In the summer of 2003, Europe experienced a record-breaking heat wave. Rivers dried, forests burned and glaciers melted in the Alps. Thousands of people lost their lives due to the extreme temperatures, which scientists attributed in part to global warming caused by human activity.1 In the UK, this sizzling summer coincided with Janice Kerbel’s incumbency as the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia. A collaborative project with the Norwich School of Art and Design, the residency was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Arts Council England, the Canadian High Commission and Norwich City Council. The Canadian-born artist was required to produce a new body of work inspired by the center’s scientific research. Through an end-of-residency exhibition of the work at the Norwich Gallery, the aim was to reach audiences who might not otherwise discuss the issue of climate change, and who might, as a consequence of this new exposure, consider the effect of their own activities on the natural environment.2
The result was Home Climate Gardens (2003), a series of designs for nine indoor gardens, created as digital drawings and presented in their final form as a set of digital inkjet prints.
The series utilizes a clean and precise language of text, geometric shapes and simple line elevations. Printed in black on sheets of white paper measuring 84 x 118.8 cm (with the exception of Indoor Island Gardens, which is half the size at 59.4 x 84 cm), the designs resemble architectural blueprints or large-scale scientific diagrams. Alongside the series, which was published in a small edition of five, Kerbel produced a color calendar for 2004 that suggested plantings appropriate for general domestic indoor environments. This was made available for free to visitors to the exhibition and via post by request to the Norwich Gallery.
While the site for the smallest print is left unspecified, each of the eight larger Home Climate Gardens is intended for a particular indoor location: a launderette, a loft, a gym, a council flat, a Victorian terrace, an open plan office, student housing and a revolving restaurant. All include a central planting diagram and legends with information about species, location, elevation and orientation in the four corners. The title (location) and subtitle (type of garden) occupy the lower right (for example, “Revolving Restaurant / Windowbox Garden”) above a simple plan of the space indicating exactly where the garden will be located. The average summer and winter temperatures, average nightly temperature drop and average humidity are listed alongside. The shape and arrangement of the garden’s containers are indicated by an elevation drawing at the top left, while the scale of the central diagram and the compass orientation are provided top right. The planting list is printed in the lower left. Divided into categories such as palm, perennial, fern and evergreen climber, the different species are listed by their Latin names next to abbreviations, usually two-letter initials.
The plants are represented in the central diagrams by circles, ovals, ellipses and other geometric shapes. These are formed by a range of continuous, broken, dotted, single and double black lines of varying thickness, or, sometimes, by regularly placed short vertical lines. The abbreviated plant names, reminiscent of elements on the periodic table, are centered within most shapes, which overlap in clusters like Venn diagrams confined by their delineated containers. Text above, below and around the central diagrams provides information about the light conditions of each space, and instructions for watering and seasonal rotation. The typography is simple and elegant, suggestive of 1930s design and of the sans-serif fonts favored by contemporary graphic designers and architects.3 In some cases the plans are intricate (the garden for the revolving restaurant appears particularly detailed), but the simple black lines against the stark white of the page provide clarity and the overall effect is of meticulously crafted design.
When Kerbel began her residency at the Tyndall Centre in 2002, she set out to investigate the relationship between the built and natural environment, and the effect of human behavior on climate change.4 She was interested in the notion that when we attempt to create “ideal” living conditions, our efforts inevitably disrupt the delicate balance of the natural world. As she explained at the end of the residency: “We have utopian desires but they are undermined by dystopian habits… Our love of nature is in conflict with our desire for a modern metropolitan lifestyle with cleanliness, warmth, refrigeration, light, mobility, entertainment and communication.”5
On the one hand, Home Climate Gardens can be read as a series of blueprints for an idealized lifestyle that would suit the needs of near-future urbanites. The gardens offer a convenient connection to nature and provide obvious aesthetic and olfactory benefits, as well as potential health gains (NASA research into the use of plants on space stations has demonstrated the ability of indoor plants to remove pollutants from the air).6 On the other hand, Kerbel’s garden plans could be interpreted as a prescient insight into a society in which the only contact with the natural world is through indoor, artificially created miniature landscapes.
Immediately prior to her project with the Tyndall Centre, Kerbel had been working on her Bird Island project (2000–3), which resulted in a fully realized website advertising luxury time-share villas on a fictitious, uninhabited island in the Caribbean.7 She designed the island based on real geographical coordinates and provided invented but plausible details about its history, terrain, climate, flora and fauna. The extensive research she conducted for Bird Island clearly informed Home Climate Gardens. For both projects, she identified plant species that could flourish in precise locations: for the launderette, for example, where the average humidity is 68 percent, Kerbel selected tropical plants native to humid areas of the Caribbean and Central and South America. In contrast, the comparatively dry conditions of the open-plan office led to a garden comprising plants suited to desert conditions.
Kerbel also took into account the proportions and layouts of the architectural spaces and the probable activities of the people who would be using them. For the gym, she designed a “Respiration Garden” to be planted at varying levels so that plants are always in line with “breathing zones,” whether for those running upright on a treadmill or seated low on a rowing machine. The tastes and habits of the likely inhabitants are also considered. The “Bookshelf Garden” for student housing is designed to “tolerate moderate neglect,” while the “Seasonal Garden” for a Victorian terrace house relies on a lace curtain to filter natural light. Playful touches sometimes erupt in these otherwise austere schematics, including the “Modular Wall Gardens” that undermine the open-plan layout of the office, and the stars in the launderette diagram, that echo the hyperbolic, attention-seeking shapes often found on the packaging of washing powders.
Kerbel has no professional training in landscape architecture, but her work regularly entails deep research into disparate subjects. Her breakthrough work was the audacious Bank Job (1999), a scheme to rob the Lombard Street branch of Coutt’s bank in London’s financial district. Taking almost two years to complete, the project involved Kerbel posing as an architecture student in order to stake out the target. Her notes, maps, photographs and painstakingly formulated plans were initially presented as a wall-mounted assemblage, and later as a wonderfully dry printed manual, 15 Lombard St (2000). For Bird Island also, factual research was complemented by the artist’s assumption of another role, in this case a time-share salesperson. The Bird Island website is convincing because it presents credible information in the visual and semantic style of a luxury property enterprise. Potential customers are shown images of palm trees and sandy beaches and encouraged to invest in the island with assertions such as “You are on your way to becoming a partner in paradise.”8 The botanical expertise acquired for Bird Island helped Kerbel assume the mantle of garden designer for Home Climate Gardens, which in turn provided knowledge she was able to draw on for Nick Silver Can’t Sleep (2006)—a radio play for insomniacs about the love lives of six anthropomorphized nocturnal plants. More recently, Kerbel studied music theory for her Turner Prize–nominated work DOUG (2015), an operatic piece for six voices, and took on the role of classical composer.9
Kerbel’s output is diverse in terms of media, but she has often been drawn to printmaking to express unrealized plans, carefully selecting techniques to suit the subject matter and aesthetic of each work. In 2001 she used digital printing to create Home Conjuring Units, a series of blueprint-type plans detailing how to construct items of furniture from scratch that could be used by novice magicians to perform conjuring tricks in the home. Mimicking instruction sheets such as those issued with flat-packed Ikea furniture, the work required a mass-produced computer-generated aesthetic to appear authentic. For Remarkable (2007–10), a series of text-based broadsides advertising invented sideshow acts such as the “Human Firefly” and “Regurgitating Lady,” Kerbel drew on Victorian letterpress typography but employed screenprint, a technique associated with cheap posters. Commissioned by Frieze Projects, the large-scale prints were initially flyposted around the 2007 Frieze Art Fair in London, where they offered a wry commentary on the circus around them. In 2005, a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming led to the production of Deadstar (Ghosttown) (2007), a digital photogravure three meters long. A map of a town laid out according to the constellations of the night sky, it was inspired by the many abandoned settlements in the state of Wyoming, a consequence of failed commercial endeavors including a 19th-century gold rush and other mining enterprises. Incorporating both digitally created and hand-drawn elements, the map was composed on a computer and transferred onto three copper plates by printers at Atelier Till Verclas, near Hamburg. Unlike the pristine digital prints of Home Conjuring Tricks and Home Climate Gardens, the photogravure retains, as Kate MacFarlane has observed, evidence of discernible platemarks and “the misplaced ink spots and smudges that such a printing process necessarily involves.”10 Kerbel’s wedding of two distinct eras of printing technologies was purposeful: “I wanted this work … to be outside of time, and liked putting a digital produced image through a historical analogue process.”11 While the digital process of compiling the map acknowledges the working method of contemporary town planners, the spectral remnants from the mechanical printing echo the evidence of human activity, industry and life left behind in the ghost towns that inspired the work.
For Home Climate Gardens Kerbel chose a printing technique capable of producing lines so fine that they appear almost incised, without the threat of smudge or spatter. The series was printed at Adelphi Graphics, a commercial printer in London, because Kerbel wanted the prints “to have a utilitarian feel in keeping with the language employed.”12 The scientific, almost sterile, aesthetic signifies a distance between the artificially conceived gardens and the natural world. In their diagrammatic form, the designs require the viewer to add color, to take an imaginative leap to visualize the gardens in full.
It has been observed that despite her rigorous research, many of Kerbel’s works remain in the form of unrealized plans or descriptions of fictitious places or scenarios.13 The Bank Job has never been carried out, for obvious reasons; Bird Island never existed; and the Home Climate Gardens were never planted. All these works have an inherent precariousness. If the bank heist were to be enacted, it could be scuppered by the unpredictable behavior of one of the robbers or an inconvenient passerby. In any case, the ethical arguments against stealing and the threat of a prison sentence if caught are presumably enough to ensure that the plan remains purely theoretical. The non-existence of Bird Island is an insurmountable barrier, but even if this were not the case, one can imagine that the presence of holidaymakers would not only negate its status as a deserted paradise but would also damage its unique ecosystem. In the case of Home Climate Gardens, a lack of care, misreading of the watering instructions, or changes to the atmospheric conditions caused by an open window or a raised curtain could harm or kill the plants. The carefully choreographed clusters remind us that the gardens will only succeed if a particular set of variables remains relatively constant. As the artist has explained, “the fact is that plants really don’t want to be inside. So while they have this promise of producing these beautiful, lush gardens—the plans tell us this—in reality, it may be nothing like that.”14
All this is intentional: Kerbel is interested in the potentiality of unrealized plans. She makes art, she has said, that “holds on to the tension of the next stage.”15 To create and preserve this tension, her work must appear both authentic and plausible—she must convince her audience that it could succeed. And while she has no objection to someone else building and planting her gardens, for her, the work ends with the prints.16 “I am interested in the utopic promise of a plan,” Kerbel has stated, “and in the visual languages that have developed to render these ideal states of potentiality … In making the work I was interested in both how the gardens look in plan (or drawing state), and how they might look in the real [world], if planted—it is perhaps the tension between these two states that I am most interested in.”17 But while Kerbel presents us with the plan, the gap between these two states must be bridged by the viewer and the finished garden viewed in the mind’s eye. It is perhaps this interaction between the viewer and the work that the artist was referring to when she described the series as “performative.”18 Kerbel worked hard to ensure the gardens could be planted, and maintaining the viewer’s belief that they might be is important. Without this plausibility the plans could be read as a warning, signaling a dystopia in which gardens are created on computer and experienced only in the mind. By retaining their potentiality and their “irrevocable link to the future,” however, Kerbel’s gardens maintain their utopian promise.19
- Shaoni Bhattacharya, “European Heatwave Causes 35,000 Deaths,” New Scientist, 10 Oct. 2003, accessed online, 11 Apr. 2018, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4259-european-heatwave-caused-35000-deaths/; Roxanne Khamsi, “Human Activity Implicated in Europe’s 2003 Heat Wave,” Nature, published online, 1 Dec. 2004, accessed 11 Apr. 2018, http://www.nature.com/news/2004/041129/full/news041129-6.html.
- “Art and Climate Change,” The Effect: The newsletter of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (August, 2002), 15.
- Mark Godfrey has described the design as “near-Bauhaus,” while Anna Lovatt has suggested that it “summons up the utopian dreams of the 1930s”: Anna Lovatt, “Janice Kerbel: Diagramming Desire,” Afterall 37 (Winter 2014): 94; Mark Godfrey, “First Take: Mark Godfrey on Janice Kerbel,” Artforum 44, no. 5 (2006): 182.
- “Art and Climate Change,” 15.
- University of East Anglia (UEA) press release: “Tyndall Centre and Norwich School of Art Launch Science and Fine-art Exhibition,” 30 Oct. 2003, accessed online 9 Apr. 2018, http://www.uea.ac.uk/about/media-room/press-release-archive/-/asset_publisher/a2jEGMiFHPhv/content/tyndall-centre-and-norwich-school-of-art-launch-science-and-fine-art-exhibition
- Jakub Zdebik, “The Manifold Dimensions of Janice Kerbel’s Architectural Diagrams,” in Contemporary Art About Architecture: A Strange Utility, ed. Isabelle Loring Wallace and Nora Wendl (New York: Routledge, 2014), 299.
- Accessed 12 Apr. 2018, http://www.bird-island.com/welcome.html.
- Tom Service, “Meet the Turner Prize Shortlist, From the Musician to the Mind-reader: Janice Kerbel,” Guardian, 28 Sept. 2015, accessed online 11 Apr. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/28/turner-prize-2015-artist-interviews-assemble-nicole-wermers-bonnie-camplin-janice-kerbel.
- Kate MacFarlane, “Best Laid Plans” in Best Laid Plans: Matei Bejenaru, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Janice Kerbel, Marie Lund, Marjetic Potrč, Paul Rooney, Katya Sander, Ultra-Red, ed. Kate MacFarlane (London: Drawing Room, 2011), 10.
- Email to the author, 26 Apr. 2018.
- Godfrey, “First Take,” 183; Terence Dick, “The Mapmaker,” Canadian Art 23, no. 4 (2006): 48–52, accessed online 6 Apr. 2018, http://www.canadianart.ca/features/the-map-maker/.
- Quoted by Dick, ibid.
- Email to the author, 26 Apr. 2018.
- UAE press release.
- Email to the author, 26 Apr. 2018.