In Focus

Lothar Baumgarten's Mysterious Garden

In this tautly sequenced slide and sound installation, German artist Lothar Baumgarten has created a pleasurable tour of a most unlikely place: the wetlands surrounding the Düsseldorf airport. Baumgarten transforms what appears to be an ordinary waste area into a primeval paradise by using three slide projectors, a multi-layered sound recording, and 187 slide images projected across a nearly 25-foot wall. The effect is slow yet cinematic, playing on the intersection between nature and culture via the depiction of landscape that suggests a visceral, ecologically based conclusion: the rationality of Western civilization has not conquered but in fact has sullied, even violated, our planet.

By creating what looks to be an "exotic" location from what is in fact the detritus of modern, industrial Western Europe, Baumgarten confounds our idea of what is "remote" and "near" in our experience of the world. He also makes us confront situations we have let develop in our industrial conquest and that remain corrupted. Yet Baumgarten is not a polemicist, he is an artist. As images of water, vegetation, and light begin to roll by (after an initial glimpse of the city and "civilization"), we are led into a strange world by a host of noises that Baumgarten recorded from nature and sonically manipulated. The viewer is soon immersed in a stream of flora and fauna overlaid with this subtle soundtrack, interspersed with hints of small objects that could be archaeological or accidental.

Incongruous details begin to reveal themselves in the continuing sequence of changing images. Geometric objects and even plastics emerge in this supposedly untouched realm: perhaps all is not what it seems here. Baumgarten has stated that half the time he spent making this entire work was in the creation of these small sculptures that look like a collection of miniature post-minimalist works. The artist placed these forms in ditches, marshes, eddies, and forests, and then let them go to their fates, alerting us to the fact that a human hand is present in our journey. Finally, when a jet flies overhead, the sound is apocalyptic, nearly devastating, and it destroys any sense of remoteness we may have felt. In fact, we are no further than an industrial wasteland that has been transformed by Baumgarten into a highly self-conscious rendering of a fabricated natural world.

Baumgarten's title for this installation is a reference to Candide, the classic, satirical novel written by Voltaire in 1759. The title character is a hapless anti-hero who experiences a series of fantastic trials and tribulations. Candide is one of the funniest, most incisive attacks on 18th-century European rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment, who found in science a way to explain the cause and effect of everything. These thinkers believed that the way for humans to live in a perfect world was to give up all things not empirical; hence, all emotion and subjectivity were to be banished in a world dominated by perfect reason. Baumgarten is challenging the rationality of science in his own era, using art to do so as Voltaire did with the written word.

At one point in the narrative, Candide reaches the earthly paradise of El Dorado and declares, "I like it here better than in Westphalia." Critics see the geography as significant in Voltaire's wish to satirize what he saw as a cold northern German society in which he lived for a period, and in which Baumgarten also studied. Candide's observation must have struck the artist as inordinately apt, not only through a common geographical reference but in summing up the aim in his own work to argue against a prevailing ethos. As had Voltaire, Baumgarten works by re-imagining the known world into a fantastic one. Candide ends as all its characters converge on a farm and decide that the best course is to "make their garden grow" and "tend to their own garden." This motif of the cooperative garden may have the most connection to Voltaire in considering Baumgarten's installation.

Adapted from

Charles Wylie, "Lothar Baumgarten's Mysterious Garden," n.d.