In the Detail: Corinne Silva's Garden State

An essay in Corinne Silva's monograph Garden State which placed Silva within the context of photographing gardens and the position of garden photography as social activism. Silva's work looks at the ways in which garden spaces have been used in a number of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories of Israel/Palestine.

Extract from the essay: 

'Corinne Silva employs photography as record, polemic, and aesthetic statement. Her work is systematic, from the research process through to the making of the photographs and their installation or publication. She is interested in territory- who owns the landscape, who has a right to it, how does politics change it. Fascinated by fortresses - of Moorish or Venetian or Ottoman antiquity - or the more contemporary, of the Jewish hillside settlements in the Occupied Territories or the gated golf community sited in the Spanish desert. Much of Corinne Silva’s photography is to do with detail- a shrub is glimpsed above a substantial stone wall, spiky palms arch over the opaque class which separates one building from another, ancient olive trees are ringed by irrigation tubes and stratified by stone paths. Silva never identifies the settlements she photographs, and we see neither an entire house, a private garden nor an inhabitant. So there is something unreal, half made, eerily municipal about the places she photographs. It is as if everything is being laid out – pipes, water retaining/weed preventing webs, and banks of soil enclosed by sleek metal fencing. Everything in this environment is very clean, very new.

You could say that the photographic object, in its material being, could almost be insubstantial within this scenario- in Corinne Silva’s journeying across Spain and the Mediterranean and, for Garden State, across the occupied Palestinian territories settled by Israel, she was in search of evidence- of political and social intent. The material manifestation this evidence is presented in a deliberately fragmented and allusive way, even questioning the idea of photographic proof. Reading through the various descriptions of her work in the project ‘Garden State’, it is perhaps surprising then to see her aims so clearly described- in ‘Wounded’ and ‘Gardening the Suburbs - the two photographic series (incorporating soundscape) which make up ‘Garden State’ -she describes quite clearly how the work examines ‘ how the Israeli state uses tactical landscaping to exert control over the Occupied Palestinian Territories… Taking the viewer through national parks and suburban gardens, Silva’s artwork reflects on how gardening can be used to mark out and progressively expand territory, as well as to encourage the Israeli population to spread and settle, to make roots and grass over divergent historical narratives’ (1. Press release: Ffotogallery, Cardiff, 2013).

The garden has long been used as a way of marking territory, of establishing difference or marking lifestyle. From the utopian model villages of 18th century England to the garden cities of the mid twentieth century and the new suburbs of the inter war years, the garden has become of focus of cultural and social intent. From the Enclosure Acts of 17th century Britain, when rural people lost many of their land rights, to the partial ‘regifting’ of land back to the people in the form of allotments it has been recognized that garden land use plays a significant part in the health of the national psyche. Gardens are symbols of wealth, or taste, of aspiration, and community of diligence and knowledge. In photographer Fergus Heron’s continuing series of photographs of executive estates in the south of England (Charles Church Estates 1996-2006), it is planting and landscaping which give the demographic clues rather than the built architecture. In David Spero’s ‘Settlements’ series (2004-6), the beautiful shack dwellings made in Wales by alternative livers are again defined by the landscape in which they are situated. The planted roofs made by these new age settlers are as much a signal to us viewers as are the pampas grasses of Fergus Heron’s estates.

In post war Britain, photographers and photography became deeply engaged with the depiction of the English rural landscape. Gardens played a significant part in this documentation, and the undisputed master of garden photography at this time was the architectural photographer Edwin Smith, who, often working with his writer partner Olive Cook and with the émigré publishing house of Thames and Hudson, set about making a comprehensive portrait of the British landscape which was serene and eerily empty of people. Smith worked with Thames and Hudson and the gardening writer Edward Hyams on The English Garden, an outsize volume published in 1964. Unusually for Smith, the photographs were in both colour and black and white, and the focus of the book was very much on the ‘great’ gardens of England – Sheffield Park, Stourhead, Chatsworth, Kew. Throughout the Second World War, the colour photographer John Hinde had worked with Adprint (which would later morph into Thames and Hudson) and writer TC Mansfield to produce The Garden in Colour a series of books about the English garden, including Roses in colour and Cultivation (1943), The Border in Colour and Alpines in Colour and Cultivation. For Smith, Hinde, Adprint and Thames and Hudson, the English garden emerged as a kind of vision, a microcosmic England as a place of safety and calm, without people, without disturbance- as if it had always been there. As clean and as bright as the landscaped places that Corinne Silva found in her wanderings around the West Bank settlements, and in their own way, as troubling. No people disturb the visions of Hinde, or Smith or Silva or Heron or Spero. Would a crowd of visitors at on the Chatsworth Lawn have made the gardens look less autocratic, less out of our reach? Would children playing or a family bringing home the shopping make Fergus Heron’s Charles Church Closes seem warmer, more welcoming and would a senior citizen taking the air on one of the benches in Corinne’s Silva’s settlement photographs make these places seem less threatening, less elitist? If a family emerged from one of David Spero’s Welsh settlement houses, cold, hungry and unkempt, would the effect of this fairytale dwelling remain intact?" End extract.

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