The Philosopher's Garden: Interview

Baptiste Rahal and Robin Gillanders

1. Could you tell us a bit about how you first discovered the Jean Jacques Rousseau Park? In what ways is your experience of this park a personal (or intimate) journey?

The idea of photographing the park was introduced to me by Julie Lawson, senior curator at the Scottish National Portrait gallery in Edinburgh and her husband Dr. James Lawson of the University of Edinburgh, who is an art theorist and writer. I had worked with Julie Lawson on a previous exhibition and book about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden ‘Little Sparta’, and she felt that this would be an interesting subject for me to explore.

In the making of this work, after I had decided what strategies I would employ (see below), the production became a very spiritual and introspective journey for me. Six hours a day for five days starting early in the morning, with a flask of coffee and a copy of the ‘Reveries’; the simple pleasures of gazing through the viewfinder of a camera. The most rigorous intellectual processes came before - and after - the making of the pictures in the park. The actual photography was a process of assimilating Rousseau’s thought as embodied in the ‘Reveries’ and simultaneously responding to the environment in an intuitive way.

2. How and when did you feel compelled to transform this experience into an artistic and intellectual endeavour?

This seemed like the natural extension of the work I had been doing with Finlay. I have always been interested in Finlay’s theories of (particularly) nature and culture. These mostly found their roots with Rousseau, so of course I was very keen to see the park and then to find some strategy for photographing it. We made a preliminary visit to the park the year before the pictures were made, but the major problem was to find a way to photograph it, which was not just a documentary approach. Little Sparta is very different from the park JJR. The former is relatively small with over 300 artefacts and dozens of intimate corners and paths. Parc JJR is much more expansive. The problem was, how I was going to photograph it to make a lyrical series of pictures, which in some way would relate to Rousseau’s thought.

3. For you, a philosopher in a garden, what does it mean?

Of course for some philosophers, a garden is of no interest at all. But for Rousseau (and for Finlay) who has contemplated notions of nature, order, and culture, the garden or park is particularly symbolic. Zen philosophers have also been interested in this order imposed upon nature. A garden (or park) is also a place for contemplation – a place where one can be solitary within society. This was a particular concern of Rousseau’s.

4. One would think that an artist working on the JJR park would use a colour palette of greens, browns and blues...Why did you opt for black and white?

I only work in colour, when colour itself is relevant to the subject matter, or when I want to use it symbolically. In this case colour is not important. The work attempts to deal with spatial ambiguity and metaphor through the use of tone, shape and light.

5. Your book is structured as a photographic trajectory, along which one strolls like Rousseau did during his famous solitary promenades, what meaning if any is there in the relationship between your photos and the quotes from Rousseau’s oeuvre that attribute to them? Otherwise said, is there a dialogue between the image and the text, and what is to be the made of this dialogue?

There is very much a dialogue between the images and the accompanying text – that really is the central point of the book. Each photograph is intended as a visual metaphor to accompany the text. But it would not be very interesting to simply illustrate the text closely. Rather the photographs are intended as parallels to the text. The text has one meaning; the photograph another and the two combined hopefully provide a third ‘meaning’. I do hope that the viewer can see a lyrical connection.

6. If you hadn’t associated each of the photos with a quote from Rousseau’s work, would the photos have been ordered in the same way?

That would have been a very different series. I have attempted to make my photographs not just parallels to each individual piece of text but also to visually reflect the ‘spirit’ or tone of each chapter or ‘walk’.

7. Your photos beautifully blur reality and chimera. The result is a sensation of lightness and floating, which in my view underscores the fragility, vulnerability and ephemerality which I think characterized space in your rendering of the park... Do you agree?

Thank you. I very much hope this is the case. Rousseau often blurred ‘reality with chimera’ in his ‘Reveries’.

8. I get the impression that your use of dark spaces is very studied, no? How does darkness undo the effect of lightness that we just spoke of?

In many of the pictures I have consciously used the technique of chiaroscuro – light coming out of dark. This combined with pictures which have a lighter touch, I hope bear a relation to the general tenor and mood of what I have perceived to be Rousseau’s state of mind in each of the walks.

9. Your work solicited critical artistic responses from both the Jean Jacques Rousseau Park and the Little Sparta Park, created by Hamilton Finlay. How do you interpret Finlay’s artistic vision how it connects to Rousseau?

A great deal of Finlay’s thought derives from Rousseau – in particular his theories about nature, culture and society. In addition there are many parallels between Finlay and his relationship with the cultural and political establishment, and Rousseau. There is similarly a tension between the need for solitude and the desire for society with Finlay as there was for Rousseau (and I dare say for many artists and philosophers). One has the strong feeling that Rousseau would have been pleased and flattered if he were to visit Little Sparta. Some of the artefacts in the garden relate directly to Rousseau, but in many ways the whole garden seems to relate to Rousseau’s principles.

10. In your depiction of the JJR Park, you chose not to present its monuments. By contrast, in your exhibition on Mr Finlay’s garden, you foreground various written inscriptions. How do you explain this contrast? Which reasons your choice of focus for each park?

The central thrust of the work is Rousseau, the ‘Reveries’, and the embodiment of his thought manifest in the Parc JJ Rousseau, as realised by Girardin. As stated previously, I wished to represent the park as a series of metaphorical meditations on the ‘Reveries’ rather than to merely document the park and its monuments. A connection has then been made with Finlay, which attempts to demonstrate tangibly, the connections between him and Rousseau. Hence evidence of this connection has been produced via elements of the garden at Little Sparta that clearly relate to Rousseau.
Selected Writing