Histoire culturelle de l'Europe

Christel Pedersen

Wilderness Nostalgia. Post-apocalyptic gardens and urban wildscapes



Les jardins qui sont au cœur de la présente étude ne correspondent pas tous à la conception traditionnelle du jardin, en tant que terrain public ou privé, souvent mitoyen à une maison, où sont plantés des fleurs, des légumes, des arbres fruitiers, des herbes, du gazon ; le jardin est tantôt un espace de contemplation esthétique, tantôt un espace utilitaire et récréatif1. Dans de nombreux cas, il ne peut pas même porter le qualificatif de « nature » – ou du moins pas de nature digne de ce nom, selon des critères culturels esthétiques et utilitaires. Cette étude se consacre au jardin « post-naturel », à ces parcelles précaires de nature sauvage urbaine, impactées par l’industrialisation ou encore les intérêts du capital, et qui reflètent certaines positions théoriques et ontologiques contemporaines sur la nature. Ce jardin urbain « transgressif » est alors le lieu d’une réflexion critique sur notre propre agency vis-à-vis de l'environnement naturel et sur les hiérarchies qui façonnent nos sociétés humaines et notre perception du monde. Prenant comme point de départ la renégociation actuelle de l’interdépendance entre l’homme et la nature – telle qu’elle s’exprime dans les débats théoriques menés notamment par Bruno Latour et Andreas Malm –, la présente étude examinera ce nouveau type de jardin, en prenant notamment appui sur les travaux de Kylie Crane dans le champ de l’« écriture post-wilderness2 », qui constituent un cadre méthodologique pertinent et fructueux pour l’étude des œuvres d’art et installations présentées ci-dessous.


The gardens at the centre of the following examinations do not all conform to the traditional conception of a garden as an either public or private piece of land, often adjoining a house, where flowers, vegetables, fruit trees and herbs are cultivated and in many cases with a section of grass; a space for aesthetic contemplation, usefulness and recreational purposes3. In several cases they would not even qualify as nature – or at least not as a dignified, valuable nature according to prevalent cultural criteria of aesthetics and usefulness. Nevertheless, these precarious strips of urban wilderness, affected by industrialisation, capital interests etc., can, just as their stylised and orchestrated typological predecessors, be seen to reflect certain contemporary theoretical and ontological positions in regard to nature. As I will argue, they constitute a new transgressive genre within the overall category of urban gardens: the garden as a site for critical reflection on our own agency in relation to our natural environment and on the value hierarchies according to which we structure our human societies and perceptions of the world. With an outset in the current renegotiations of the interconnectedness of man and nature, as it unfolds within the theoretical debates pursued by Bruno Latour, Andreas Malm and others, the present paper will examine this new type of garden; the post-natural garden. As a methodological framework for my readings of the different art works, I will look to literary professor Kylie Crane, who has suggested a set of representational figures for « post-wilderness writing4 ». Although these figures were defined by Crane in relation to literary works, they seem to constitute a useful and relevant framework for the different works and artistic interventions that will be examined in the following.

Texte intégral


Post-apocalyptic gardens and urban wildscapes

Together. Water in one hand. The right hand.

Together. Sky in the other. The left hand.

The earth. Together.

Together. Wanting become forests.

Together. Wanting become grasslands.

With the unfeathered legged ostrich and the equal lengthed toed

osprey and the pygmy hippopotamus.

The small things also.

The sulphate reducing bacterias.

The foraminiferal species.

Sandbanks. Swamps. Edges of the open forest.

Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came5

1A garden isn't just a random section of trees and shrubs and flowers and grasses. It is a reflection of the changing human perceptions of nature. As a space orchestrated by humans it will usually only, or at least primarily, include species of plants that correspond to the current values for what is useful or beautiful, while species considered as less noble or worthy, for whatever reason, are left out. Should specimens from this latter group of plants attempt to force their way into the garden anyway, they will often be fought with the necessary means: weeding, herbicides, etc. The vegetal sphere is thus far from being a neutral domain. It is submitted to all kinds of aesthetic, political, economic and scientific ideas and the plants that we accept in our gardens, parks and public spaces in the cities are semantic signs with a potentially strong symbolic value. The European Union and a number of nation states have established lists of unwanted, unsanctioned plants that are defined as « invasive » and thus as representing a potential threat to the indigenous vegetation and ecosystem in given locations – and not necessarily only in small, restrained spaces, but just as often in extensive geographical areas and even on entire continents6. These plants have popularly been subject to the designation of « weeds », which is, however, a rather unstable, malleable concept that appears more as an intuitive and negotiable – depending on the interests of the interlocutor – melting pot, than as a category determined by veritable scientific arguments and justifications7. Terms such as « weeds » and « invasive » or « indigenous » plants are thus indicators of a highly hierarchical and normative perspective on the greenery that surrounds us.

2The ontological distinction between, on the one hand, a good and useful nature, and, on the other hand, a problematic nature can be traced back to the Genesis narrative of the Old Testament according to which the first humans, Adam and Eve, were banished from the paradisiac Garden of Eden because they let themselves being tempted into eating an apple from the tree of wisdom and thus usurped a conscience about good and evil that used to be the privilege of God8. Instead of a carefree lifestyle in the Garden of Eden, in which they were surrounded by an abundance of trees that were both pretty to look at and had delicious fruit, they now had to adjust to a life of labour and pain, cultivating fields to grow their own food and having to fight thorns and thistles9. The religious hierarchical perception of the world also permeated the early rise of a scientific discipline for studying nature and plant life. The offspring of this development was the growing interest in mapping the genetic connections between plants through the identification, the classification and the naming of species; an endeavor lead by the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707-1778). While Linné himself conceived of his work as decoding a system created by God, he nevertheless laid an important founding stone for the development of a disinterested and, more importantly, secularised study of nature as a system comprising a multitude of interacting agents. In the introduction to the book Les Grands Textes fondateurs de l’écologie, Ariane Debourdeau gives the following description of Linné’s approach:

If this Linnaen system is not yet conceived as dynamic and remains steeped in theological finality, it nevertheless provides the premises for its future secularisation via the notion of intermediate ends10

3However, it was not until the early 20th century that the work initiated by Linné was more fully accomplished with the introduction of the « quadrat » as a universal standard for the study and comparison of ecosystems on specific sites and locations11. According to literary professor Joshua Schuster, the instigator of the transition of the field of ecology « to the study of the world in motion, ever-exposed to change and disturbance, the appearance and disappearance of life » was the American botanist Frederic Clements12. In Research Methods in Ecology (1905) he describes his method:

In its simplest form, the quadrat, as the name implies, is merely a square area of varying size marked off in a formation for the purpose of obtaining accurate information as to the number and grouping of the plants present13.

4However simple and evident it might seem from a contemporary perspective, this methodology came to define a significant shift within the study of nature, replacing sentiment and normativity with objectivity. From then on, any arbitrary plot of land was considered as a relevant study object. No specific types of landscape were more worthy of scientific attention than others since criteria such as beauty, sublimity and other value-laden aspects were eliminated14.

5With the increasing scientific evidence for the consequences of industrialism, coal burning, the construction of infrastructures, the use of herbicides and the intensification of agricultural practices, mass consumption, the exploitation of natural resources, etc., it seems more and more clear that the human species has itself become a highly influential factor in the dynamics of the global ecosystem. Our behavior and modes of organisation are causing immense and irreversible changes to plant and animal life as well as to the climate. This has lead theorists such as the environmentalist Bill McKibben to decidedly argue that we are witnessing « the end of nature as we know it » in the sense that the traces of human interference within the planetary ecosystem are visible everywhere, not least due to carbon dioxide emissions. In his book The End of Nature from 1990 McKibben resumes the development as follows:

By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature's independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us15.

6McKibben's rejection of an ontological separation between nature and human civilisation is supported by the French philosopher Bruno Latour, who goes even further by claiming that nature and society have never actually been separated. In his book Nous n’avons jamais été modernes (1991) Latour sets out to dismantle the modern illusion of a sharp demarcation between nature and society, stating that the only new thing in the current situation is the ubiquity of the cross-fertilisation between the two, which can be seen in climate changes, the ozone hole, global warming, deforestation, genetic modification of crops, prosthetic implants, etc.16. According to the Swedish theorist working within the field of human ecology, Andreas Malm, the perspectives of Latour and McKibben have become so widely accepted within current ecological thinking that they qualify as a « theoretical zeitgeist17 ». In his recent book The Progress of This Storm. Nature and Society in a Warming World (2018) Malm however contests this « hybridist » approach, according to which « being mixed means being one18 ». In his view the ecological crisis makes it more important than ever before to distinguish between the social and the natural:

Exactly contrary to the message of hybridism, it follows that the more problems of environmental degradation we confront, the more imperative it is to pick the unities apart in their poles19.

7The environmentalist debate on « the end of nature » is paralleled within the field of literary research by the identification of post-wilderness writing. In her book Myths of Wilderness in Contemporary Narratives: Environmental Postcolonialism in Australia and Canada literary professor Kylie Crane identifies a particular « post-wilderness writing » within postcolonial writing from her own native country Australia and from Canada. She defines it as a reflexive and temporal approach that exposes the contradictions implicit in the notion of wilderness and in some cases defines a definite rupture with this specific understanding of nature20. These post-wilderness narratives can manifest themselves in a variety of representational figures that either reappraise the grounds of wilderness or focus on the « end of nature » aspect. 

8This can occur by altering nature beyond recognition (post-apocalyptic landscapes, for instance) ; by altering the typical sites of wilderness to post-industrial or polluted settings ; by undermining the assumptions of wilderness (and transferring it back to the civilised, for instance) ; or, finally, by openly challenging the validity of the idea of wilderness (and, as negated relations are still relations, still can be considered wilderness writing)21.

9The Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui's (born 1972) Wasteland Map Amsterdam. A Guide to the Empty Sites of the City seems to epitomize the dislocation from an orchestrated ideal microcosmos to a post-industrial setting. She has demonstrated a continuous engagement in mapping, documenting and sometimes re-enacting or re-producing different kinds of left-over spaces, ruins and waste from the construction and demolition projects happening in urban areas. Her aforementioned book is a guide to the twenty-six empty building lots in Amsterdam, with detailed descriptions of their morphology – their location and relation to the surroundings, their vegetation, the presence of dilapidated buildings, trash and construction materials on the site or possible viewpoints. She thus approaches these intermediary zones, abandoned or waiting for reconversion or rehabilitation as a documentarist or an interdisciplinary researcher. At the same time her attention to mutability and to often neglected places, materials and objects could be likened to the avant-gardist attempt to invert or efface established value hierarchies through the introduction of unstable or changeable material, waste, litter and found objects in collages and sculptures among other art forms.

10While it might seem rather paradoxical to produce a printed guide to places with a future as unpredictable as that of these urban sites, Almarcegui's strategy is precisely to charge the sites with new value and meaning as it establishes these places as sites in their own right and not just as in-between spaces without any specificities or value apart from their anterior or future annexation by the real estate investment market. Almarcegui's practice can be likened to that of establishing an archive or collection destined to preserve or testify to the existence of an object, work, performance or other event. Her guidebook preserves the traces of these unproductive urban interstices or « counter-spaces », as Sergio Rubira designates them in an article on Almarcegui and her work22. According to Rubira, these sites can be seen as fractures in a system that is afraid of emptiness, as spaces of freedom and resistance in which the regular order and privileging of productivity and circulation have been suspended, leaving them imprecise and uncertain23. To understand them might necessitate, if we take into account Catherine Heatherington’s article on urban wildscapes, « Buried Narratives », an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no predetermined story or narrative inherent to the derelict industrial landscapes24. The narratives are always temporal and « intertextual » and as such determined by the prism through which the readers perceive them25. She writes:

Visitors may 'read' the processes and historical traces within the site in multiple ways, depending on the experiences they bring, and they may also leave their own traces behind to be interpreted by others. Eventually some traces become buried, either intentionally by redevelopment or unintentionally by natural processes, thus creating new layers in the palimpsest of landscape26.

11Just as Wasteland Map Amsterdam, the works of the Danish artist Camilla Berner, born 1972, often testify to the mutability and flux of the urban sphere, and in particular in relation to urban interstices. She employs methodologies similar to those of Almarcegui: she registers and documents vegetation and other physical and topological characteristics of the invested sites, but she also intervenes more directly within the sites, exploring their potential for transformation27. Her in-situ work Black Box Garden was realised on a deserted building lot in the central part of Copenhagen and took place from the early spring until the late fall of 201128. Throughout this period, she kept a logbook of her acts and discoveries and documented the development of the site through photographs. The material was published concomitantly on a blog and has later been edited and gathered in a book29. The site, a much-coveted investment object for real estate developers in Copenhagen, had been abandoned since 2004 when a planned construction project was rejected after a heated public debate on its architectural qualities and adaption to the surroundings. Berner transformed the site into an urban garden, although not, as one might have thought, an ornamental garden with decorative flowers or a community garden with vegetables and greens, but a garden of wildly growing plants – both weeds and different culture plants. She did not bring in any new seeds or construction materials but used only what was already present on the site. In the midst of the wilderness she established a network of small, irregular paths where people living in the neighbourhood had already trotted down the vegetation by passing through, for instance walking their dogs, as a registration of the movements across the site. By thus re-appropriating the site, she imposed a new « democratic » and collaborative order, formalising the inhabitants' own paths and – at least symbolically – establishing it as a « free space30 ».

12Berner's Black Box Garden calls to mind the paradigmatic urban environmentalist artwork Wheatfield  – A Confrontation by the Hungarian artist Agnes Denes (born 1931)31. It was realised in the Battery Park Landfill in lower Manhattan, next to Wall Street and the World Trade Center and overlooking the Statue of Liberty, in the summer of 1982. The site was a depository for the soil that was removed during the construction of the Twin Towers a little more than a decade earlier and was at the time one of the last undeveloped parts of Manhattan. With the help from a small group of volunteers, but without using any machines or other mechanical appliances, Denes sorted out rubbish and boulders before sowing wheat seeds on the entire site. Throughout the summer months the field was cared for – watered, weeded, fertilised and sprayed against mildew fungus – before being harvested in the late summer. In the following years the yielded wheat grains travelled the world as part of the exhibition « The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger », organised by the Minnesota Museum of Art. The visitors of the exhibition were invited to bring home small numbers of seeds and to sow them in new places.

13The symbolic act of choosing an attractive and highly expensive building lot as the location for a temporary artistic intervention of this kind is hard to overlook. As the title of the work, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, indicates, the work established a confrontation between two different spheres of interest and value : the sphere of the financial elite – consisting of a relatively limited group of individuals – and the sphere of the community at large – of solidarity, coherence and production of new, non-monetary value. The socio-economic context of the work was the capitalist privatisation and colonisation of urban land that exploded in the United States in the 1980s. The interventionist work thus appears as a critical counter-act directed at the capitalist dynamic of seizing land and resources for the benefit of a small group of people instead of sharing them as universal property. With her temporary occupation of the site Agnes Denes thus suggested, at least on a symbolic level, a collectivist alternative to the rapidly growing exclusivist privatisation and capitalisation of cities.

14Camilla Berner's wildscape garden, established some 30 years later, can be seen as a congenial attempt to suspend the commodification of a similarly much coveted urban site in order to re-invest it with new meanings as critical resistance to their specific discursive givens. And just as Denes she suggests an experiential re-appropriation of the site through her temporary intervention that takes into account not only her own use and agency in regard to the site, but also the movements of other random people passing through the area. Against the rationalisation and homogenisation of the capitalised spaces, they both introduce a diversification of their functions and meanings. The art historian Miwon Kwon has pointed out how site-specific art, departing from minimalism, was initially preoccupied with the physical characteristics of a specific location – « size, scale, texture, and dimension of walls, ceilings, rooms ; existing light conditions, topographical features, traffic patterns, seasonal characteristics of climate, etc. » (p. 3) – whereas it later on metamorphosed into a critical reflection in regard to the art institutional context and therefore to its discourse. This implied, according to Kwon, that the site of art was perceived not only as a physical arena, but as an arena « constituted through social, economic, and political processes32 ». According to Kwon this discursive turn implies a subordination of the artwork’s relationship to the actuality of its location. The discursively determined site, she argues,

[…] is delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange and cultural debate. Furthermore, unlike previous models, this site is not defined as a precondition. Rather, it is generated by the work (often as « content »), and then verified by its convergence with an existing discursive formation33.

15Although Kwon's characterisations of the discursive in-situ works to a large degree seem to apply to Denes and Berner's works, they are also both deeply rooted in the specific materiality of their respective sites: in Denes’s case through the cultivation of the wheat field and in Berner’s case through her examinations and registrations of the plant life and the morphology of the site.

16The garden is a frequently recurring figure in the practice of the Austrian artist Lois Weinberger (born 1947) and just as in the works of Denes and Berner it is often used as grounds for related attempts to reinvest or differentialise a small sector of an urban space. His work Garden from 2002 was located on an empty plot of 10 x 20 meters next to the Government section in St. Pölten, Lower Austria34. On the site Weinberger placed 2000 plastic buckets of different colors closely together; the buckets were filled with soil and then left to themselves. Soon after plants began to sprout in the buckets both from seeds that were already in the soil and from others that were carried there by the wind and the birds. The buckets gradually started to wither, and as they fell apart they eventually came to constitute a new integral layer without separations. In a similar but more recent work, Portable Garden from 2016-2017, Weinberger installed an ensemble of large, reinforced plastic bags, as those often used by migrants to carry their belongings, on a small dilapidated terrain next to a railway in the 19th arrondissement in Paris. The bags were again filled with soil and then left to be taken over by spontaneous growth. While the bags might have first appeared to passers-by as foreign objects, over time they would slowly have become « naturalised » or assimilated to their new environment to such a degree that only the plastic bags would have stood out – but not the content ; the vegetation. And even the plastic bags would eventually have disappeared had the work been left on the site.

17In these works, the limits between nature and culture, organic and non-organic are blurred, just as the hierarchies between noble and poor materials and vegetal and human beings dissolve. Everything is placed on the same horizontal level and left to itself and to chance. Weinberger stages a situation and then withdraws from it; he is not – or at least only rarely – continuously present within the established framework as Camilla Berner or Agnes Denes are in their Black Box Garden and Wheatfield – A Confrontation. The central principle in several of his works seems to be the deconstruction of an existing cultural surface – for instance a layer of asphalt or a carefully maintained lawn – in different types of public urban spaces in order to allow nature to regenerate by its own forces and without human interference. But at the same time his staged wilderness « gardens » are also part of different urban contexts and political discourses; the aforementioned Garden is decidedly placed next to a government section and thus to the legislative authorities and could thus also be seen as a vegetal protest or « upheaval ».

18In another work, Ruderal-Enclosure, Burning and Walking, made for the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 1993, Weinberger broke apart a piece of the asphalt on the Anton-Neumayr-Platz, leaving the fragmented surface to be overgrown with spontaneous vegetation just as in his Garden and Portable Garden works35. And in Ruderal Society – Excavating a Garden, made for documenta 14 in Kassel in 2017 he established a bare strip of land across the Karlsaue Park, which during the Documenta exhibitions is part of the official exhibition area and otherwise a regular public park36. While the latter work demonstrates a clear reference to excavation with its reversal of time through the scraping off of the top layer of soil, Weinberger seems in other works to employ strategies similar to the principles of permaculture or to the Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka's « natural farming ». Inspired by the farming methods of indigenous cultures, Fukuoka suggested that plowing or tilling the soil before sowing the seeds should be abolished together with weeding and the use of fertilizers and herbicides in order to preserve the balance of the ecosystem37. This approach was reflected in another work made by the artist for the documenta X in Kassel twenty years earlier, in 1997, entitled What is beyond plants is at one with them38. On a 100 meter stretch of the railway track at the local train station, Kulturbahnhof Kassel, the artist sowed the seeds of neophytes – species that have travelled from other parts of the world – among the different indigenous plants already growing on the site. Just as in the aforementioned work Portable Garden the reference established in this transitory space to migration issues is obvious and has not become less relevant throughout the years that have passed since Weinberger orchestrated his small microcosmic confrontation of botanical cultures, questioning the transnational hierarchies of power, politics and economics that predominate over social organisation. In Weinberger's works the plant world seems to function as a critical reflection of hierarchies and power relations between humans just as much as between humans and nature.

19The absence of a visibly present author and, in a more general sense, of human agency is also found in several works by the French artist Pierre Huyghe, born 1962. In his in-situ work Untilled, made for dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel in 2012, he transposed the visitors to what might appear as a post-apocalyptic scenario inhabited by a strange mix of beings representing the botanical and animal sphere39. The work was established in the composting area of the aforementioned baroque garden Karlsaue Park and thus, both in a concrete and a symbolic sense, in the margins of a cultural space. Huyghe's intervention on the site consisted in a series of more or less subtle displacements or interferences that did not significantly alter the character of the original site – at least at first sight. While exploring the site of the work, visitors would become acquainted with the snow-white, sphinx-like dog named « Human », whose right front leg had been painted fluorescent pink, and its puppy « Señor » who had a paw painted in the same psychedelic color. They ran around freely among piles of overgrown compost, garden waste, black gravel and algae-covered puddles. In a clearing in the midst of the wild growth the sculpture of a naked woman was lying casually on a concrete block, her head covered by a swarm of bees. With its vegetal exuberance Huyghe's garden scenery appeared as a lush and almost unworldly place, alluding to the Garden of Eden. And just as the biblical primordial garden had its tempting apple tree with the forbidden fruit of wisdom, Huyghe's garden had psychotropic and potentially dangerous plants such as the toxic foxglove and deadly nightshade, jimson weed, cannabis plants and rye – a culture plant that can host the fungus ergot, from which LSD is extracted40.

20Huyghe's Untilled garden was literally enchanted: a forbidden or banished ecosystem with plants that represent a potential access not necessarily to wisdom and divine knowledge but to other psychic realities and perceptions and even to death. Just as eating the apple in the Garden of Eden would imply a disturbance of the status quo, the psychotropic plants in Huyghe's garden pose a threat to social order and civilised behaviour because of their ability to act upon or affect the human psyche and thought processes in unpredictable ways. The ability of these plants to act upon and take control over human individuals confirms the more general impression of an inversion of the roles of humans and nature as respectively active and passive in this work. Human presence was reduced to a decadent cultural remnant, while the dogs « Human » and « Señor » ran around in the garden following their own instincts; from time to time even leaving the framework of the work when something in the surroundings attracted their attention. Untilled appears as a self-organising eco-system, alluding both to prehistoric times and to the origins of organic life on the planet, but also to an imaginary scenario in a not-so-distant future where other life forms are likely to replace the human presence in and dominance on the planetary ecosystem.

21The artworks and artistic interventions analyzed here all are modulations on the same basic archetypical figure or model: the garden. The use of this figure facilitates the translating or transposing of a rather vast and abstract subject of examination – our cultural perceptions of nature and behavioural patterns in regard to our natural surroundings – to a scale that becomes more graspable. But instead of being spaces for aesthetic contemplation, rest and recreation or for the provision of food, they are turned into sites or loci for negotiations between nature and culture, for critical reflection and for explorations of new ways of engaging in our shared public spaces. A single deviation from this is perhaps Agnes Denes's wheat field in Manhattan which, in addition to its discursive outreach, also produced a concrete output that was harvested and distributed, even though this was done by volunteers and without any money involved. However, the divergence from the more classical ornamental or useful gardens is in all of the other cases affirmed by the deliberate and consistent presence of non-idealised, stigmatised and politicised nature; of weeds and other unwanted plants, of moss and algae and compost, often in combination with left-over building materials and debris, plastic buckets and bags. And as a crucial development in regard to earlier representations of nature in the arts these artists do not represent nature through a distanced, objectivising gaze – a pictorial perspective – but rather as an active, responsive system composed by a multitude of agencies. The imageries of an essentially static, unchangeable nature, epitomised by the « nature morte » paintings of meticulously staged and stylised flowers and fruits, have been replaced by site-specific, spatial and temporal interventions where nature is an active counter-part to the still life components and a living organism in motion41. As the French philosopher Loïc Fel has argued, the traditional methods of representation seem to be unsuited to grasp the holistic and dynamic vision of nature proposed by ecology:

It is obvious that the development of the natural sciences evinces the classical schema of representation at the origin of landscapes. Traditional methods of representation are unsuitable for an ecologist conception, since ecology proposes a holistic and dynamic vision of natural ensembles. Taking into account a temporal dimension on a geological scale and global givens calls for new methods for approaching the object, not only for the knowledge of this object, but also for the aesthetic gaze. In this perspective it is a matter of getting as close as possible to the object of « nature » and the most efficient means to do this is to go beyond the stage of representation to deal with the object in its concrete dimension. This also implies the possibility for the aesthetic experience to relate directly to nature without going through the mediation of figurative representation42.

22While the artists working within this context seem to go beyond merely representational schemes, several of them also eventually withdraw from the site or location they engage in, leaving the existing or staged situation or scenario to itself. This might to some degree leave us with the impression of witnessing a series of rather self-enclosed urban gardens or wildscapes, where harmony and equilibrium have been re-established not only in but due to the absence of human representatives. According to the eco-critic Greg Garrard, the wilderness narrative, understood as « nature in a state uncontaminated by civilisation », is one of the most persistent constructions of nature available to New World environmentalism:

It is a construction mobilised to protect particular habitats and species, and is seen as a place for the reinvigoration of those tired of the moral and material pollution of the city. Wilderness has an almost sacramental value: it holds out the promise of a renewed, authentic relation of humanity and the earth, a post-Christian covenant, found in a space of purity, founded in an attitude of reverence and humility43.

23But as Garrard, drawing on the work of the environmental historian William Cronon, goes on to point out, there is a potential backlash to the purist conception of nature as being authentic only in so far as we are not in it44. He recalls how Bill McKibben, as mentioned also in the beginning of this text, argued that the omnipresent human effects upon the climate and ecosystem have rendered obsolete the distinction between humans and nature as everything from now on is man-made and artificial. This perception is, according to Garrard and Cronon, deeply rooted in a perception of nature as a static entity that loses its particularity and meaning if it is modified45. This is however exactly what the works dealt with in the text discussed here, themselves impermanent and fleeting, seem to reject with their insistence on the mutable, unstable character of the specific sites, on the exchanges between humans and nature, between organic and non-organic material – and on the continual renegotiations of meaning, use and interrelations.


5  Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came, Oakland, Californie, Commune Editions, 2015, p. 33.

6  See for instance the online section « Invasive Alien Species » on the official webpage of the European Commission : http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/invasivealien/index_en.htm (accessed on February 25, 2019) or the webpage of USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Invasive Species Information Center), (accessed on February 25, 2019).

7  This has been pointed out for instance in Tao Orion, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015, p. 48.

8  From the Old Testament, Genesis, verses 3 :17-19.

9  Several other religions have similar narratives of a human « fall from grâce », of a human expulsion from an original, ideal world or condition, but as this paper deals with an Occidental context, I will accordingly focus on the Christian Biblical narrative.

10  Ariane Debourdeau (éd.), Les Grands Textes fondateurs de l'écologie, Champs Classiques, Paris, Flammarion, 2013, p. 10 : « Si ce système linnéen n'est pas encore conçu comme dynamique et demeure mâtiné de finalisme théologique, il fournit néanmoins les prémisses de sa future laïcisation, via la notion de fins intermédiaires ». Traduction C.P.

11  Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism. American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics, Tuscaloosa, The University of Alabama Press, 2015, p. vii.

12  Ibid., p. x.

13  Ibid., p. viii.

14  Ibid., p. viii.

15  Quotation from Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, Londres, Viking, 1990, p. 43-44 ; 54 in Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm. Nature and Society in a Warming World, Londres, New York, Verso / New Left Books, 2018, p. 31.

16  Ibid., p. 46.

17  Ibid., p. 31-32.

18  Ibid., p. 47.

19  Ibid., p. 61.

20  Kylie Crane, op. cit., p. 29.

21  Ibid.

22  Sergio Rubira, « Lara Almarcegui. Trois cas d'études ou l'artiste comme topographe, anthropologue et archéologue », in Anne-Claire Meffre, Le génie du lieu (2). Œuvres et créations des artistes de la collection du Frac Bourgogne au musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon et dans le Palais des États de Bourgogne. Paris, Éditions Ereme, 2005, p. 35.

23  Ibid.

24  Catherine Heatherington, « Buried Narratives », in Anna Jorgensen / Richard Keenan (dir.), Urban Wildscapes, Londres, New York, Routledge, 2012, p. 173.

25 Heatherington here refers to Julia Kristeva's conception of intertextuality as the textual absorption and transformation of other texts. Ibid.

26  Ibid.

27  It should perhaps be noted that Almarcegui has also, in some cases, attempted to interfere with the destiny of the sites by contacting their owners in order to try to persuade them into suspending or postponing their development projects.

28  Cf. https://www.camillaberner.dk/#/black-box-garden/(accessed on February 25, 2019).

29  Camilla Berner, Black Box Garden, Copenhague, Camilla Berner et Signe Havsteen, 2014.

30  See Christel Pedersen, « Subversive Weeds » in Nuart Journal, vol. 1, n° 1, 2018, p. 9-15.

31  Cf. http://www.agnesdenesstudio.com/works7.html (accessed on February 25, 2019).

32  Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another. Site-specific Art and Local Identity, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Londres, MIT Press, 2004, p. 3.

33  Id., « One Place after Another : Notes on Site Specificity », in October, vol. 80, 1997, p. 85-110 ; p. 92.

34  Lóránd Hegyi / Tom Trevor, Lois Weinberger, Milan, Silvana Editoriale, Saint-Étienne, Musée d’art moderne de Saint-Étienne Métropole, 2011, p. 70.

35  Ibid., p. 53.

36   Cf. http://www.loisweinberger.net (accessed on February 25, 2019).

37  Masanobu Fukuoka, La révolution d'un brin de paille. Une introduction à l'agriculture sauvage, Paris, Guy Trédaniel Éditeur, 2005, 2015, p. 59-61.

38  Cf. http://www.loisweinberger.net (accessed on February 25, 2019).

39  Eva Scharrer / Katrin Sauerländer et al (dir.), dOCUMENTA (13) Das Begleitbuch / The Guidebook, Katalog / Catalog 3/3, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz Verlag 2012, p. 262.

40  Dorothea von Hantelmann, « Thinking the Arrival. Pierre Huyghe's Untilled and the Ontology of the Exhibition », in Oncurating, n° 33, the documenta issue, June 2017. See http://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/issue-33/pdf/Oncurating_Issue33.pdf (accessed on February 25, 2019).

41  It should be noted that paintings within this category not only depicted nature (flowers, fruit, dead animals etc.), but also other types of objects.

42  Loïc Feel, L'Esthetique Verte. Seyssel, Éditions Champ Vallon, 2009, p. 12 : « Il est patent que le développement des sciences naturelles évince le schème classique de la représentation à l'origine des paysages. Les méthodes traditionnelles de représentation sont inadaptées à une conception écologiste, dans la mesure où l'écologie propose une vision holiste et dynamique des ensembles naturels. La prise en compte d'une dimension temporelle à l'échelle géologique et de données globales réclame de nouvelles méthodes d'approche de l'objet, non seulement pour la connaissance de cet objet, mais aussi pour le regard esthétique. Dans cette optique, il s'agit de se rapprocher au plus près de l'objet « nature », le meilleur moyen étant de dépasser le stade de la représentation pour se porter sur l'objet dans sa dimension concrète. Cela implique également la possibilité pour l'expérience esthétique de porter directement sur la nature sans passer par la médiation de la représentation figurative. » Translation C.P.

43  Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism, Londres, New York, Routledge, 2012, p. 66. By « New World » Garrard refers to the settlements in particularly in the United States, Canada and Australia with their « apparently untamed landscapes and sharp distinction between the forces of culture and nature ».

44  Ibid., p. 77.

45  Ibid., p. 78.

1  According to the Cambridge Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/garden) or the Oxford Dictionary (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/garden) (both accessed on 25 February 2019).

2  Kylie Crane, Myths of Wilderness in Contemporary Narratives : Environmental Postcolonialism in Australia and Canada, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 29.

3  For instance, according to the Cambridge Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/garden) or the Oxford Dictionary (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/garden) (both accessed on 25 February 2019).

4  Kylie Crane, Myths of Wilderness in Contemporary Narratives : Environmental Postcolonialism in Australia and Canada, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 29.

Pour citer ce document

Christel Pedersen, «Wilderness Nostalgia. Post-apocalyptic gardens and urban wildscapes », Histoire culturelle de l'Europe [En ligne], Prochains numéros, Jardin et mélancolie en Europe entre le XVIIIe siècle et l’époque contemporaine, Jardin et mémoire : préserver, partager, transmettre,mis à jour le : 12/11/2019,URL : http://www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/hce/index.php?id=1355

Quelques mots à propos de : Christel Pedersen

Institut pour la Photographie, Lille

Historienne de l'art, diplômée de l'Université de Copenhague et de l'Université Paris VIII. Chercheuse, commissaire d'exposition et traductrice de textes théoriques et artistiques (Les trois écologies du philosophe français Félix Guattari, Panégyrique de Guy Debord, sept manifestes dada de Tristan Tzara, etc.). En 2019, boursière de l'Institut pour la Photographie à Lille avec un projet de recherche portant sur la scène artistique islandaise des années 1960-1970 et la mise en place d'un réseau transnational et anti-institutionnel à travers des échanges épistolaires. Auteure de plusieurs articles sur la représentation de la nature « sauvage » et l'instrumentalisation activiste de la sphère végétale dans l'art contemporain, plus récemment avec l'article « Subversive Weeds : Bio-activist strategies in urban interventions » publié dans la revue norvégienne Nuart Journal vol. 1, n° 1 en automne 2018.