Cultivating a garden in absentia

Since discovering the existence of the “Garden of Eden” on the island of Giudecca, Venice, the question that has dogged me has been how best to find my way in. My first idea was to ask its owners, a foundation, to open this enormous, locked garden to the public for one day. I felt that this special, verdant place should be shared, and accessible to the people who live nearby. But of course this is the thinking of a tourist, and a Western one, whose values are often attached to the notion that good things are better when shared, or made collective property. Yet whose interests does this stance serve? Perhaps not the animals and plants that may live in the garden today. Were there other ways of thinking of this space that do not require actual, physical access? And indeed, is “access” ever truly inclusive? Perhaps, I began to think, there are ways of entering this garden that set aside the usual expectation of physical access, and operate on a more symbolic or allusive plane.

As I began to work with the historic traces of the garden – photographs, written accounts – I began to think about how art is a way of entering a space without the mastery of physical occupation. As I painted these 3.5 x 5′ unstretched canvases, I was inspired by something that my collaborator, Kathleen Vaughan had said to me years before, when – with regard to another project – I was lamenting the lack of archival records related to a specific woman’s life. She said to me, “as the artist, you can make those records. Not as a fiction or substitute, but as a creation.”


This wise suggestion has been my companion as I think about, and paint, my way into the garden. We are both exiles in a way, this garden and me. The garden is estranged from daily Venetian life, and I am estranged from its daily, biological life – its scents, sounds, and silences. But I do have the partial perspective of some of its past observers, as well as hints of its current reality via satellite images and the observations of other travelers who have sought out this special space. My paintings  are thus thresholds of sorts, between what the garden was, what it is, and what I imagine it to be.


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