The Adelaide Botanic Gardens holds the richest botanical collection in South Australia.
The living collections describe the beauty, peace and tranquillity that define our experience of the Gardens. But perhaps the Gardens are equally well described by our experience – by the memories intimately entwined with the Gardens. Indeed, the Gardens might also be the richest collection of memories in South Australia.
Our experience of the Gardens follows the courses of our lives – from immersion to exploration, from commitment to celebration, from observation to reflection.
The title here, Landscape and Memory, acknowledges Simon Schama’s 1995 eponymous landmark exploration of the relationship between landscape and culture – a foundational theme for gardens in general and for botanic gardens as a special case. Landscape and memory also forms the subject of the current exhibition in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany entitled Garden/Archive. This experimental exhibition is the culmination of Melbourne-based artist Jess Hood’s PhD research The Botanic Garden: Photographic Relation and Exchange, which seeks to work with an idea of the garden as a ‘living’ archive, by relating photography to an experience of the garden itself.
The work takes as its starting point a series of black and white glass lantern slides of trees, taken in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens around the 1920s and the prints of these slides sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London in 1931. The setting – the Santos Museum of Economic Botany – a museum facilitating and showcasing memory is integral to the work.
The Museum was a key platform for the institutional relationship between Adelaide and Kew Gardens – a relationship based on the exchange of plants, objects (including images) and ideas.
Hood embarked upon reproducing the series (in The Frame of the Tree) – this time as colour transparencies, in a similar format to the lantern slides (8 x 9 cm), taken both in Adelaide and Kew Gardens. Hood acknowledges the purpose of botanic gardens as an institutional framework for enquiry into plants, while exploring the nature of the observer, both as an institution and as an individual. From an individual’s perspective the changes evident in the images and the changes experienced through memory represent different dimensions.
The exhibition also includes Equinox – a conceptual work that traces the sun and the interior of the Gardens’ Palm House through a series of still photographs taken every four-and-a-half minutes at the equinox. In turn the photographs are projected in real time, at the actual time of day they were taken. The connection between the space of the Palm House and the space of the exhibition is one that might easily be accessed by viewers to relate these differing perspectives.
Seeing gardens in spatial and temporal terms from the multiple histories of viewers’ perspectives is important. The usual definitions of gardens relate to a separation from the wild – garden derives from a fenced or protected area. While these definitions are valid, alternative definitions are equally legitimate and have a
great deal to tell us about our relationship with our environment and with each other. In this sense Hood’s work resonates with some of the threads running through the Earth Perfect: Nature, Utopia & the Garden symposium I was invited to at the University of Delaware in June.
Robert Finley’s understated reflection on Canadian poet Marlene Creates’ work during the symposium seems apt. In his exploration of Creates’ Boreal Poetry Garden on six acres of forest just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland, Finley meditates on what constitutes a garden. In the absence of cultivation Creates’ garden is defined by her presence and her relationship with the land expressed through site poems – perhaps even more clearly than her work as a photographer and land artist. Finley suggests an alternative gardener’s tool kit to tend Creates’ garden – acknowledged transience, lightness of touch (or reticence), impressionability, a devotion to the ineffable qualities of places and attention to their multiple histories. Such a gardener’s tool kit is rooted in our relationship with a place rather than to planting of seeds and cultivation.
Certainly our experience of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens in particular, and gardens in general, is as much about our construction through our experience and memories as about the change that can be documented and archived. As Creates observes, ‘The distance between two (places) is measured in memories’.
While the concept of garden defines garden literature the idea of cultivation is more significant here. In Finley’s exploration he observes the etymology; ‘The word ‘cultivate’ leads back to the Indo-European root Kwel – to revolve, circle, wheel, all of which we can see in the action of the plow or the spade on soil: a turning over. But it carries these other meanings too: to move around, sojourn, inhabit, and to dwell.’ Perhaps the nature of our relationship with the place we inhabit is as much a garden as the physical act of cultivation.
Garden/Archive by Jess Hood exhibition runs from Monday, September 2 to Sunday, September 29 (closed on September 23) at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 20 September 2013.