Artist-in-Residence Alix Villanueva, with Paul Koutselos and Zoë Grüber: The Hortus Porosus at Ghost Time

At the start of April, ASN artist-in-residence Alix Villanueva held a show in the Tent Gallery as part of her residency, with sound composer Paul Koutselos and costume designer Zoë Grüber. The show explored the dual porous and enclosed qualities of gardens, alongside how they can be read as spaces of high creativity, especially for women, who across literature have been associated with, and bound to, enclosed gardens.

 

 

Upon entering the space, one is plunged into Koutselos’ soundscape, which starts off as watery, only to shift into Ghost Time, signalled by bells and a warping of the sound. Ghost Time is an imagined temporality that emerged out of a conversation between Paul and Alix, in which transgressions occur across realms, across what exists inside the rotting fruit, under the compost lid, alongside the cracks, inside repurposed bathtubs….
Ghost Time is an agitated-stillness, a still-agitation. A fomenting/fermenting ground. Water just before it boils. The soundscape, which loops the shift across Garden Time and Ghost Time, produces different readings of the space and artwork, but keeps the installation grounded inside the garden and at times pushes us out of the domestic feel of the work, of its pillows and book, drapes and clothes.

 

 

On the left hand side, just off the wall, sits an altar carrying a large triptych. The latter evokes the hortus conclusus triptychs that were present in nunneries, used as portable objects of worship. Within these depictions of hortus conclusus, each plant held symbolic weight associated to a corresponding virtue. There was often a fountain present in the painting, echoing Solomon’s comparison of his virtuous “beloved” to a sealed fountain and an enclosed garden. In Alix Villanueva’s triptych, invasive and poisonous plants such as Giant Hogweed exist alongside plants considered simultaneously to be “weeds” and healing plants depending on their context: Dandelions, Nettles, Broadleaf Plantain…  The central panel holds a lonely bathtub, evoking the domestic re-cycling that happens within community gardens and referencing the garden in which the artist was in residency in the late autumn months of 2018, the POD’s CV5 allotment in Coventry.  The bathtub holds the space of the traditional water-feature within the hortus conclusus, but it is stagnant and carries strong sensual references. These are explored in the ghostly text panels on the first wall on the right, through a text entitled “On Bathing”.

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There is a strong sense of self-awareness within the triptych, but this self-awareness is fractured, fragmented, erased. A scratched-out self portrait on the right panel is sat opposite a decontextualised hand, holding secateurs and cutting the hair of a ghostly apparition in a mirror, on the left panel. This sense of fragmentation is a recurring theme throughout the installation: a small mirror sitting at eye-level of the viewer, a lonely charcoaled hand hung under a bough of ivy, recurring references to Bonnard’s photographs in which parts of his wife are obscured, a lonely hand opening rose-hips in the film “Bonnard, the Hand and the Maggot”…

 

On the left-hand side of the triptych, next to a dried and splattered rose-hip, a small funerary velvet pillow holds a fly and a bumblebee, facing each other. They are given an anthropomorphic post-mortem importance. The motif of the fly will come back a few times throughout the show, as a maggot in the film, as a series of dead flies in the book and at the bottom of the central panel of the triptych, maintaining the artist’s obsession with repetitive imagery. The death of the fly is important in that it is an image that culturally represents death, disease, uncleanliness… The importance given to the fly elevates it from this status and recognises it as a harbinger of new life that emerges out of death.

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On the right-hand side of the altar, various seed-pods collected at the CV5 allotment are displayed on a small “bed of nails” made from cast-iron. At the first glance, it is unclear what purpose the object might hold, but it evokes objects for self-flagellation, carrying forward the theme of religious or spiritual devotion.

At the centre of the altar, in front of the triptych, an artist book is laid out on top of a  cloth doily. The book appears to be about nothing in particular, noting things like strange weather events, a black and white photograph of the artist’s kitchen by candlelight, a drawing of a walnut tree, a list of different temporalities… It is fragmented and reads like a journal, but there is a coherence throughout with themes emerging such as death, loss,  and a deep sense of self-awareness.

 

There is a black velvet pillow in front of the altar, inviting the viewer to kneel as they contemplate.

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Further along the gallery space, on the left wall, one’s gaze is met by a spectral form. A collaboration between Zoë Grüber and Alix Villanueva, the garden shroud stands on its hanger, far from the wall on a clothes horse evoking Edinburgh tenement-style drying racks, with their thin white ropes. The shroud holds space like some sort of ghost or spectre, but offers the viewer a sense of soft domesticity. It is made of porous muslin, with attaches all down the front, ready to receive a body and carry it across to the Other World.

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Beyond the shroud, and on the ledge, off to the left, a steel cooking pot sits, lid open, containing ivy, baby’s tears, or helxin soleirolii, and drops of lavender oil. The pot as a choice of vessel is an allusion to the interesting relationship between allotments and re-purposed domestic objects. The garden, as a space, teeters between a domestic and wild space, populated by what we recognise as Nature, and yet patrolled and controlled by the hand of man and woman. Above the pot, a charcoaled hand seems to be reaching in. It does not have a body.

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In the far right corner of the gallery, in the windowed alcove, another black velvet pillow beckons the viewer to sit. When in position, the person is sheltered from view, with muslin curtains blocking off the outside world on the right. The only thing the person can focus on is a fragment of themselves that appears in the small hand-mirror attached to the wall and the projected video playing on a loop.

 

 

The film, entitled “Bonnard, the Hand and the Maggot”, is a senseless, eccentric story in which a protagonist, of which we only ever see the hand, enters a sort of dance with the French artist Pierre Bonnard around a garden, whilst looking for the latter’s wife, Marthe. The relationship between Pierre and Marthe Bonnard is a fascinating one for Alix, for in the literature around the male artist’s life, Marthe is either portrayed as a negative influence, as the cause for his isolation and, therefore, fascination for interiors or as a lifeless corpse that Bonnard has either decapitated in his photography or lain, insentient and Ophelia-like, at the bottom of a bathtub. She is never given any agency, within the literature written about the Bonnards, as a woman and artist.

The film touches upon the exhibition’s recurring themes, such as the creative and fruitful relationship between death and life (as seen through the maggot dance), fragmentation of the self and the body (as seen through the decontextualised hands and use of mirrors, as well as the photographs of Marthe), and the relationship between interior and exterior spaces, domesticity and wilderness (in the way windows are created within the garden, and strange, black velvet backdrops merge with gardenly processes such as decomposition). The film exists on a loop and is shorter than Koutselos’ sound piece, giving each viewing a different feel, depending on what segments are viewed in Garden Time and what segments are viewed in Ghost Time.

 

 

Upon the right-hand wall, the viewer is met by three large format pieces of cream paper. When one gets closer, one can begin to see text appearing. It is ghostly and evasive, with certain words manifesting in shades darker than others. The writing, in its form, engages the reader in a feat of active reading, deciphering the fading text. It is evocative of the faded engravings one can find in cemeteries, on moss-covered tomb-stones. The text is entitled “On Bathing” and follows Alix’s personal relationship with bathtubs and bathing. It reads like a train of thought, an exploration structured around the act of encountering the bathtubs at the CV5 allotment, in real tangible time, and all the strands of thought such an encounter has provoked.

 

 

 

Hortus porosus is an on-going project testing the boundaries of the garden as a zone of simultaneous enclosure and porosity, teetering between control and wilderness. Future manifestations of it are projected to appear in the coming months, notably in the form of a further audio-visual collaboration between Alix Villanueva and Paul Koutselos.

 

 

 

 

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