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September 19, 2022

Field Notes: Ashley Allen on Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, “Floating Gardens,” Documenta 15

Art & Education

Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Future Garden, 2011–22. Installation view, Bootsverleih Ahoi, Kassel. Photo: Ashley Allen.

Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Healing Garden, 2011–22. Installation view, Bootsverleih Ahoi, Kassel. Photo: Ashley Allen.

Field Notes: Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, “Floating Gardens,” Documenta 15
by Ashley Allen

Drifting in the Fulda River alongside the Bootsverleih Ahoi venue of Documenta 15, Ilona Németh’s Floating Gardens are two rectangular vessels housing an assortment of imported plants and native flora. First displayed in 2011 as part of “Art on Lake” at the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest and brought to Kassel thanks to OFF-Biennale Budapest, the gardens dreamily hover on gentle waves at the river’s shoreline and are modeled on either the English or French garden type, are identically scaled, and filled with plants that either repair soil damaged by pollution and climate change or that demonstrate the benefits of interspecies coexistence. Future Garden, roughly based on an English garden design with its sprawling shrubbery, combines plants native to Kassel with a medley of cultivated species. Some have learned to adapt to climate change—rosa glauca (redleaf rose), for example, is disease-resistant and tolerant of poor soils—while others, such as solidago speciosa (goldenrod), can degrade petroleum and metals that have seeped into the soil. With its more regimented aesthetics, Healing Garden incorporates elements of traditional French garden design and hosts diverse herbs and vegetables, such as tagetes tenuifolia (marigold) and allium sativum (garlic), that are beneficial to the ecosystem and maintain symbiotic relationships. As a model of environmentally progressive garden design, Németh’s project gestures toward the shared goal of social and ecological sustainability. The catch? Everyone must do their part, plants included.

Seeking to foster a collaborative, community-driven network of care in which the survival of each garden is dependent on the contributions of all involved, Floating Gardens conceptually aligns with the social practice of lumbung at the center of Documenta 15, staging in microcosm the larger issues of power, climate, and social responsibility circulating in the art world. But in Kassel, not everyone is invited to participate. Each garden is tended to by a crew of volunteer gardeners selected by Németh that have “rented” Floating Gardens from the artist, offering their labor in exchange for access to the gardens and contact with nature. And though Floating Gardens is not restricted to Documenta ticket holders—any swimmer, runner, or park-goer can view the project from the Bootsverleih Ahoi venue—and the gardens are not intended for agricultural production nor driven by any profit motive, the work is only superficially accessible to all. Rather, the very arrangement that lends Floating Gardens its communal aspect effectively privatizes the work: only a select few—volunteers, the artist, and the consulting architects and gardeners—are allowed to actually get their hands dirty. Everyone else is pushed to the sidelines to idly stand by and watch the volunteers work. Installed at the margins of public and private space at the river’s edge and operating in the overlap of nature and culture, Németh’s project creates a kind of exclusive community among the small group of selected volunteer caretakers, and the wide-reaching community the work conjures is merely an illusion.­ The gardeners work hard to maintain Floating Gardens but receive little in return—not even food, such as a community garden would provide—perhaps besides the sense of a job well done.

Read more of Ashley Allen’s Field Notes review on Art & Education.

Field Notes is a new series of reviews from the next generation of art writers. Featuring texts on the 59th Venice Biennale and Documenta 15 contributed by students and recent graduates, Field Notes makes original connections between the work and the world and takes a closer look at what other observers might have missed.

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