Robinson Crusoe series
Archival inkjet prints on cotton paper . dimensions variable . 2001–

After living in Dublin for a while in 2001 I became nostalgic for tropical plants. Before leaving Durban I saw a photograph of the palm trees that decorate the palace of Versailles in summer, I naively thought that as long as there was a place to see tropical plants the weather and the experience in the north would not be so miserable. The Turner Curvilinear Glass Range at the Dublin botanical gardens has a section dedicated to South African flora – amongst other things it consists of succulents and fynbos, but no palm trees. While a botanical longing initially provoked this project, detailed below are the ideas and products generated after my first visit to a European greenhouse.

The Turner Curvilinear Glass Range, completed in 1864, stood dilapidated for decades before being extensively renovated in 1998 seemingly as a by-product of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom period in Ireland and is today a popular site for city breaks and tourists. The Glass Range was designed by Richard Turner, the British engineer also responsible for the Palm House of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London. Completed in 1848, the Palm House underwent a major upgrade during the 1980’s to install new ventilation, heating and humidification systems, today it contains mainly tropical woody plants laid out to represent the rainforests of America, Africa and Australasia. The Eden Project, situated 250 miles south west of London, opened in March 2001 aiming to be an educational and recreational facility – it cost £ 88 million to build and attracted 1.97 million visitors in its first year. It has since become the third most popular tourist attraction in the United Kingdom. The greenhouse in Joubert Park, Johannesburg is currently in a state of serious disrepair – but is scheduled to be refurbished through the locally based GreenHouse Project (GHP) at an estimated cost of $ 4 million, with the Danish Cooperation for Environment & Development providing the majority of the funding. Despite its poor condition, portrait photographers working in the area regularly use the site as a backdrop. Joubert Park was one of the first open spaces for Johannesburg's inner city - proclaimed in 1906 but planned in 1887 and named after the Boer War hero, Commandant-General PJ Joubert. It is today surrounded by overcrowded flatlands beleaguered by high unemployment and crime, accordingly it affords residents a much needed city retreat – with around 20 000 people using the park each month.

In Britain during the colonial era, the greenhouse served as a catalogue of conquest - a zoo for plants. It provided the British public* a chance to witness first-hand the ‘exotic’ produce of their empire. Through colonial taxonomy - the attribution of names and classifications - and allied natural sciences (of which botanical gardens were very much a propaganda tool) Britain aimed to claim ownership over this newly ‘found’ nature. Ultimately this artificial ownership would be used for the ideological purpose of making Britain’s colonial power seem to be a ‘natural’ power.** The term ‘nature’ however is a construct, a notion that supposes all living things to be alien and subordinate to the order of Man:

"Taxonomy, i.e. the classification of the natural world, is a system of order imposed by man and not an objective reflection…its categories are actively applied and contain the assumptions, values and associations of human society." (1)

The use of the construct of nature for political and economic purposes relates to the practice, during the eighteenth century, whereby Britain’s landowning class communicated their status, wealth and power by manipulating the tradition of landscape painting. Economically and politically empowered landowners commissioned paintings of idealised landscapes to manufacture their own optic of rural England, such images functioned as propaganda - perpetuating the land rights status quo as well as the myth of the empty landscape ‘unspoiled’ by the labouring class. In so doing they variously forwarded the political agendas of their station through strategically fabricated views of rural life over the reality of entrenched socio-economic disparities - Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews of 1750 depicts an affluent couple proudly displaying their land that is equally a declaration of privileged tenure as it is a naturalistic landscape.

“Man, we have decided, is the labouring animal whose ability to create values depends upon his infinite capacity to buy and sell: his time, his work, his very life. From this point of view, adventure is, at best, a recreation.” (2) During the Age of Enlightenment, labour and speculative thought replaces adventure as the accepted creator of essential value. The increasing commercial activity of the bourgeoisie during this period generated a wave of prosperity and brought a greater degree of self-confidence in the burgeoning western European middle classes. A by-product of this process was the establishment of leisure time - independent wealth allowed for recreation and speculative thought which in part was manifest in the development of the modern novel that as “a genre is devoted to leisure, and to a definition of individuality which depends upon leisure.” (3) The modern critical disregard for adventure literature is premised on the notion that grand narratives of action and adventure cannot reveal an individual’s true character and humanity. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is an early example of this tenant, for it is fundamentally “an adventure novel without an adventurer.” (4) The character of Crusoe is the embodiment of middle class domestication and values:

"…the story of a man who is thrown, after many perils and adventures, alone upon a dessert island. The mere suggestion…is enough to arouse in us the expectation of some far off land on the limits of the world... There is, on the contrary, staring us full in the face, nothing but a large earthenware pot." (5)

Defoe’s representation of the colonial experience details, for the most part, a European shipwreck survivor’s experiences on an initially uninhabited island in the Caribbean and his eventual return home. The descriptions of the island’s flora read something akin to the inventory of a greenhouse, Defoe’s narrative is located within a manufactured ‘natural’ environment that is pure fiction when compared to the reality of Caribbean flora and fauna. Having never been to the Caribbean, Defoe describes an ideal island articulated in terms of the colonial construct of the Arcadian paradise – a mythical island where food is bountiful, manicured forests and grape vines can be found and a colony of penguins live, amongst other inconsistencies. Central to this Arcadia is the absence of an indigenous population – the paradise is ‘lost’ once such a group appears, but being “an earthen-ware pot” saves Crusoe - he plans, strategises and ruthlessly battles for the retention of ‘his’ island. Initially, Crusoe domesticates an already tame island – he maps his terrain, builds endless shelters, hunts goats and plants wheat – but later, through his domestication of the figure of ‘Man Friday’, he gains an ally and ultimately passage to the mainland: “His victory over the powers of geography characterises the book… in The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe shows Crusoe founding a settlement of European colonists… the ethos of colonialism was never more tellingly dramatised.” (6)

The Robinson Crusoe series are hypothetical conclusions to Defoe’s series – Crusoe’s ongoing ramifications have taken concrete form as greenhouses – becoming the homes of the various colonies Crusoe began founding in his second novel of the series. These fictional descendents of the original Crusoe inhabit several versions of a developed form of refuge specific to the northern hemisphere. But the greenhouse also represents a unique form of captivity too - Crusoe’s spawn are inmates in their own prisons - captives of their inherited middle class domestication, isolation, paranoia and labour as they endlessly establish and ramify new colonies:

"Robinson Crusoe never stops building walls. For twenty-five years of the ‘silent life’, he ramifies, reinforces, camouflages, and naturalises the walls of his enclosure… His walls become inventive and passionate, displaying an almost magical capacity to grow on their own…They naturalise themselves into a green, womblike dome, nature domesticated into a wall." (7)

The formalist constant of a lone figure in ‘nature’ portrayed in Robinson Crusoe x6 overtly references the landscape tradition of the sublime experience of the natural realm for ironical effect. These descendents of Crusoe are photographed at the time of sublime epiphanies in fabricated environments of their own design - this visual shorthand intends to address the irrational fear and representational violence inherent in Defoe’s novel by implying the defensive character of the greenhouses as being a product of “a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror.” (8)

"Are you able to assume a position transcending the natural world or are you subject to it as a part of it? The Romantics admit the latter, in as much as the terrified awe they sometimes represent comes from the apprehension of the natural world’s absolute indifference to human will or presence. The little figures we see from behind in Friedrich’s paintings are witnesses of sublime events but also underline the fact that the pictures represent something unrepresentable." (9)

The overarching formalism of Robinson Crusoe x6 is, however, as naturalistically representative and objective as possible, fulfilling a mimetic function as evidence for a hypothetical case, akin to the fruits of a private investigator’s labour. Though these photographs offer “no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth” (10) – “the world can never quite look like a picture, but a picture can look like the world” (11) and hence the ongoing role of ‘compromising’ photography as the pre-eminent tool of blackmail leverage. The staged, flat realism of Robinson Crusoe x6 relates to the interchange of objective and subjective aspects in colonial illustrations of the unique flora and fauna of the colonies, in particular the drawings commissioned by the British Navy on Captain Cook’s tours in the Pacific:

"I cannot… but lament how very imperfect many of our accounts of distant countries are rendered by the relators being unskilled in drawing… I cannot but wonder that any person, that intends to visit distant countries, with a view of informing either himself or others, should be unfurnished with so useful a piece of skill." (12)

True… Cook himself, [was] more concerned with scientific than artistic observation, and in their work, geographic discovery led to imperial conquest. Still, the imperative to observe accurately, in sketch or painting, the habit of realism… informed European artistic vision, while helping Britannia to rule the waves. (13)

 

Notes:

*As well as the public in the British colonies once the construct of the botanical garden as an institution and strategic tool had been established and exported.

**The trajectories of these first greenhouses can be traced to contemporary sites like The Eden Project in England and the Biosphere I and II projects in the United States which perpetuate the scienticifically, economically and politically motivated British institutional precedent.

(1)
Mark Dion quoted in Reimschneider, B. and Grosenick, U. (Editors); “Art Now”; Taschen G.m.b.H.; Koln; 2001; p.38

(2)
Zweig, P.; “The Adventurer”; Basic Books, Inc.; London; 1974, p. 6

(3)
Ibid., p. 12

(4)
Ibid., p. 113

(5)
Virginia Woolf quoted in Ellis, F. (Editor); “Robinson Crusoe, Twentieth Century Interpretations”; Prentice-Hall; New York; 1969; p. 21

(6)
Zweig, P.; “The Adventurer”; Basic Books, Inc.; London; 1974, p. 119

(7)
Ibid., p. 117

(8)
Burke, E.; “On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, On the French Revolution”; Collier; New York; 1909; p.114

(9)
“ Stan Douglas”; Phaidon Press Ltd.; London; 1998; p.9

(10)
Sontag, S.; “On Photography”; Farrar, Straus & Giroux.; New York; 1977; p. 6

(11)
Gombrich, E. H.; “Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation”; Princeton University press; Princeton NJ; 1972, p. ix

(12)
Smith, B.; “European Vision and the South Pacific”; 2nd Edition; Yale University Press; New Haven CT; 1985; p. 6

(13)
Hassan, I.; “Realism, Truth, and Trust in Postmodern Perspective”; Third Text; Vol. 17; 2003; p. 7

 

 

 

 

 

   
From top:
Robinson Crusoe in Dublin Botanical Gardens, June 2001
Robinson Crusoe in The Eden Project, Cornwall, November 2002
The Crusoe Residence, London SW6, September 2002
Robinson Crusoe in Amsterdam Botanical Gardens, June 2006
Robinson Crusoe in Joubert Park, Johannesburg, August 2003
Robinson Crusoe in Kew Gardens, London, May 2002
Robinson Crusoe in Durban Botanical Gardens, January 2004
 
REFERENCES –
 
 

Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe : 1968 edition
© Flammarion Press

 

 
 
 

Traveller Looking over the Sea of Fog
Caspar David Friedrich : 1818
© Kunstmuseum, Hamburg

 

 
 
 

Castaway
Directed by Robert Zemicks : 2000
© Twentieth Century Fox

 

 
 
 

Mr and Mrs Andrews (detail)
Thomas Gainsborough : 1750
© The National Gallery, London

 

 
   
 

The Biosphere II Centre
Sonorran Desert, Arizona : 2002
© Colombia University

 

 
   
  Survivor: The Amazon
Season 6 : 2003
© CBS Entertainment
Michael MacGarry
Michael MacGarry, contemporary African art, African art, contemporary art, Africa, sculpture