Author: Bret Leraul, PhD

“[I]f all the constellations…were one day by a miracle to be reversed in their direction… even the astronomer –if he pays attention only to what he sees and not at the same time to what he feels– would inevitably become disoriented.” [1] Immanuel Kant begins to answer the titular question of his 1785 essay, “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?”, by analogizing how we orient ourselves in thought to the way in which the astronomer orients himself in space. The analogy distinguishes between objective and subjective perceptions of space, between the constellations the astronomer sees and the inner intuition ¬–left and right, up and down– that he feels. Kant claims that objective space alone is an inadequate compass. The individual also needs her own “subjective ground of differentiation” in order to locate herself in the cosmos.

Precisely the indifferentiation between our subjective and objective, lived and conceived spaces is at stake in Elizabeth Corkery’s most recent work Nowhere is There a Garden. Whereas the Enlightenment thinker is concerned with explaining the cognitive mechanisms that orient the subject and order his environment, Corkery’s installation disciplines the viewing subject into a productive state of disorientation through its vertiginous play of spaces. She does so by employing the reproducibility inherent to her medium of print and the performative principles of installation in order to articulate a series of metaphorical transferences orbiting around an unlikely referent, the formal garden.

Reason inscribes itself in the space of the formal garden. In its parterres and bosquets, the jardin à la française subjugates contingent and accidental nature to the geometric lawfulness and aesthetic norms of the plan. The plan’s conceived space regularizes the inconstant, normalizes the aberrant, and compels ‘nature’ to coproduce the ‘second nature’ of our engineered and administered environment [2]. But as the Situationists were acutely aware, conceived space not only disciplines nature for the sake of the human, it also disciplines some humans for the sake of others. The formal garden and the urban grid are both technologies of control.

If Kant’s astronomer used constellations to orient himself in objective space, only by taking the impossible position of the stars, could he orient himself in these abstract spaces born of autonomous reason. That is, only by becoming inhuman can we hope to subjectively experience the “atopia-utopia of optical knowledge” [3]. This desire to inhabit our own utopia, to make the world otherwise, has marked the history of technology [4]. It is a history everywhere visible in the human landscape, from the mythical Tower of Babel to the oppressively real supertowers of our late capitalist moment. Whether poised above the planned garden, the city, or the earth, we are as all-seeing voyeur-gods.

In the same way that early modern gardens were often used as living proscenia, Corkery’s installation is the mise-en-scène of some kind of theater of cruelty in which the viewer’s spatial perception plays the leading role. The latticework prescribes the viewer-participant’s movements. It becomes a prosthesis of the abstract space of the gallery, an extension and medium of its power [5]. At the same time that it constrains her movement, it allows the viewer’s gaze to roam. Through the latticework cage, she glimpses a green wall of trees. These photographic transfers beckon with the false promise of specular orientation. False, because Corkery has truncated their vanishing points thereby frustrating perspectivism, that code-turned-ideology by which we produce the two-dimensional illusion of three-dimensional space [6]. In one case, the bosquet swallows the vanishing point in a cul-de-sac of foliage. In the other, Corkery has relegated it to some indeterminate point lost in the artificial infinity of the latticework’s repetition, the same repetition latent in her reproducible media. Corkery has overextended the resolution of these images to the point of optical decomposition.

Nowhere There is a Garden is deconstructing. And like Artaud’s theater of cruelty, Corkery’s mise-en-scène of the viewer’s body has an emancipatory potential. On the one hand, it frustrates the viewer-participant’s mobility and seeks to upset the assumptions by which she orients herself in space. It obliges her to recognize the subjugation of her lived space to the conceived and abstract space of the display and consumption of the work of art. On the other hand, Corkery suggests an alternative mode of orientation. She asks us not to live the particular or to conceive the universal, but to perceive (8) the analogical. In the latticework and pixelated photographs as in Corkery’s body of work generally, this means to see pattern in repetition. If analogical perception or patterning is in some way akin to Kant’s aesthetic reflection, then Nowhere is There a Garden enjoins us to participate in its aesthetic act.

[1] Kant, Immanuel. ”What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”. Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings. Trans. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print. 5.
[2] Of course, “Nature” is as much a product of the human imagination as is the built environment.
[3] De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print. 93.
[4] Remember that the Latin “ars” and Greek “tekhne” signify roughly the same concept.
[5] cf. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.
[6] As Michel De Certeau points out, “ They [perspective vision and prospective vision] inaugurate (in the sixteenth century?) the transformation of the urban fact into the concept of the city” (94). In other words, perspective turns lived into conceived space.
[7] In Lefebvre’s taxonomy, perceived space (heterotopos) corresponds to social practice, the field of action. It is dialectically related to conceived, abstract space (utopos) and lived, differential space (topos).
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. Print.