Il gatto del giardino dell’eden

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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(Water)coloring outside the lines: giardino raffigurato

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.

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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.

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Day 2 of Cynthia Hammond’s Giudecca residency, showing a 1.6 km walk to the Eden 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.”

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Giardino chiuso

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.

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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.

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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.

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The church yard of Chiesa di Santa Croce, showing the former men’s prison.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Painting as passage, garden as threshold

 

“Painting leads to thought and then leaves it behind. The space of painting is a passageway. By trusting the painting as true you become a witness to the effects of events that you didn’t experience directly … a witness to an event in which you didn’t participate, and a proximity to those you have never met.”

Bracha L. Ettinger, 2016

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Psychoanalyst and artist Bracha L. Ettinger is here discussing how she understands her own painting practice, which has had a strong focus on the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust. My own paintings approach a far gentler terrain, even though the Giardino dell’Eden was occupied by the Italian fascist army for a time, and was not always a space of repose and retreat. Yet I find Ettinger’s ideas fruitful for thinking about this work that I am doing in Montreal about a garden that was begun over a century ago, and half a world away.

While she is not the only focus of my project, I often return in my thoughts to Caroline Eden (d. 1928), who I believe to have been the main agent in the conception and creation of this space. This, however, is not the usual perspective. In an article for the Guardian,  James Fenton observes that “Caroline was Gertrude Jekyll’s elder sister (but the garden predates Jekyll’s interest in garden design).” Yet the article otherwise attributes every aspect of the garden to Frederick Eden. Similarly, in a review for the Telegraph, Peter Parker remarks on how Frederick “Eden [was] an invalid who was usually to be found on a sun-lounger surrounded by his beloved dachshunds.” But he does not explore the possibility that Caroline Eden was the progenitor of this unusual space. The purpose of both of these articles is to assess the 1903 self-published book, A Garden in Venice, which has only one, named author: Frederick Eden, even if is often written in the first person plural (“we decided”, “our roses”). But the elision between the authorship of this book and the authorship of the design of the garden is something to be questioned, at least because of Frederick Eden’s physical infirmities at the time the garden was made.*

The one author who believes, as I do, that Caroline Eden designed and built the garden on Giudecca has not found archival evidence to prove this thesis. However, in The Garden of Eden – A Secret Garden in Venice, Annemette Fogh makes a compelling choice to be in dialogue with the missing figure of Caroline Eden, encountering her, or her ghost, at the threshold to the garden on the Rio della Croce, and visiting the garden with this ghost as her guide. The book moves in and out of this fiction, and the author gradually develops a relationship with the semi-fictional Caroline Eden around the one thing the two women have in common: love for this garden.

This writing strategy might be criticized as taking liberties with history. Yet I myself know what it is to be so deeply involved in research on a historical subject and site that I dream about the key players at night, forget what year I am living in upon waking, and seem at times to be on the point of dissolving into a profound proximity with the women, historical moments, and spaces that I am straining every resource to discover and understand. When I was working on suffragette spatial histories in Bath, England, I was walking the city by day, looking for their traces, and reading over my notes at night, digging for clues, mapping their trajectories, and looking for patterns. At times I too felt ghosts with me in the room, or on the street, and they were as real as the notebook in my hand. Once I could swear I heard the suffragettes laugh behind me. And one night, an invisible hand pressed gently and warmly into my shoulder as I struggled with a difficult section of my book on women’s role in creation of the built environment of Bath. I think when I open myself so fully to research in this way, that I am receiving on all channels. Am I inventing the laugh, the hand, the ghost? Perhaps. But rather than ignore these moments, I used them as inspiration to write a section of my book as if I had been there at the time. And what I wrote about was a garden – an arboretum that real suffragettes did build on the edges of Bath to commemorate their feminist work to gain all women the vote.

We rest our hands on the round iron bars of the gate that will allow us in, and catch our breath. Sloping up in front of us, spreading like a green bowl, cupping the warm late light that the hollyhocks could not reach, is our wood.

There are more trees than ever; everything has grown. We could not count them all from here. So we go in, pushing against the gate, hearing the satisfying groan of heavy iron, making sure it does not drop against its post for fear of disturbing the peace we have come to find. We fall into silence and begin to walk…

– Architects, Angels, Activists in Bath, 1765-1965, p. 216.

The trees, flowers, heavy iron gate, even the topography of the site were all my findings and based on historical fact. The evening walks that the young women took were also fact. Yet all the framing, and the first-person account, are mine.

While dismissing such writing as fanciful would be the usual response, perhaps texts like mine and Fogh’s could be thought of as writerly outcomes of “fascinance”, the word Ettinger uses to describe “aesthetic openness to the other and the cosmos.”  In 1991, art historians Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson critiqued the positivist division between past and present, refuting the idea that either “context” or “authorship” could be genuine, historically-defined certainties. When reaching with sincerity into histories and pasts that we can never truly or fully know, one consequence of this work is that “the art historian is always present in the construction she or he produces.” (p. 243) What also emerges from the effort, however, is more than a subjective description of a historical moment: it is, in fact, a creation. Informed by the pieces of the past that she has been able to find, and the present moment of the researcher, this creation is a thing made of “strings and threads” of intersubjective encounter with the partially known (Ettinger).

So the question of authorship remains, but it is important to keep it, as a question, open, otherwise Caroline Eden fades into the background of the discussion of this garden, as most authors will have her do. Until such time as her own words or drawings can be found, it is important for writers and artists to explore the terrain between what is known and what is unknown about her role in creating this special place in Italy. But even if Caroline Eden does not appear to have written anything about her garden in Venice, her famous sister’s words are resonant when looking at some of the photographs taken of the garden on Giudecca:

… as you move among them every plant seems full of sweet sap or aromatic gum, and as you tread the perfumed carpet the whole air is scented; then of dusky groves of tall Cypress and Myrtle, forming mysterious shadowy woodland temples that unceasingly offer up an incense of their own surprising fragrance … To find oneself standing … in a grove of giant Myrtles fifteen feet high is like having a little chink of the door of heaven opened, as if to show what good things may be beyond!

“The Scents of the Garden,” in Wood and Garden: Notes and Thoughts, Practical and Critical, of a Working Amateur, p. 237) **

In this way, it would seem that gardens, like paintings, can themselves be passages and thresholds to other worlds.

 

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“Cortile”, from A Garden in Venice, 1903, photographer unknown.

* In 2011, Robin Lane Fox wrote an article for the Financial Times that intimates the influence of the Giudecca garden on Gertrude Jekyll’s still-famous designs and philosophy. While steering clear of attributing the Eden Garden to Caroline Eden, the author does propose a link between the garden in question and Jekyll’s oeuvre, and even if it does not analyse sisterhood as key to that link, the suggestion is there.

** First published in 1899. I am grateful to Robin Lane Fox’s article, cited above, for drawing my attention to this book.

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.”

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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.



			

Who, what, when, where, and why

Giardino dell’Eden is a multi-disciplinary art project by artists Cynthia Hammond, Kelly Thompson, and Kathleen Vaughan, in collaboration with Studio XX, a bilingual feminist artist-run centre based in Montréal, Québec.

Our focus is the Giardino dell’Eden, or “Eden Garden” – the largest, privately-owned walled garden in Venice. Located on the island of Giudecca, the terrain was first an artichoke farm, then became an elaborate garden in the hands of Caroline and Frederic Eden. The Edens were British ex-patriates who brought distinctly English ideas about gardening to this island of factories, prisons, and Jews. The garden was later the site of occupation by the fascist army, the home of an exiled queen, and a gay cruising ground. Eventually the idiosyncratic artist, architect, and environmentalist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser purchased the garden. Hundertwasser is said to have looked at the carefully cultivated roses and, after throwing some thistles into the flower beds, locked the gate so that nature could repair what humans had “destroyed”. Whether this story is strictly true or not, the garden has remained locked to virtually all outside visitors since 1979.

We are intrigued by the Giardino’s location in Venice, known for architecture rather than gardens, and its proximity to famous (and infamous) industrial complexes such as the Fortuny textile factory  and the former Molino Stucky flour mill. As artists we are also compelled by the garden’s physical and visual inaccessibility; in a city of water and stone, a garden that cannot be entered or even seen is an urban paradox. As feminists we are interested in the role of Caroline Eden, sister to Gertrude Jekyll, in its design (which is typically attributed to Frederic Eden, who was however wheelchair-bound and half blind during the years of its creation).

We have been exploring the garden through historic photographs and articles, the published work of art historian, Annemette Fogh, and the Edens’ own book about their garden. Through our individual and joint art practices, we are finding ways into this locked, mysterious, but also very material place. How might art provide thresholds to this space, while creating platforms for exchange about its meaning, memory, and importance? How might we work at the edges of the garden (water, brick) to explore its history, contradictions, and symbolism? And how might we as artists engage the sensory, haptic, and mnemonic agency of the garden today? This website details that exploration and will be the place where we document a series of art actions, planned for Giudecca in spring 2017.