The garden can’t cope with itself: its paralysis?

Burghart Schmidt

Garden – the word stems from old forms meaning tracery or wire netting and is connected with trellis and belt, even with the Russian gorod equalling castle. For that reason, the German speakers correctly trans­lated Novgorod with Nauvgard. In a wider field, garden, figura­tively, means that which is enclosed, preserved, up to the courtyard. As a result, it is thoroughly designed, ordered, bred, cut out to the extreme by humans, taken out of nature in isolation, its own system cut off from the rest of nature, a central place of and refuge for breeding like the shed, something that provided the matter for weed. Weed is that which got through the isolative engirdling, the screening, thereby arriving at its imper­tinent place.

On the one hand, the allot­ments then looked like living rooms, brushed, ironed, swept and hovered, raked and washed. On the other hand, it could, much earlier than that, already come to the forti­fying immuring in the case of the city garden, namely since ancient times when city gardens had to be protected not only against the rest of nature but also against other humans. My garden is my castle! Just think of the many gardens in stony Venice, the visitor despite the public streets he uses, doesn’t get out of it. But then, he doesn’t need to, having so many views out to the water of the lagoon. Gardens, then, since the earliest days seen as the left over of nature, completely designed by humans. This is what Reiner Matysik’s early works corre­sponded to, designing a world of plants from the imagi­nation, including an accom­panying fragmentary classi­fi­cation ironi­cally orien­tated along Linné. The accom­panying orien­tation along Linné is, however, one of the reasons why Matysik’s plant-inventing imagi­nation is mostly directed towards the sexual organs, the flowers, to which Carl von Linné had fitted his classification. 

The other reason can be found in a dream, told by Matysik himself, about the delimited commu­ni­cation between humans and the world of plants. There is a lot of talk about such kinds of commu­ni­cation nowadays. Man starts to speak with plants, which is meant to help them, plants and floral lands­capes as images are used in psycho­therapy, which helps human beings. But this is about a herme­neutic type of commu­ni­cation, a certain kind of under­standing (a book by Ingrid Greisen­egger containing some of this matter will be published soon: Wieviel Garten braucht der Mensch? Wien 2003). Matysik, however, means more than this: an erotic inter­course up to repro­duction mixing humans and plants in a quali­tative trans­for­mation. This has to be reached immediately, metapho­ri­cally – or: artis­ti­cally –, even if directly impos­sible in reality and possible only symbo­li­cally, if we leave the science fiction type of genetic technology aside, to which it might appear as an objec­tively real possibility.

There has been an old tradition of fantastical trans­for­ma­tions of the appearances of plants and animals from Rococo up to Mannerism, back to Romance forms, back to the monsters of ancient times, back to the whole history of ornament. Especially for the Mannerist tradition, what appeared were terms of inter­pre­tation, for example referring to Hiero­nymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel: the montage plant and the montage animal, pointing at the fact that they are not completely new inven­tions of the imagi­nation but trans­for­ma­tions, trans­for­mative compo­si­tions, or trans­for­mative isola­tions, enlar­ge­ments or reduc­tions of a given world. And this can also be seen in Matysik’s new world of plants. He, however, doesn’t really mean the fantasy aspect of the plants’ new appearances, only perhaps in their inter­pre­tative effect of symbolism, but rather the commu­ni­cative inter­course with them by way of perfor­mance. But wherever this hints at a sexual commu­ni­cation up to repro­duction, it has to include a symbo­lical meaning.

One might wonder why Matysik so obviously felt the necessity for including a theory of genetic technology into his artistic repre­sen­tation which seems to be calling for a meaning of these techno­lo­gical horizons beyond the dangers here ignored. Since such a theory cannot be got at by way of his compa­ra­tively crude artistic pheno­menal world, he doesn’t touch upon it, doesn’t take any respon­si­bility from the point of view of his work. What I mean, beyond the micro­scopic level, is the nanos­phere of a manipu­lation of the genetic programmes inherent in the desoxy­ri­bonu­cleic acid itself, including the dangers of the production of new micro­scopic germs and the production of programmes of deformed humans, in contrast to which the world of contergan defor­mities would only be the forecourt of hell. And if you think of the reali­sation with regard to the finished Utopian pheno­me­nality of what is desirable, as Matysik has formu­lated it repre­sen­ta­tio­nally, then all the latest develo­p­ments of genetic technology move within the realm of science fiction. The debate on the new human phenotype would be absurd anyway. Only in totali­tarian systems could the arbitrary decision be taken to make use of genetic engineering in the most evil horizon of something that is hopefully, hopefully on the other side of this world.

But this has nothing to do with what one can see and experience through Matysik’s artistic repre­sen­ta­tions. Only his texts might touch on it questionably. Their theore­tical basis, however, is still compre­hen­sible for me in the sense that it makes claims against an immediate and complete damnation of genetic research which, in any case, could be shielded from the dangers and insolu­b­ility of the absur­dities and from the dangers of hurriedly accele­rated appli­ca­tions of genetic engineering. Matysik’s enter­prise could indeed be understood artis­ti­cally in a negative Utopian sense, as has happened with the artistic designs against pollution of the Haus-Rucker group that were techno­lo­gi­cally as unrea­li­sable. This group was totally ambivalent, too, as I know from one of their members, Klaus Pinter. On the one hand, there was a rejection of pollution, on the other a fasci­nation for the techno­lo­gical possi­bi­lities of prevailing against pollution in a substitute world of isolation wards – total gardens.

However, in the case of Matysik’s artistic repre­sen­tation, a spin has to be added from the uncanny abyss between his fantasies and the spiral thinking of gene technology, in the sense that they introduce into Matysik’s fantasies a streak of the uncanny crossing the abyss or under­mining it. The negative Utopian only develops by way of a double turn. With Haus-Rucker, you could still swallow the fasci­nation unnoticed; with Matysik you have to realise its power of provo­cation. Otherwise, everything would be hunky dory, even genetic engineering would find its artistic adulation without problem, leaving out its proble­matic aspects. But then, the turn in its dupli­cation might be much more useful in intro­ducing a position of alarm into what seems a fasci­nation we all share with regard to the scien­tific progress of genetics. Let’s share it a bit further, up to the state of vomiting, this fascination.

Matysik, however, needs the recourse to genetic engineering for another aspect in order to create the assumed meaning of his work. He is concerned, in the name of commu­ni­cation, in the name of its unlimited distri­bution, with the opposite of indivi­dualism. Gene technology in its horizon as unlimited exchan­gea­bility and monta­gea­bility of programmes of inheri­tance would be the general elimi­nation of indivi­dua­listic indivi­duality. Indivi­duality would only be an element of montage.
On a first level, we could still follow the opposite to indivi­dualism – if the indivi­dualism of the late Euro-American type is concerned, which is codified in character and destiny from the cradle to the grave. Each indivi­dualist, then, is someone who is, as it were, codified from the cradle to the grave, a victim of his tenacious and lasting self-deter­mi­nation which is never to disap­point; self-control, self-restraint, self-disci­pline, which, stoically expressed, have led to the rough skin of a column.

This was something the Christian hope had already worked against two thousand years ago: “And behold, I will renew everything!” But the solution of renewal as a natural right to oppor­tu­nities (character always has to be real) does not mean the disso­lution of indivi­dualism. The disso­lution of indivi­dualism would always be a relapse or set back into mere nature. This has been shown to us in an anti-Utopian way by the totali­tarian systems of the 20th century with their cult of the New Man. They made it obvious that de-indivi­dua­lisers are always part of the relapse or set back into mere nature, never giving away their indivi­dualist indivi­duality but instead making the many others cogs in their machine – be it in the ideology of a racist technology of breeding, or in the more, if only deceit­fully so, Utopian ideology of a didactic technology working, too, with elements of the rather different depth psychology used for brainwashing.

Thus, one has to make an effort for an indivi­dualism beyond the post-existen­tialist complaints about the loss of indivi­duality and identity which have been heard since the 1970s. My objection to this has always been that, in contrast, we are still suffering from too many identities. For an indivi­dualism of changea­bility, of trans­for­mation, of educa­bility, one can learn a lot from those who have been wrongly accused by a despairing post-existen­tialism of the destruction of the subject, of identity, of indivi­duality, of character. Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault did indeed not only dissolve indivi­duality and by way of it indivi­dualism, they also situated them and created the theory of the relativity of indivi­dualism in the right sense of relativity and situation. Its meaning, as it were, is that the individual “doesn’t turn grey with every puddle which it looks at” – as Ernst Bloch remarked in criticism of the theory of environment (phrase by Ernst Bloch). Indivi­duality remains a changeable countermove within the situation; deter­mined by it, owning it in its deter­mi­nation and deter­mining it in the future.

It is in these ways that I under­stand Matysik, not in the ways of commu­ni­cation as an absolute merger, since this would be the relapse into mere nature as automatism without opposi­tio­nality. Or else, it would have not come to the long, extended strip of images which creates the main part of this book, taken from a video piece. A mixture of repre­sen­ta­tional fragments of landscape, plants, stones, animals, inters­persed with fantasy flowers, fantasy fragments of something; sometimes, fragments of reality are positioned against their reality to a kind of virtual overall structure. You have to follow the strip, basically turn it back into a film again, letting it pass like the landscape from a train window. At the same time, you are driven verti­cally into another short, moving across the long one.

The repre­sen­ta­tional work here relies on an analy­ti­cally synthe­sising observer, placing diachro­ni­cally what is in synchrony, who is an observing individual exclu­sively able to do exactly that. Were it dissolved into mere nature only, it could only perceive practi­cally, in the scheme of stimulus and reaction, something the totali­tarian masters of Hitlerism and Stalinism had headed for, to bring the individual into the scheme of stimulus and reaction, the scheme of action. This book, however, repre­sen­ta­tio­nally argues against the scheme of stimulus and reaction, which is against mere nature, and liberates Matysik’s idea of commu­ni­cation for its stronger sense of the merging of programmes always remaining in some contrast to each other by way of conti­nuous change. This is directed against machi­ni­sation and automa­ti­sation. And this means that indivi­dualism always starts again from mere nature, nature is only fantastic in the individual imagi­nation, fantasy only produced by it.

But do the effects of the extreme multi­plicity of struc­tures, figures and fragments in the multi­plicity of colours not seem close to the fantastic and the sublime, extremely close, like kitsch? The multi­plicity here reminds one of a living coral reef. And indeed, nature cannot be kitsch. The sentence, of course, is only true objec­tively; in a subjective view of nature, kitsch may well be possible. It can be sensed in the common admiration of sunrises and sunsets. And how did Max Frisch put it so nicely? They were standing at the railing, looked at the nightly sky across the sea; they talked about the stars, the usual stuff.

In Matysik’s strip of images, however, everything is working against the standards and norms of indus­trial kitsch. This is why everything reminds one of it and is every­where avoided, though. Whoever rushes at a kitsch motif is inter­rupted immediately. There is a garden insofar as natural landscape has been fragmented, thereby gaining the character of an island of simulation, as had been popular in English gardening for some time, to install small fragments of foreign lands­capes. And into the spaces between the fragments, which would otherwise overlap or join, move, writhe artificial plants, artificial animals, announcing garden from garden culti­vation. In total, however, it is a garden out of gardens in which no path can run out for a while in the gardening of everything and despite the flow of the film reel. This repre­sen­ta­tional restlessness alone works against any kitsch effect. As the strip is before us in comple­teness, the kitsch of the montage of prong images is prevented. Instead, the strip structure overturns into a series of inter­lo­cking labyrin­thian views.

If this wanted to turn from the motives of garden and enclosure via artificial plants and animals to a theory of genetic engineering, then a gene technology of the handi­craft type would suffice, being as old as farming and cattle breeding. It has done wonders with regard to the flowering of plants in terms of tradi­tional culti­vation and cross-breeding, also in terms of sexual metaphors. One only has to think of roses and carna­tions of multiple vagina­lities behind which the phallic disap­pears. Or think of the culti­vation of the Arum maculatum which can best be studied on the South Breton Belle-Île-en-Mer, aggra­vated many-eyed phalli behind which the vaginal disap­pears. But then, already the handi­craft type of genetic engineering was made metho­do­lo­gical by Darwin and Mendel, thereby trans­forming it into a technology. Soon after, an ideology attached itself to it which turned the intention of these experi­men­ta­lists and empiri­cists into its opposite. Both originals wanted to under­stand the emergence of new pheno­me­na­lities in life, the oncoming racism celebrated the re-breed of the aurochs and of the fair-haired beast. Darwin declared the change and mixture of genetic programmes as the central principal of life, racism preached the purity of races and, as a result, celebrated the reduction of survival.

The garden as the place of and refuge for breeding was, in conse­quence, ideolo­gi­cally preca­rious even before genetic engineering wanted to change the genetic programmes directly on the molecular level. But Matysik’s strip of images, by having gardens break into public nature and by fragmen­tising public nature into simulative island gardens, makes gardens break into themselves and lets nature break apart – the gardening of nature.