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September 2022

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

Ashley Allen

Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Floating Gardens (Future Garden, Healing Garden), 2011–22. Installation view, Bootsverleih Ahoi, Kassel, June 12, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Floating Gardens (Future Garden, Healing Garden), 2011–22. Installation view, Bootsverleih Ahoi, Kassel, June 12, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Floating Gardens (Future Garden, Healing Garden), 2011–22. Installation view, Bootsverleih Ahoi, Kassel, June 12, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Ilona Németh, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Floating Gardens (Future Garden, Healing Garden), 2011–22. Installation view, Bootsverleih Ahoi, Kassel. Photo: 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. [1]1
The soil and plants of the Future Garden were temporarily replanted from the University of Kassel’s campus field, where they will eventually return. The project was created in collaboration with the university’s Department of Landscaping, Landscape Management, and Vegetation Development.
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.

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

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. [2]2
Németh has extensively researched the connections between plants, agriculture, capital, and globalization in post-Soviet Eastern Europe in her project Eastern Sugar. See Ilona Németh, Eastern Sugar (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2021).
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.

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

Further, the gardens’ ecological impact is slight, offering only two models of meaningful sustainability and scant information in the way of the sustainability practices involved in creating them. When it comes to addressing climate change, monumentality and permanence seem more appropriate than each temporary garden’s 3.5-by-4.5-meter bed. Take, for example, Joseph Beuys’s 1982 work 7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration (7000 Eichen – Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung), which the artist created for Documenta 7. Beuys’s project to plant 7,000 oak trees around Kassel, each paired with its own basalt stone, was a monumental gesture that involved the entire city and spurred dialogues around art, activism, and environmental concerns. 7000 Oaks succeeded in leaving a lasting environmental impact on the city, not only because it changed the urban experience of Kassel but also because the trees have continuously absorbed carbon dioxide and produced oxygen and yielded other environmental, psychological, and social benefits. Today, forty years after they were planted, the oak trees are integrally rooted in the Kassel cityscape. What began as a spectacle performance piece has since evolved into a decades-long and citywide ecological intervention.

By contrast, Floating Gardens is inherently disconnected from the community at-large, though its references suggest otherwise. The process of “renting” evokes efficient cooperation among interested parties but is ultimately an exclusive form of altruism that begs the question of just who exactly can donate their labor and time. This blind spot is also apparent in the work’s handling of climate change and restorative agency. Rather than address the role of the state and big business in climate change—or pressure them to adopt sustainability practices and renewable energy policies to enact meaningful change—Floating Gardens locates climate action in a community of privileged individuals. Less a call to action, Németh’s project for Documenta is more a poetic recreation of the minor means through which individuals can positively impact the climate—recycling, carpooling, eating vegan—ultimately leaving state and corporate actors entirely out of the climate change equation. As a model, Floating Gardens succeeds, but the work’s limitations get in the way of the purpose Németh’s gardens were intended to serve.

Floating Gardens is itself implanted into nature and a simulacrum of the environment in which the only natural elements are plants brought in from elsewhere. Serving as a metaphor of contemporary art’s limitations to respond to world-historical crises like climate change and environmental collapse, Floating Gardens raises an important question: after the end of Documenta 15, where will all of this activism actually go? Although Floating Gardens displays a new, collaborative model for society ripe with play and speculative imaginaries, as were OFF-Biennale’s intentions, the work ultimately reflects the challenge of communicating agentive art to the public at-large. With its lack of accessibility and transparency, Floating Gardens presents a guise of community under a bespoke hierarchy, an arrangement all too similar to the relationship between ruangrupa’s lumbung and Documenta administration.

Ashley Allen is an artist and writer living and working in San Antonio, Texas. She recently earned her bachelor’s in art history with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance studies from Trinity University, graduating magna cum laude. In March 2022 she was the inaugural recipient of the Fellowship for Critical Writing for Contemporary Art Month (CAM), San Antonio. Her writing has been featured in a number of publications, including the Texas art magazine Glasstire.

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