Theoretical Roots and Artistic Ramifications of the Garden

Noémie Fortin

Photo : Vincent Beaulieu
It all began with a garden.
When I was invited to engage in this digital residency, in late January, I was dreaming of the plants that would sprout in my vegetable garden, now buried beneath a white blanket. The winter months flowed by, giving way to the soft warmth of spring. As I was writing about my research intentions, I was elbow deep in seedlings. The school year was coming to an end, my daughter was about to finish nursery school, and I was already imagining the hours we’d spend together planting, weeding, harvesting, and tasting what was growing in the backyard.

So, as I gradually settled into the pace of summer, the greening of the landscape, the scent of lilacs floating in the air, and the lengthening days, I articulated my research around gestures of artistic care toward living things. In the heat of June, I continued to cultivate my thoughts on the omnipresence of gardening in contemporary art, and on the relationships that blossom abundantly in this ecosystem.

Digging through the Esse archives, I unearthed three issues, published between 2016 and 2020, with thematic sections on The Living (87), Landscape (88), and Plants (99). At the intersection of these themes emerged the idea of the garden as fertile ground for encounters with all forms of living things. Each of the works that serve as anchor points for the essays I revisited has the potential to activate a sensitive, even affective, ecology among the plants, insects, animals, and human beings whose lives intertwine in this microcosm.

On the Edges of Gardening

In “The Garden in All Its States,”14 14 - Isadora Chicoine-Marinier, “The Garden in All Its States: Les paradis de Granby,” trans. Oana Avasilichioaei, Esse, no. 88 (Autumn 2016). an essay about Catherine Bodmer’s project Les paradis de Granby, Isadora Chicoine-Marinier refers to several definitions of “garden.” These were transcribed on the back of a series of postcards that Bodmer produced, after a year of encounters with five participants affiliated with the Société d’horticulture de Granby, that summed up her own research and her discussions with those gardeners. One of the definitions cites the etymological origins of the word “garden” as “an enclosure, a space reserved for humankind, where nature (plants, water, animals) is arranged in such a way as to provide pleasure for humankind.”15 15 - Pierre Grimal and Maurice Levy, “Jardins: De l’Antiquité aux Lumières,” Encyclopædia Universalis, quoted in Catherine Bodmer et al., Les paradis de Granby, fig. 18, 2015 (trans. Oana Avasilichioaei in Chicoine-Marinier, “The Garden”). This “enclosure” is reminiscent of the earthly paradise of the first garden, Eden—an “occasional oasis,” a place where nature is pure and ordered, a utopia to be rediscovered. Mixed in with such idealized conceptions of a garden “beyond time” is Michel Foucault’s observation that “the garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.”16 16 - Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984): 48, quoted in Catherine Bodmer et al., Les paradis de Granby, fig. 2, 2015. Referring to the Foucauldian concept of heterotopia, this understanding of the garden as a microcosmic space containing a multitude of states and spaces breaks down the barriers between it and the world around it. In this spirit, Chicoine-Marinier proposes a rapport among the different lifeforms that shape the garden, a place where the dichotomy between nature and culture subsides through the relations woven there.

Nevertheless, the space of the garden is subject to a form of framing, analogous to that discussed in the thematic section on landscape. In her editorial for issue no. 88, Sylvette Babin, taking inspiration from the philosopher Anne Cauquelin’s writings, refers to how the landscape is cut out from what is around it, “transform[ing] our vision of nature” by “subduing the wild.”17 17 - Sylvette Babin, “Unframed Landscape,” trans. Käthe Roth, Esse, no. 88 (Autumn 2016). So, landscape may be the result of a frame imposed upon the natural world by human beings intending to control it, like the fences erected around a garden. Although a frame is also inherent to the photographic medium used by Bodmer, she is interested not so much in the garden itself as in gardening practices, which she documents with a view to creating the images for her postcards. Rather than a distanced perspective showing floral and vegetable compositions in all their splendour, she delves into the edges of the garden and attends to what is found beyond its frame: a carpet of dead leaves, a collection of gardening tools, a plastic bag filled with purple oxalis bulbs beginning to germinate, and so on.

The “states” mentioned in the title of Chicoine-Marinier’s essay designate the seasonal cycle within which Bodmer’s project is inscribed. Although one of the participants hosts her in their garden in late fall, when there is “nothing left to see,” when “it’s over,”18 18 - MP quoted in Catherine Bodmer et al., Les paradis de Granby, fig. 10, 2014–15 (our translation). it is precisely on this moment of latency that she dwells. Chicoine-Marinier proposes that by documenting the “dead season” of gardening, Bodmer shifts attention away from the imperatives of result and productivity and toward the process and exchange relations between the participants and their gardens. Her interest in the “off-season,” Chicoine-Marinier explains, “allows her to envision a transformation of the status and function of the historical garden. Allowing of the chaotic and cyclical dimension of nature, the artist’s photographs move away from the garden’s [Edenic] aesthetic standard of order.” It’s as if, when there is “nothing to see”—when the gardener’s work is gradually erased as winter approaches—the plants and their allies continue to maintain connections that ask only that we reposition ourselves in order to perceive them.

88_DO09_Chicoine_Bodmer_Les paradis de Granby - Fig. 10
Catherine Bodmer
Les paradis de Granby – Fig. 10, 2014–15.
Photo: courtesy of the artist


In her essay titled “Engaging with Vegetable Others,”19 19 - Amanda White, “Engaging with Vegetable Others,” Esse, no. 87 (Spring–Summer 2016). Amanda White goes beyond an inter-human perspective on the garden to recognize that plants have a form of agency. Whereas Chicoine-Marinier mobilizes the concepts of ecocentrism and ecosophy, which are opposed to anthropocentrism and its concomitant objectification of nature, White focuses on plants as “actants.” It is no longer a question of simply decentring the Anthropos: the “shift … toward a consideration of plant actants” that she refers to is closer to what the anthropologist Natasha Myers calls the “Planthroposcene,” “the episteme that [she wants] to see thriving in the ruins of the Anthropocene.” To make this shift happen, Myers “displace[s] the singular figure of the Anthropos with the strangely hybrid figure of the Planthropos in order to amplify the profound interimplication of plants and people in every facet of life on earth.” She eloquently explains that this is a “way of doing life in which those still not-in-the-know came to realize, as so many others have known all along, that we are of the plant; that we are only because they are.”20 20 - Natasha Myers, “From Edenic Apocalypse to Gardens against Eden: Plants and People in and after the Anthropocene,” in Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene, ed. Kregg Hetherington (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 146–47 (emphasis in original). In response to the apocalyptic immediacy of the Anthropocene, the Planthroposcene is “aspirational”; it is an appeal to change the terms of our relations with the Other and to ally ourselves with plants.

The artists whose practices White discusses position plant life as an aspect of the loss of control that they welcome into their work. She advances that by working collaboratively with plants—which means requiring their participation in order for the work to take shape—these artists inevitably insert a degree of intersubjectivity among themselves, spectators, and plants. And when, in their works, “ecological concerns merge with social art practice … the projects of decentralizing the artist and decentralizing the human are drawn together and converge.”21 21 - White, “Engaging,” In the case of the project 7000 Eichen—Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung (7000 Oaks—City Forestation instead of City Administration, ongoing since 1982), in which the artist Joseph Beuys planted seven thousand trees in Kassel, Germany, this decentring strategy asks us to consider a plant-level temporal scale, as its components have been growing for some forty years.

Like Beuys, the Austrian artist Lois Weinberger leaves time for plant life to invade his works by offering it space to take root. Since the 1990s, in an ongoing work titled Burning and Walking, Weinberger has been breaking up concrete and asphalt to uncover what White calls “potential living spaces,” in which he doesn’t plant anything. In other series, such as Wild Cubes (ongoing since 1991) and Portable Gardens (ongoing since 1994), he has, respectively, installed “inverted cages” in public city spaces to keep people out and allow plant life to repopulate the space as it wishes and placed soil-filled plastic containers in different locations, leaving to chance which seeds will take root in them. After his intervention, ruderals, commonly called “weeds,” take over to complete the work. These minimalist actions constitute, in my sense, a form of gesture of artistic care, and they challenge the role of the artist-gardener by proposing what Myers calls “counter-gardens” or “gardens against Eden”—that is, a form of non-gardening that disrupts aesthetic norms and takes root in the most improbable spaces.22 22 - Myers, “Edenic Apocalypse,” 124. By not intervening in these counter-gardens, Weinberger honours a ruderal ecology that does not fit with the conventional concept of the garden.

87_DO02_White_Weinberger_Wild Cube
Lois Weinberger
Wild CubeRuderal Enclosure – a Poetic Fieldwork, Innsbruck, 1991/99.
Photo: Gerbert Weinberger, courtesy of the artist

In the wake of Weingberger’s minimalist interventions, White highlights Diane Borsato’s work How to Eat Light (2003), which consists of doing nothing—or, at least, as little as possible—but in a conscious way, to cultivate a better relationship with plants. In a durational performance, Borsato sits still near a window in the company of houseplants for an entire day. As she tries to imitate how they feed themselves on light, she immerses herself in the perspective of these plants and embodies, in a way, the hybrid figure of the planthropos suggested by Myers.


Published at the very beginning of the slowdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, when houseplants were keeping us company during the lockdown, issue no. 99 proposed a radical reframing of ways to relate to plant life. In her editorial, Babin notes that “humanity is slowly daring to change the status of plants from utilitarian or decorative objects to fully fledged living things.”23 23 - Sylvette Babin, “What Plants Tell Us,” Esse, no. 99 (Spring–Summer 2020). This change in status is skilfully illustrated in the essay by Emma Lansdowne,24 24 - Emma Lansdowne, “The Question of Plant Consciousness in Contemporary Art,” Esse, no. 99 (Spring–Summer 2020). who looks at the agency, consciousness, and even sentience of plants. Lansdowne, a horticulturist and academic, draws on her interdisciplinary knowledge to propose an ethics of consent with regard to the use that artists make of plants in their work.

In her introduction, Lansdowne critiques the Euro-Western scientific tradition, which, unlike indigenous epistemologies, has been slow to recognize a form of plant intelligence. She explains that, “for some indigenous people … the boundaries between human and nonhuman are fluid.” Even as it seems essential to learn from plants how to free ourselves from an anthropocentric vision of the world, we must remember that these ideas are not new but have been obscured over many centuries of colonialism and domination by Western frameworks of thought. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a mother, biologist, and professor from the Potawatomi Nation, suggests a change of paradigm by reviving the language of animacy characteristic of childhood: “Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to … When we tell them that the tree is not a who but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation.”25 25 - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 57.

Whereas scientific language distances its subject—thingifies it—a grammar of the living, as it exists among young children and in most indigenous languages, would recognize the agency of beings other than humans by, for instance, treating a tree as a person instead of an object. Such a grammar would have the potential to inspire reciprocity and mutual empathy that could be deployed in the garden and form the basis for an ethics of consent by plant beings invited into the realm of art.

This recognition of the agency and consciousness of plants is palpable in the work In the Same Breath by Alicia Nauta and Joële Walinga, who enter into direct communication with plants to share memories. Over several months, each of them confided in a plant, imbuing it with the breath of their words. Lansdowne describes how they then distilled cuttings of these plants to “extract aromatic essences … in order to explore the ways in which plants perceive information and how such information might manifest physiologically.” What they were trying to materialize was the plant’s possible absorption of the memories that were told to it and stored in its memory, which it would reformulate in the form of a plant scent. By appealing to the sense of smell to convey information, the work suggests a distancing from human language and an imagining what might constitute an exchange in the plant world: a form of Planthroposcene language.

Alicia Nauta & Joële Walinga
In The Same Breath, Rejection and Ice Cream on the Wood Shed, video still, 2018.
Photo: courtesy of the artists

Gardening Like a Plant

My digital residency is ending at the very place it began. In the middle of the garden, in the company of cats sprawled in the sun, I watch my daughter pick a few mint leaves for refreshment as the July heat wave begins. I’m trying to see what is situated beyond the scene taking place in front of me. I’m amazed at the vitality and resilience of plants given that just a few months ago, the garden was in an utterly different state, seeming dead and frozen.

The works and reflections that I was in contact with over the last few months highlight the entanglement of affects that influence the way in which plant, human, and other-than-human beings relate to one another. I think of Borsato, who tried to imitate plant life by taking sustenance from light, and I sit still and let the sun’s rays warm my face. I observe the self-propagating plants settling into the flower beds around our house—ferns, goldenrod, mullein, burdock, and all the others whose names I don’t know that have taken root in recent years. Like Weinberger, I let them be. Silently, I imagine how they might communicate, in a language based on senses probably beyond my perception.

In an interview, Myers asked the following questions: “What would it mean to grow a garden not just for us, but for the pollinators, the animals, all the other creatures; to garden as a way to cleanse the waters, airs, and soils for everyone else? … Can we rearrange our relations, from relations of extraction to relations where we see ourselves in service of plants, and therefore planetary life?”26 26 - Georgina Reid, “Welcome to the Planthroposcene: A Conversation with Natasha Myers,” Wonderground, no. 1 (2020).

I add a personal reflection that emerges upon the reading of these three essays: how could one learn to garden for—or, rather, like—a plant? These thoughts have not yet been resolved, but they continue to inhabit me when I garden and, I hope, will influence how my daughter relates to the living world. As this digital residency ends, I reach the conclusion that the gestures of care, both artistic and not, made in the garden end up with a lack of control over plant life, a greater proximity with the living beings growing there, and, certainly, sensitivity toward what plants would like to transmit to us. So, I try, in my turn, to distance myself from an Edenic and productivist vision of the garden to leave room for chaos, the agency of plants, empathy, and care, while trying to embody everything that the Planthroposcene may decide to have blossom in my garden and the world of which it is part.

Originally from Lac-Mégantic, Noémie Fortin is an independent curator, writer and cultural worker based in the Eastern Townships. She and her family live on the traditional and unceded territory of the W8banaki Nation, the Ndakina, where she is involved in artistic, agricultural and community projects and processes focused on caring for living things. Attuned to forms and practices grounded in an ecofeminist approach, her research focuses on ecological art that moves out of the institution to engage directly with territories and communities, particularly in rural areas.

Links to the articles cited: Isadora Chicoine-Marinier Amanda White Emma Lansdowne

Alicia Nauta, Catherine Bodmer, Diane Borsato, Joële Walinga, Joseph Beuys, Lois Weinberger, Noémie Fortin
Alicia Nauta, Catherine Bodmer, Diane Borsato, Joële Walinga, Joseph Beuys, Lois Weinberger, Noémie Fortin
Alicia Nauta, Catherine Bodmer, Diane Borsato, Joële Walinga, Joseph Beuys, Lois Weinberger, Noémie Fortin

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