This phase of our Giardino del’Eden project occurs at the same time as La Biennial de Venezia spectacle. I took the opportunity to cross post in the analog world, by carefully inserting our event postcard (designed by Cynthia), into strategic positions in the city, here at the entrance to the Arsenale venue. One garden view juxtaposing another.
In a city overtaken by visitors, leaving only ephemeral traces or pointers to the garden area through plant design influenced stencils seems relevant for me. Working quickly with salt and hand cut stencils, we marked key thresholds to the garden gate or the site of our temporary fabric installations. One visitor from the UK partially found us through these hints. It was nice to see, when returning an hour or so later, the wind and foot action had transformed the patterns into new forms, much as time and weather, imprints itself on so many of the built structures.
We left a temporary artichoke influenced calling card at the gate to the Giardino dell’Eden through which we were unable to pass on this trip .
Photos by Kelly Thompson, taken May 19 and 20, 2017
May 18, 2017 – Tonight we had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing the Eden Garden from the water. We’d been anticipating this journey for a couple of years, ever since the Giardino project called to us during our last joint visit to Venice, in 2015. What we wanted, we agreed, was to travel in a boat down the canal to the west of the Giardino, and then out into the Lagoon to the south of the Giardino, so that we could experience the Eden Garden’s sounds, scents and greenery from the most Venetian of all means of access: water.
Indeed, it was on the waters — while he was being floated in a gondola — that Frederick Eden made the request that would lead him to the garden that compels so many of us:
We were floating on the Giudecca canal and the proverb, that I had heard before, was too much for my sick temper, and it cried out, ” Via via, a terra, Eugenio. Get out and find me a garden.” And Eugenio answered,” Si Monsignore.”
And he did. Eugenio made the connections that allowed Frederick Eden to buy the land, once farmed by a religious order. In other words, Eden benefited from his boatman’s local knowledge in the same way that we three Canadians did from Marco Bassi‘s. Marco is a fifty-something longtime Giudecca resident, who came our way through another local contact, restauranteur Andreas of La Palanca, a favourite canalside restaurant and bar. We are so grateful for the many kindnesses that these gents and other Venetians have shown us during our project.
Our plan was not simply to boat by the garden, but also to use the occasion of proximity to engage with the wall space that separates the Garden from the waters and from today’s Venetians as well. While the Edens and later owners invited locals into their private green space during their early 20th century decades of proprietorship, since the 1970 purchase of the garden by Freidenreich Hundertwasser, it has been completely closed. As Marco put it, speaking in our common shared language of French and sadly shaking his head,
“Je n’ai jamais mis mon pied sur la terre du jardin.”
“I have never set foot in the garden.” He was intrigued to learn of our first idea, to — with the Hundertwasser Foundation’s permission — open the garden to visitors for one day. When that proved impossible, we opted for our boat-based art action: to pierce a hole in the canal- and lagoon-side walls using the imagination and sensory engagement. As we floated past, we would project onto the wall the historic images of Eden’s garden, published in the early 1900s, as well as our own photographs and videos of these images installed that morning on the other side of the garden. We would do this during ‘golden hour’, that time at dusk when the light is especially beautiful, the air soft and redolent of particularly fragrant evening flowers. And we would document our passages, collecting images and memories that would become part of our related art exhibition in Montreal.
And so we projected and recorded, talked and boated, back and forth along the Garden’s watery perimeter. Our activities lasted almost an hour and a half, before our projector’s battery died out. We docked and parted ways, feeling enormously fortunate for our encounter with Marco, his deep knowledge of the neighbourhood and unexpected affinity with our own ‘open doors’ orientation to gardens and green spaces.
Of course there is a cat in the Garden of Eden. He is a young, brown and grey tabby, intelligent and sensual, quick and sociable. He heard us when we were looking at the garden from the other side of the Rio della Croce, talking and taking pictures. Up he sprang, lithe and confident, watching us with great interest as he walked along the red brick edge of the Eden Garden’s western border. He never looked once at the shimmering, muscular waters of the canal below him. But he did gaze at us, for quite a time.
Perhaps 45 minutes later, we had made our way around to the garden’s south-eastern edge, where I made my first watercolour. As we talked, we heard a rustling in the leaves above the garden’s easterly red brick flank. To our happy surprise, it was our friend once more. He called out to us, and leapt nimbly down to our level, glancing off the banal grey mechanical boxes that have been installed against the wall here. Having been in Venice for a few days already, I had been reminded of the numerous homeless cats, not all of whom are friendly. This tabby, however, galloped over to us and seemed delighted to make physical contact.
The fact that he had just exited the garden so easily and swiftly, with a few quick bounds and turns, underscored the contrast between our gravity- and rule-bound selves and this little animal. What does he know? What does he see? What can he smell, remember, cherish about this garden? Surely he is what Donna Haraway would call a “situated knower” in relation to this space.
The Eden tabby shared the scents of the garden with us via his sensitive cheeks, whiskers, and ears, returning to rub our hands and clothes again and again. Although our sensory organs are not subtle enough to fully appreciate the tabby’s gifts of transfer and knowledge, this does not change the fact that he offered the garden to us in a way that his human counterparts have yet to do.
This tabby is not the first we know to have been familiar with this space. A photograph published in Frederick Eden’s book, A Garden in Venice, shows a self-possessed tabby sitting calmly on a flagstone courtyard. Although we do not know for absolute certain, it may be that Caroline Eden took this photograph.
A few days earlier, I had another animal companion as I sat and painted. Just as I began to make my image, a small white crane landed beside the watch tower that looks out over the garden and the lagoon. This tower is one of four such lookouts located at the corners of the former men’s prison that abuts the garden to the north. Judging from its appearance, it is a relic of the second world war. The higher walls that surround the former prison made for an excellent resting place for the crane, who sat – as I did – for almost an hour.
While at first they left the crane in peace, two large seagulls eventually could not tolerate its silent, almost motionless presence. As I was about to pack up, they flew in ever closer circles around the crane, shrieking at it, pressing it to leave.
And depart the crane did, swooping easily into the Eden garden, disappearing behind its wall in one, fluid movement. The seagulls did not follow.
We saw the crane once more, the following day, at the base of the western wall of the garden. She or he was looking for a meal in the seaweed exposed from the lower tides. The tabby appeared moments later.
These animal encounters remind me that while humans may be forbidden – mostly – from entering, there are many species for whom brick walls are not barriers but instead features of existence, things to be used, perhaps containing benefits, as protection maybe, or in service of movement as a conduit. As the crane cleaned its beautiful white feathers from its excellent vantage point, and as the Eden tabby’s velvety paws moved with precision and certainty along narrow bricks, the walls seemed to provide a sun-warmed stage, perhaps even a partner in daily life. We, for our part, were happy to provide the attentive audience to these performances of animal-urban relations.
The tabby stayed with us for a long time, and followed us almost out of the public green that lies east of the Eden garden. Whether we had reached the edge of his territory, or he was dissuaded by the dogs that had begun to emerge for their early evening walks, the Eden tabby’s time and space with us came to an end. I hope we find him again, our cat-ambassador to a garden we may never see with our own eyes, but that we might know little more, through him.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017 – My first full day in Venice meant walks and reconnaissance on the island of Guidecca, tracing the perimeter of the locked away Eden Garden that had so captured our imaginations during our 2015 visit.
The Garden is bounded by the abandoned men’s prison to the north, the narrow canal of the Rio della Croce to the west, public greenspace to the east, and of course the open lagoon to the south. Water is such a feature of Venice, not just the main means of transportation (other than walking, for those of us on land) but also a factor in cultivation. The water here is salty. The salt air is glorious and pungent and of course has impact on the plants that grow here. The foliage is green and luxuriant — and astonishingly aromatic: there’s a form of jasmine that’s exceptionally heady — but must withstand the impact of salt in the air and salt in the very boggy soil. Roots can’t grow down very far before they hit salty water and, in the case of some plants, recoil. The Venetian ecosystem is thus very different from that of our home soil and waters, in the freshwater basin of Montreal’s St. Lawrence River.
Caroline Eden, when she began her work on the Giudecca property (purchased with her husband Frederick about 1880), reportedly hoped for a wide range of plant and animal life. Grapevines would co-exist with rosebushes, artichokes and other vegetables with beehives and cows. Mariagrazia Dammicco’s inspiring A Guide to the Gardens of Venice (2013) remarked that at the height of the Edens’ residency,
The garden in bloom was extraordinary, with pergolas and trellises of roses, lilies, carnations, tulips, clematis, honeysuckle and lilies-of-the-valley.
None of that seems to still exist now, more than a century later, as changes in ownership and gardening philosophies have resulted in a less luxuriant style of cultivation. When during our 2015 visit I climbed the 10-foot wall to the east side of the garden and peered through the foliage, I could see that the trees and grasses were trimmed, but the garden showed not much other deliberate intervention.
That said, from a public dock along the Giudecca’s southern perimeter, the Garden’s lagoon-side growth appears lush and vital.
Mariagrazia Dammicco seems to have the inside story on the latest substantial efforts in the Giardino dell’Eden:
“…recent maintenance work cleared [the garden] of an inextricable tangle of thorn bushes, exposing the wall with the original entrance, before the sacca on the southern lagoon was filled; new plants were added to the vineyard and an arcade covered in splendid pittosporum was preserved along the shore.”
We still hope to see for ourselves. If we can’t secure permission to visit the Garden’s interior, we will take a boat around its two waterside perimeters and document our foray. Stay tuned!
Day 2: Part of my project here is to continue to use painting as a means to make the Giardino dell’Eden visible, despite the barriers. I am not the first artist to take up this subject, nor am I the first painter to explore this island. A very famous forebear, Joseph Mallord William Turner, created Moonrise, La Giudecca, in 1829. This luminous watercolour, worked with coloured crayon, captures the glowing, rosy quality of Venetian architecture, like so many cubic peaches, and the beautiful interplay of light from the sky and light reflected in the water.
I too plan to use watercolour and a small format to help paint my way to the Eden garden. For each day of my residency here, I will trace a line, through walking, to the garden, or more precisely to a location on the perimeter of the garden.
There, I will bring my kit (a painter’s stool, 140-lbs cold pressed watercolour paper, brushes, colours, pencils and pens), and work on at least two images: one depicting what I can see, and a second depicting what I cannot. I will in this way take up the tradition of painting en plein air, which fell out of favour once colour photography became easily accessible. But I will also play with that tradition, as what I will be depicting at least half the time will be something I cannot see: the interior of the garden as it is, or as it was.
Because of the tension between the visible and the invisible, I will focus part of each walk as well on the haptic and sensory aspects of my destination. As sounds and scents are free to come and go from the garden, the sense of hearing, smell, taste and possibly touch are important registers for its presence.
I made today’s walk in the mid-afternoon sunshine, heading for the one accessible garden wall found in a public green space located south of the Quartieri E Centri Civici. I set up my kit in the shade of the wall that borders the public green to the south, enclosing a cluster of private apartments that face the lagoon. Positioning myself between two locked gates in that wall, I expected to have visitors coming in or out, but none passed me (although I did hear people pausing behind me as I painted). My sensory log reads:
“The south western tip of the Giardino Eden is not a quiet place in terms of sound. The mechanical system for the housing projects around me contains continuously whirring fans. A generator or engine of some kind gives off a constant, dull roar, intermingling with the birdsong, the motors of passing boats, and an occasional plane. Since arriving I have seen no one, except several frightened, feral cats. One dashed past me as I sat on my painter’s stool, slung low to the ground, part of its tail missing, scratching the flagstones with its rough paws. Further away I heard and saw a clutch of small dogs running joyfully and peeing in an adjacent courtyard. I smell sweet white oleander, because I am sitting under an oleander tree. But I also smell the little white daisies that dust this field, and the robust clover. It is not only grass growing in the field next to me, which I assume is mown every few weeks, or maybe months, as despite the density and diversity of plants the growth is no more than 1.5 feet high. The slightly damp stones and concrete beneath and beside me are also giving up an earthy, porous scent as the sun heats the area. And on the way here, and from time to time when the wind drops, the imperfect sewer system that must be attached to the housing complex makes its presence known. The sounds of the mechanical systems are constant. But so are the sounds of the birds.”
Day 1. I arrive in Venice, and get to Giudecca easily. My host is waiting at the Palanca vaporetto stop, and we walk briskly to the apartment where I’ll stay for a few nights, alone, before meeting my partners in this art project. Although I haven’t slept in 24 hours, I feel energized – the May sunshine is beautiful after a long Canadian winter and the air is sweet and salty with oleander and brine. I walk.
My first task is to discover whether anything has changed about the perimeter of the Eden garden since I last saw it two years ago. I head first to the western flank of the garden, along the Rio della Croce canal. Although there is scaffolding and other signs of change, I round the corner to what was, two years ago, and still is the best glimpse possible of the garden from land. Marvellous, as I remember it: tall cypress trees loom at the edges of the red brick wall, while the canal – almost deserted – laps peacefully at the rise of the promenade. Only one figure can be seen. A man in a crisp white and blue tailored shirt is leaving the garden, locking the gated bridge behind him. I hurry up to him and ask if he speaks English. He says no brusquely, and walks quickly away.
We had been told by the Foundation that owns this land that no-one would be at the garden in May during our visit. As usual, the garden has some secrets to keep.
I continue along the canal, photographing, looking, smelling, and listening. Some buildings on the west side seem to be in renovation mode. Others appear to be occupied. The western, canal side wall of the garden shows evidence of an intermittent presence in the form of several potted geraniums which, while not flowering robustly, do appear green.
Continuing on my path, I need to explore the northern perimeter of the garden, or as close to it as I can get. I return to the Fondamenta Croce, which is the main east-west artery on Giudecca. From here, I can walk east, crossing the canal, and slip past an iron gate that, despite its heavy chains and padlock, is open. The Calle della Croce is a narrow paved pathway that leads to the abandoned Chiesa di Santa Croce, after which so many routes are named on Giudecca. The church stands immediately east of a disused men’s prison. Their mutual yard is still as leafy and accessible as it was two years ago, but today it feels more isolated – another pathway has been decidedly blocked to the east and I am not sure of the exit to the west. I take a few photographs of this beautiful and stark site, noting the excellent surfaces for potential future projections, and continue on.
Now to the most pressing question in my mind. Is the green, public space that we found two years ago, south of Giudecca’s Quartieri E Centri Civici on Sacca Fisola, still there? Satellite images had suggested to us, prior to this trip, that it was under construction. But, after passing an installation at the Civic Centre, I am happy to find that the green space is indeed still alive and well, and well populated with dogs of every size and kind enjoying the early evening sunshine, as well as their humans.
Beyond this unofficial dog park, and opposite a grouping of 20th-century housing blocks, can be found the one stretch of the Giardino’s wall that may be touched. With its mix of rough aggregate and pinkish-red bricks, the masonry smells pleasingly of salt, warm mortar, and mossy concrete.
The sound of boats passing in the lagoon, just out of sight but within earshot to the south, mingles with the relaxed conversation of neighbours easing into their private lives after work. Dogs bark joyfully in meeting their own kind. As I explore the area, a young couple from Belgium approach me, asking if I know where they could find the Garden of Eden. (Not a question one is asked every day.) “You’ve found it,” I was happy to be able to tell them. “It’s behind that wall.” Their faces fell. Giardino chiuso. It is their first holiday without their three children in a long time, and they want to sit in a garden together. Looking at the map they had just assumed one could enter. I explain that there is a bridge, and a gate, but that both are locked. If I had already completed a painting, I would have given it to them on the spot.
We wish each other well and continue on our respective ways.
The sun begins to set. Art lovers come to watch a performance at the nearby cultural centre. Feral cats and crows, as big as the cats, share plates of food put out by a kind soul. It is time to take care of my increasing fatigue. But it was good to be with the garden again, or at least, to be beside it, to smell and hear it, to find others looking for it, and to watch the birds, insects, and animals for whom the wall is no barrier, cross into that verdant enclosure.