Garden of Romanticism

Up until the early 20th century the traditional Japanese garden remained an exclusively private space accessible usually only to the aristocracy and monks. The garden served as an object for meditative contemplation, where a person had the opportunity to gain awareness of the transience of the world. Subtle elegance, asymmetry, a tendency towards monochromy and a general refinement were among its key characteristics. The most important quality, however, remained absolute naturalness that was often achieved through the preservation and cultivation of a patina in the form of moss and rust, and also through the careful placement of fallen leaves or petals from plants that had finished flowering. The transience of all living things conveyed through substance (i.e. time that had been given a spatial form) was a key aspect of religious-aesthetic contemplation. The Japanese garden is a striking example of the cultural appropriation of nature in all its spatial and temporal grandeur.

When seen through the prism of Japanese aesthetics, Alexander Morozov’s installation, Garden of Romanticism, appears to represent a movement in the opposite direction – an appropriation of culture by nature. That is only a first impression, however. Issues of the German art magazines Dekorative Kunst and Die Kunst f?r аlle published exactly a century ago, in March 1914, and found by the artist at a book flea market included artistic reproductions of works by Anselm von Feuerbach, Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Seymour Haden, photographs of majolica, still lifes and other visual artefacts of the 19th century. The magazines had stood the test of time, but not without the scars to prove it – their damp pages were stained with mould. This mould in the form of indistinct greenish-grey or yellowish patches becomes a visual prism of time, a sort of natural frame for the artificial. This peculiar ready-made created by nature has become the main component of the installation, Garden of Romanticism. The artist produced prints of the reproductions touched up with semi-translucent paints that have moulds added. The result is a sort of deliberate conceptual tautology – the life of the reproduction is reproduced and given a chance to continue its existence, but now as an original (from which, incidentally, an imprint is nevertheless taken) that has been retouched by nature.

The subtle conceptual approach is, however, supplemented by the presence of a strong organic element – the fungal ornament growing on the sheets, to a large extent, sets the tone for the interpretation. Moulds and other fungi are classified within their own kingdom separated from the plants, as moulds and other fungi do not have chlorophyll and are heterotrophic. That is to say, they can only feed on other organisms, living or dead. Mould appears in a book as a consequence of a number of “favourable” conditions including humidity and the absence of sunlight. The main attraction, though, is cellulose, the chief component of the cell walls of plants. So the mould perceives the book not as a cultural object but as a part of the natural flora. The book becomes an ordinary wood-based structure, being broken down and absorbed by the moulds’ toxic enzymes. The artist notes the destructive function of the fungal mould and channels it in a creative direction. At the same time he refers the viewer to traditional practices that make use of fungi, such as fermentation and leavening that are generally accepted elements of the culinary art (the cultivation of natural elements).

It is worth noting that organic metaphors are not alien to abstract philosophical discourse, even when it is as remote from reality as post-modernism. Gilles Deleuze and F?lix Guattari, for example, make use of the enormous epistemological potential of the term rhizome (from the Ancient Greek for “mass of roots”). A plant’s tangled root system, the filaments of which regularly die off and grow anew, in which one can determine neither beginning nor end, and to which such concepts as centre and periphery cannot be applied, represents a philosophical metaphor capable of opposing the immutable linear structures of classical European thinking: “The rhizome does not allow itself to be reduced either to a unity or to a multiplicity. … It is not assembled from singularities, but from dimensions or, rather, mobile directions.”

The fungal mould in the installation certainly resonates with Deleuze’s and Guattari’s rhizomatic postulates, appearing to be a perpetually growing communal organic body. In actual fact a fungus is a collective organism consisting of very fine (1.5–10 microns) branching threads that can reach a length of 35 kilometres per gram. A fungus can also be regarded as a spreading organic system of communications composed of “mobile directions.” It is precisely this last aspect that plays a key role in the following important component of the installation – the marble and onyx blocks carved with various natural philosophical terms loosely belonging to the territory of German Idealism. The viewer is referred to them by the organics of the mould’s collective body, or rather, his attention is dispersed by means of such obsolete or outdated discursive categories as Gem?th (the capacity to feel, the soul), Irritabilit?t (receptiveness), Erdleben (the life of the Earth), Tonkunst (the art of sound) or Erlebnis (internal experience). Natural philosophy in its German Romantic version attempted to work out an integral system of general laws of natural science (“the great unity of nature”), working on the whole with speculative, metaphysical concepts. (Schelling, for example, called natural philosophy speculative or theoretical physics, while Novalis believed that natural philosophy should provide a symbolic description of natural science and create a new mythology of nature on the basis of the concept of a “world spirit”). Garden of Romanticism provides a basis for these contradictory philosophical searchings, encompassing them in the aesthetic space.

The philosophical concepts included in the installation are, for the most part, directly connected with nature and reflect an emphatically physiological subjective reaction to aesthetic experience. They reveal the exceptionally organic character of the Romantic experience. Moreover, the stone blocks are perhaps tombstones, perhaps memorials to a past era (the fact that they were carved by masons specializing in grave monuments will probably incline viewers to the former interpretation). These inscriptions – in a direct sense the imprints of time, the drawings of memory – are the physical traces of a vanished discourse. Jacques Derrida defines the term trace as “nothing, it is not anything real; it takes us beyond the bounds of the question ‘What is it?’” It is within this same stream of thought that Garden of Romanticism exists. It is a subtle play on the boundary of artificiality and life, artistic concept and natural reality, the (re)birth of speculative constructions and their death. The discourse lives on as a carved imprint-monument or a mould – a living substance that is either decomposing the semantic component or prolonging its existence.

Nariman Skakov, Assistant Professor
Division of Languages, Cultures and Literatures, Stanford University


Эстамп Urgund (первооснова)  





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