Owlet vision in a blinding time

The garden is the smallest parcel of the world, and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity.

— Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias

I define the garden as the only territory where man and nature meet, in which dreaming is allowed. It is in this space that man can be in a utopia that is the happiness of his dreams.

—Gilles Clément, The Planetary Garden


The other night, I was listening to a podcast with the gardener, writer and expert on the history of gardens, Marco Martella. He said many striking things. Listening to him felt like wandering in a beautiful garden, lush, verdant, safe, and generous. When asked if gardening had something to do with poetry, he cited Italian philosopher Rosario Assunto who said that a garden was nature turned into language and language turned into nature. Then he insisted that we should look at Renaissance gardens to learn how to deal with the ongoing climate crisis. He explained that before the Quattrocento, nature was considered either wild and potentially dangerous or anthropised and potentially absent. So early Renaissance scholars came up with a third proposition named ‘third nature’. Third nature would be the place where humans and nature collaborate. In other words, a garden. Another moment I loved in this podcast is when Martella read an extract from Vita Sackville-West’s poem ‘The Garden’ in which she writes that a garden is “a little world, a little perfect world, with owlet vision in a blinding time”. That’s when I fell from my chair. So a garden can be a baby owl, a poem and a collaboration? Wow!

I was familiar with the interrelation of poetry and gardens since I had read Marianne Moore’s poem entitled ‘Poetry’ in which she states that a good poem should be like walking through imaginary gardens (with real toads in them). Earlier this year I also encountered the fascinating research of the landscape historian Michael Jakob who writes that “it is possible to read a garden”, and pleads for “a hermeneutic of the garden”. I was also accustomed to the notion of teamwork since reading Baptiste Morizot’s book The Diplomats in which he argues that we should rethink our interaction with other forms of life – his case study is wolves since their reappearance in anthropic territories, not gardens. Still, gardens and wolves may have a lot in common, I believe. 

But the baby owl analogy blew my mind. What does it mean? I decided to dig further down, into the cultural history of gardens. 

If gardens have always represented a fertile land for the imagination, everything suggests that it was during the second half of the 19th century that it achieved in Europe, in literature and art, a function significantly different from the other eras. With the development of industrialization, cities especially became too big, inhuman, and polluted. To counter this problem, parks and gardens were planned to give urbanites better and healthier living conditions. Gardens and parks (including zoological gardens) became shelters in tantalizing and overwhelming cities. As time passed, gardens naturally grew into places of resistance, defying an alienating mass society dominated by economical discourses, exploitation, extraction and domination.

Enclosed gardens (hortus conclusus) have at all times symbolized places of possibilities and experimentation that diverge from the social norm: Plato’s philosophy teaching takes place in a garden -the Academy; Horace makes his Hortus the meeting place of witches; illicit love often takes place in gardens -think of Cligès, the poem of Chrétien de Troyes when the knight Bertrand, looking for his sparrowhawk, finds two lovers in a garden:

Il s’agrippe aussitôt au mur

Et réussit à passer de l’autre côté.

Sous l’ente il voit dormir ensemble

Fénice et Cligès, nue à nu.

Taking these observations as a starting point, we decided to develop an exhibition that would take the form of a garden, that would explore how gardens and resistance are deeply connected, how their histories intersect, and how their various occurrences in visual art enlighten this affiliation. This exhibition would also narrate how humans and non-humans approach this resistance. Multiple narratives would then unfold and tell bigger stories, of e.g., industrialization and overurbanization, global warming and extinction, the histories of art, architecture, and literature, etc. If gardens are places of knowledge, it is now very clear why Vita Sackville-West used this metaphor, for the owl is wisdom that can discern at all times, even in the dark of night.

For this show, we have invited a group of national and international artists who could reflect on these various topics and whose works, when distributed in space, would draft a garden of love and care. Because if Marianne Moore is right when she says that poetry is about “imaginary gardens, with real toads in them”, then poets and artists are definitely gardeners of ideas, and their garden is the form their reflections take in this exhibition.

Ceel Mogami de Haas, 2023