children of all abilities for example. These allow for honing observation skills as well as addressing educational goals. I recently learned about the rich Arab and Iranian garden traditions. I was particularly keen on the history of  persian carpets and floral-textiles-for-wear. On those two traditions alone there is an introduction into a distinctive world of meaning, reframing of the links between inanimate objects and the animate botanical. Historically, the carpets of Persia were often woven to depict elements of Nature, flowers, birds, animals. They were likened to a transportable garden and followed their owners everywhere…from war campaign to amorous serenade, from commercial negotiation to picnic. Equally interesting are the antique garments…think paisleys. It was culturally highly desirable to be envelopped, clothed in garden flowers, literally.

This can only speak to my personal sensibility as a fiber arts practitioner. And it offers me a new path for exploring gardens as a horticultural therapist generally, but also should I be required to engage middle eastern populations who are resistive or feeling unconcerned by other types of therapeutic activities. I do not believe in feigning neutrality. Gardens too are places of striations of power and history. They are places of culture and cultural hegemony. But that is the subject of a future post.

Another creative avenue is available in talking or writing about gardens past as a form of memory work or else extending into imagination, and talking about gardens that doesn’t exist, but that might. Creative storytelling activity for people with dementia is a fabulous route to experiment. Here are opportunities to exchange, communicate, work toward cognitive goals related to verbal initiation or logical order of steps in a story. But also provide a space for expression and communication, boosting self esteem.

There are of course many other ways to go about using the Non Garden as heuristic for planning group work or individual work. These were just a few. The rest is up to you…and whichever metaphoric and symbol rich paths your clients and patients might lead you down. My suggestion is merely this…that horticultural therapy has more to offer than just the classic Garden. Or rather, that the Garden merits a multi-pronged approach when it comes time to building a therapeutic alliance with the persons of so many varied backgrounds that we may encounter.



Amsterdam Center


For more reading in french this time….

Interview Bernard Lassus with Thierry Paquot ,  “Paroles” in  Revue Urbanisme , 1 Octobre 1998

Massimo Venturi Ferriolo “Bernard Lassus : une pratique démesurable pour le paysage”
in Projets de paysage , 16 February 2009

A short document  about the history of the JTP and the programme name change to AMP, which curiously overlooks the disappearance of the word jardin to focus on the replacement with milieu.

Around artialisation and some criticism read Alain Nadai‘s article.  “Degré zéro. Portée et limites de la théorie de l’artialisation dans la perspective d’une politique du paysage”, Cahiers de géographie du Québec, Volume 51, numéro 144, décembre 2007, p. 333-343






2 thoughts on “Ceci n’est pas un Jardin

  1. Pingback: Soundscape Ecology | ArtBlog

  2. Pingback: The Nature of the Slave girl | ArtBlog

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