The garden and the park, at least in all cases it isn’t a
natural park, are to be understood as artificial dipositions, of
which the structure and articulation are geometric or fantastic
in type, of terrains partly or entirely cultivated in order to achieve
an aesthetic result.
In general parks and gardens contain one or more architectural
structures as their extension into the environment or the landscape.
The garden also appears as one of the main iconographical motifs
of carpets and tapestries. In which case a symbolic value is attached
to the decorative value, a symbolic value which also appears in
literature every time parks and gardens are its subject.
The idea of the garden is originally related to the idea of the
superiority of man over nature. Nature, the first other-than-the-self
of both mankind and of the individual subject, was to be stripped
of its fearsome features and negative effects, a process which took
place in an aesthetic key.
In the practical and therefore structural sense, the garden is
simply the aesthetic transformation of the orchard and the vegetable
garden. From this stems the choice of plants to be cultivated, the
best and the most beautiful according to the aesthetic criteria
of a culture and a civilization. Their distribution and design however,
are in various cultures related to aesthetic, ideal and symbolic
functions. And it is here that the specifically architectural nature
of the garden reveals itself. Because of both these characteristics,
the agricultural and the architectural, the site is of importance.
The garden is always directly connected to the natural conditions
of a place, even in those extreme cases where the connection is
established as an opposition. On the basis of these premises we
can say that the garden corresponds to three types of definition:
- the concept of nature as beautiful and propitious in its own
- the notion that the beauty and beneficence of nature can be
enhanced in their manifestation by human intervention;
- the positive endeavour of nature and the human project to find
in the garden a place to meet, with neither as a source of substantial
damage to the other.
At the level of symbolism, two primary models can be identified,
both of which are to be found in civilizations and cultures at considerable
distances in time and space. The first is the religious model. “And
the Lord God planted a garden eastward of Eden; and here he put
the man whom he had formed” , reads the Book of Genesis. A
tree, the tree of life (a structure symbolically connecting above
and below, the superior and the inferior, the lightness of the air
into which it extends its branches and where the spirit of the wind
blows, and the gravity of the earth into which it sinks its roots
and whence it springs) and a fountain, the fons vitae (the source
of the primal waters which originate all life, dispel all thirst
and wash away all ordure) are the essential elements of the primitive
tem-ples predating all architectural structures. Trees and fountains
are equally essential components of the garden, even if in themselves,
together or separately, they do not yet form a garden. But still
they are what we could call its germinal elements. The other model
is closely related to the first and is more cultural in a generic
sense: the garden as a memory to be recovered or an image to be
realised, the memory or the image of a condition of harmony between
man and nature, and, at the same time, the mark of a level of civilization
that prompts this memory or that proposed harmony to impose itself
as the manifestation of a balance to be recovered or to be attained.
At the level of structure, the first element to be considered is
established by the definition of the garden’s limits, by its
enclosement, mostly by a real and proper wall which, while aiming
to distinguish the garden from everything that is not garden, only
marks the separation from everything that surrounds it. Unlike other
enclosements, the wall that encloses the garden has a positive value:
the limit marks the difference between inside and outside and always
defines that what is inside as positive. The necessity of a limit
immediately relates the garden to architecture, of which it is,
as remarked above, either an embellishment or an extension. But
the structure of the garden is already architectural in its own
right, even if of a highly particular kind, since it is characterised
by openness and constant positivity. And to make the matter more
complicated, real architectural structures are part of the garden.
In effect, it is an architectural container of architectural structures
which mostly have been deliberately designed for it and which, on
a par and in conjunc-
tion with the vegetation, define its specific identity.
The garden differs from architecture by virtue of its ultimate
uselessness, like an extravagance or a luxury. It serves no practical
purpose. It doesn’t produce. And although utilitarian or productive
activities can take place in the garden, they have nothing to do
with its essence. The garden is a construction and therefore a product,
but an exquisitely unproductive product.
Since the Enlightenment, the garden’s inherent uselessness,
its status as a highly civilized luxury, acquired a social and pedagogical
function. The original model was inverted: it no longer dealt with
cultivating nature by way of human intervention but of educating
the human being to appreciate the values presumedly inherent to
nature (Jean-Jacques Rousseau), thus diverting the human being from
the utilitarian values that produce the non-garden. The non-garden
is now no longer nature, but the world of the city and of production.
This world was not perceived as a hostile or inimical entity in
the same way as nature was originally experienced, but as a degrad-
ing condition confronting the true essence of mankind.
This inversion remained unchanged up until the present. While nature
was once the enemy to be tamed by the human project, now, in its
tamed and educated form of the garden, it became the refuge in which
to recover from the disasters and discomforts - both social and
psychological - provoked by the human project itself, by the whole
of human civilization, from which we have to defend ourselves just
as originally we had to seek safety from the aggression of nature
by withdrawing into that very same garden.
What remained unchanged is the fact that the garden is still the
other world, other than the world in which the individual and the
community lead their actual existence. An “other world”
which is always ideal. Even if this ideal manifests itself in the
concrete forms which are materially present in the garden, it is
never fulfilled. As the allegory of a world lost or ready to be
regained, the garden is and always remains an island that is not
In this respect it has something to do with art, or at least with
a specific conception of art. This is why the garden in the course
of time has
come to be associated with paradise, with dream, with Utopia.
The garden is the nearest imitation
to all imitations, we witness the perfectly visual and unreachable.
It is man watching, not knowing, no paradises, no grottos, follys
or paths, no direction and certainly no indication. All is perfect
recognition, the garden imitating the garden, the garden where nobody
walks, but observes.
The Twentyfour Men in White,
Maison de la Culture,
Saint-Etienne, 1988, p. 24
It also has something to do with the art of Fortuyn/O’Brien.
Or perhaps it is better to say that Fortuyn/O’Brien has something
to do with the garden. Or again, that the garden is a reference,
figure and place in Fortuyn/ O’Brien’s art.
Fortuyn/O’Brien’s work is quite clearly an artificial
disposition, of which the structure and articulation are geometric
or fantastic in type (I think the terms can apply) of objects and
spaces (many more spaces than objects in recent years) in order
to achieve an aesthetic effect. Each of Fortuyn/O’Brien’s
works is also concerned with architecture and design: it makes use
of the modes of these forms of expression and construction while
in no way identifying with them, and indeed while seeing them, directly
or indirectly, as a pole of opposition.
Fortuyn/O’Brien appeared on the scene at the same time as
artists like Jan Vercruysse and Jean-Marc Bustamante, who addressed
similar issues. This situation was typical of the art of the 1980s,
when the opposition between art and architecture grew quite strident.
The battle receded at the end of the decade, with neither losers
nor winners. The artists’ aspiration to construct an exemplary
if not exclusive model of civilization - of civilization more than
of culture - remained unrealized. The world pursued its own course
and it isn’t the one the artists projected. In the same way
as architecture reached the end of its ideal at the moment when
modernism went into the crisis that permitted the appearance of
The quality of each of the works of Fortuyn/O’Brien, no less
than of the whole of the work and its overall evolution, derives
from the convergence of two canons of form: decoration and imitation.
Both of these canons have a long and ample artistic tradition, in
art, and not only that of the West, as well as in the so-called
applied arts and crafts.
The use of decoration and the decorative premise places the work
of Fortuyn/O’Brien within the project of Modernism. The moment
that defined the concept of style also turned decoration into one
of its constitutive elements: the distinction between Gothic and
Renaissance, even if codified a posteriori, lies in some ways at
the origin of that definition, but the concept of style found its
greatest development and precision in the eighteenth century.
And it has since remained unchanged, up until the time in which
we ourselves witnessed its deflagration: a deflagration that reduces
the scope of its meaning and in some ways constitutes its end. The
metamorphosis of style into fashion is its most strident consequence.
The work of Fortuyn/O’Brien takes account of this deflagration
and places itself slightly previous to this metamorphosis. (Which
was chosen as the term of reference by the next generation, starting
with the variegated phenomenon of “Young British Art”
and as well with the new positive attitude which is, in a far less
clamorous way, articulated today: I am thinking of artists like
Vanessa Beecroft, Tobias Rehberger, Wolfgang Tillmans and Sharon
Imitation is confronted by Fortuyn/O’Brien in all of its
complexity, covering the vast spectrum that includes both mimesis
and kitsch. Mimesis is the fundamental basis of all forms of Western
expression, from poetry and literature to art. But Fortuyn/O’Brien
is aware of the transformation of this concept in the tradition
that extends from Aristotle to Lessing, and to its rupture caused
by German Romantics like Fichte and Novalis. Kitsch, on the other
hand, is the ever present mode of expression which has constantly
undermined the Modernist ideology.
Fortuyn/O’Brien makes use of imitation as an instrument of
a mise-en-distance, which is considered as inherent to the practice
and specificity of art, and of identification and this divergence
forms its very foundation. A divergence that separates both art
and language from things, a distance tinged with the colours of
irony and melancholy. Irony and melancholy meet in the work of Fortuyn/O’Brien
and each, in turn, prevails upon the other, according to periods
and circumstances which, just as in life, continually come and go,
always responding to one another, even if neither can ever establish
an absolute victory, nor a clear and definitive separation.
When they converge and meet in a single point (a work, or only
a title, or a single component of a work) paradox is the effect,
which sublimates both in a moment of rapt folly. And this is even
more the case since Fortuyn/O’Brien always combines the distance
of art with a desire for proximity, the desire to be close to things,
to things marked by passions and desires (Marcel Proust), the passions
and desires of others that the artist aims to recognize and feel,
not with the intent of appropriation but caused by a profound sympathy.
And this sympathy is also the meeting place of irony (the distance
between myself and what I look at allows me this attitude) and melancholy
(the same distance inexorably separates me from the things I want
to be close to).
Decoration and imitation thus become the terms and tools of a delicate
and at the same time they confirm the artist’s self-awareness.
A fabric printed with flowers is not a meadow; perhaps it is not
even a desire for a meadow: House and Garden;
A dry bough soaked in latex is not a plant: Growth,
A bronze trunk is not a tree, nor is a group of such trunks a forest:
Collection Spring 1997, 1997.
A terracotta dog is not a dog: Cave Canem,
What is not there is not a presence: Reserve,
Of the jasmine and the lavender, of the magnolia and the rose, my
skin bears only the fragrance, which soon evaporates: The
Bathroom Piece, 1999.
Of open spaces, the memory: Cityscapes,
A puppet is not our small redemptive hero, and I am frightened by
its silence: Hmmm, 1997.
The interior is not the exterior. Closed spaces are not open spaces:
above all Rear View, 1999.
The geraniums continued to die.
A reflection is not what it reflects: Obsolete
But the following things are evoked by puzzles (Neighbours,
the kitchen with the cat,
the child’s room,
the desk with (my/his) personal things,
the computer in front of an open French window,
a girl absorbed in reading in the protective half-shadow of a café,
a man who looks out from a large window,
chairs turned upside-down on tables after closing hours.
And in the background of each image the Museum imposes its particular
an inevitable memento.
We create nothing, express nothing; we only
discover or uncover what is already there.
Gary Goldschneider, The Secret Language of Birthdays,
Meditation for March 20, Irene Droogleever Fortuyn’s birthday.
Fortuyn/O’Brien’s attitude, like that of the other
artists of the same generation, is distinctly positive. (This is
primarily a cultural generation rather than one of age and includes
others as well as the two artists already mentioned above as Fortuyn/O’Brien’s
companions at the start of the road; here it’s worthwhile
to mention at least one other Dutch artist: Niek Kemps.) If this
attitude is in any way critical, as in fact it is, that criticism
is first of all implicit. Everything negative lies upstream from
the work. Negation lies not in the gaze - un regard toujours amoureux,
the limpid and steady gaze of the artist - but in the conditions
that history and tradition have imposed on the things they observe.
The Utopian project of modern architecture and historical design
(from William Morris to the Bauhaus, to the much more pervasive
project which came into being in Europe, the United States, and
Japan in the period following the Second World War, that would continue
until the crisis of post-modernism, and which still cannot be declared
extinct) tends to root itself in a positive vision, of which the
ethical bias is sustained by the need for economic production, on
the premise of a progressive and expanding economy. But at the very
same time this positive impulse turns a programmatically blind eye
to the “ugliness” of the world: to the ways in which
civilization has produced this “ugliness.” Architecture
and design place themselves beyond, and, in their own way, above
the conditions in which reality takes place. They envision a “superior”
aesthetics that tends to impose itself upon and correct an “inferior”
reality. In this respect, architecture and design are animated by
a pedagogic spirit, driven from above, that assigns itself the task
-primarily ethical and political, and only subsequently aesthetic
- of shaping social taste, the modalities of the environmental context,
and the behaviour patterns of the community and of the individual.
Modern art, in the assertion of its right to self-determination,
ignores this distinction between “superior” and “inferior”
and assumes its position at a zero point where individual reactions
and effects/affects are of more importance than any global project,
as determined by a myth, a faith or an ideology, and is likewise
of greater weight than the social demands induced by the dominant
culture of any given epoch. Art privileges the subject rather than
a collective will.
This is the vantage point assumed by the work of Fortuyn/O’Brien,
as it takes off in various directions. One is the direction of the
habitat. The habitat as the place where life takes place, the house
that houses life.
That place where things arrange themselves in a “happy”
(felix) order, but as well where we place those things (where we
“set” them in the sense that a gardener would use that
word) which we have encountered along our path in the course of
the voyage of existence and which hold a certain positive meaning:
those things which articulate Baudelaire’s triad, in Invitation
au voyage, of “Luxe, calme et volupté” as then
passed on by Matisse toward a venturesome landing on the shores
of the present.
Another is the recognition of nature as the genesis of form: a
recognition achieved through the mechanisms of memory (the atavistic
memory of the species, the collective memory of the culture of the
society to which one belongs, and the personal memory of individual
experience) and by way of the various techniques which have come
into existence in the course of history for the construction and
reproduction of images. Techniques which now present themselves
as instruments not only of art, but also of all the other modes
of representation (sculpture,
The second direction turns toward the instruments of art, both
technical (to which we have already given consideration) and procedural,
as the means of a more direct and “autonomous” relationship
with the world and one’s own being in the world. (Relationships
are “heteronymous” when they hinge on any approach that
derives its structure from an ideological or practical discipline
that’s adopted a priori, before the act of construction, and
of which the product of the act of construction is an example, illustration
or demonstration.) This direction is obviously the one that is most
closely related to the domain of art and it roots the work of Fortuyn/O’Brien
in this specific context. But it is only one of its directions,
since the work also attempts to break out of the confinement to
a single discipline. All art of the twentieth century has searched
for this opening even though this is opposed by the very same system,
of which it is a part and which has as its purpose to protect and
This leads to a final direction, which reflects upon the step beyond
the isolation of a discipline and a system and which moves toward
a beyond, an otherwhere, a place which can only be defined by the
air that blows from and within it. We are not beyond the threshold.
We are standing in between. In the materialized hypothesis of a
domain as ephemeral as happy. We have arrived at a way station of
our voyage, at a place that is part of two worlds, the one we occupy
and the one we strive for, and which bears traces of both: a place
where memories and reflections intertwine and fade-out. In the house
by the sea, in the glass house, in the winter garden, in the playroom,
and in the gardens at the end of time and life: Life as it
is lived, desired, imagined and reflected upon.
[She possessed a happy intelligence,
the grace of a stripling. No anxiety or pain, no matter how profound,
could touch her. Like the skies above that flat land of which the
light always remains intact and charged with its own clarity, no
matter how imposing the masses of clouds that move across it.]
Capalle-Amsterdam-Capalle, summer 1999