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Book Review: Garden State by Corinne Silva

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It was above all the title that attracted me to this tome: Garden State. For reasons unbeknownst to me my mind associated it with Florida (quite wrongly, this is the Sunshine State) and South Africa (because of the Garden Route) yet since I wasn’t too sure I googled it and learned that New Jersey was called the Garden State. Well, Corinne Silva’s book is not about New Jersey but about gardens in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Looking at her photographs (there aren’t any captions), I would have never guessed – as far as I’m concerned they could have been taken in any Southern climate.

On the other hand, a photo book (not always though) presents photos in a context. This is how Corinne Silva introduces Garden State: “Gardens are micro-landscapes, and gardening, like mapping, is a way of allocating territory. In Garden State I consider the political relationship between gardens and colonisation that has existed from the eighteenth century to the present day. Over two years, from 2011, I travelled across twenty-two Israeli settlements making photographs of public and private gardens, in order to explore the ways in which gardens and gardening may represent the Israeli State’s ongoing expansionist ambitions in the historic land of Palestine.”

Differently put, she follows a specific agenda, she wants to show what is already on her mind. And this begs the question: Does she succeed?

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First things first: I do like the photographs in this book. They do appeal to me because of how Corinne Silva framed what she decided to depict. “Silva never identifies the spaces she photographs, and we see neither an entire house, nor private garden, nor a single inhabitant. So there is something unreal, half-made, and eerily municipal about the places she photographs”, writes Val Williams in her essay “In the Detail: Corinne Silva’s Garden State” which, by the way, would have been a suitable title for this book for it is details the photographer focusses on.

My experience was different; I did essentially see well-structured and thoughtful compositions, they did not strike me as unreal or half-made.

Photographs are essentially triggers. What they trigger is not always easy to say (like everything else, my unconscious is in contant flux) but when you know what the photographer wants you to see chances are – provided, you are willing and open to see the photographer’s declared intention – you may see just that.

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From the conversation between Corinne Silva and Eyal Weizman I learned that Garden State was inspired by China Mieville’s noir novel The City and the City. “The premise of the novel is two parellel cities that are layered on top of each other but are socially segregated. So they occupy the same geographical space, but the citizens of one city are forbidden to acknowledge those of the other, they have to sensorially tune them out. What I do in Garden State is to explore one layer, a layer of plants and soil, laid on top of another landscape. You have to imagine what was underneath, and what is still there now, beyond the frame and the image.”

Following her suggestions a most fascinating world opens up in my mind. Yet as much as I’m intrigued by what I’m plunging into, I also wonder whether this is more to do with Silva’s words or with her photographs.

“I’m interested what this particular layer does and what it signifies. And as well as acknowledging the past, I want to consider potential future transformation of this territory. How might the plants perform and adapt without human care, without water? Would they survive? How might they re-colonise land that is emptied of humans?”, Corinne Silva asks and wonders “about the possibilities of ‘undoing’ these places, how do plants play a role in that?” Eyal responds: “I think there’s something that we can learn from plant life; borders are much more permeable to plant types than they are to people. To a certain extent, the idea that whatever Palestinians are cultivating is native to the land, and whatever Israelis are cultivating is imported, is wrong. It’s much more complicated than that. Plants always travelled.”

I think it’s great how photographs can direct one’s attention and make such thoughtful ponderings possible.

PS: A Taxonomy of Colonising Plants by Sabina Knees with illustrations by Gülnur Ekşi completes this nicely done tome. Wonderful!

Garden State Cover

Garden State
by Corinne Silva
Published in the UK in 2016 by Ffotogallery Wales Limited and The Mosaic Rooms, A.M. Qattan Foundation

More about the book or to purchase it: mosaicrooms.org/product/garden-state/

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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