A walk in the fictional garden

January 13, 2019

David Alesworth’s recent work at Koel Gallery Karachi is a map of man’s interaction and inference with nature

A walk in the fictional garden

Ever since man was banished from Paradise, he is trying to construct one for himself -- on this earth, in language, myths and images. A garden is an attempt to relocate that lost ‘garden of Eden’. From Mughal and Persian to European periods, there have been efforts to reclaim that heritage.

Creating a garden is a common desire of all humans. One comes across green areas in buildings of varying scale and usage.

During this exhibition bits of garden were visible through the tinted windows of Koel Gallery and so were several small gardens arranged inside the gallery space. Both types of gardens were fictional, rather optical. Both gardens were manmade. The ones inside were made by visual artist David Chalmers Alesworth who has also worked as a horticultural consultant for many years since he moved to Karachi from the UK in 1989.

In a sense, his exhibition The Glory of the Garden (December 18, 2018-January 3, 2019) was the portrait of the artist, negotiating with different places of residences and jobs. So, gardens from London and Lahore, horticultural tools, archives on various species of plants, names of different vegetation, as well as antique carpets (Kashan and Tribal) of floral patterns with layouts of Hyde Park, Versailles Gardens and plan of Lahore Cantonment culminated in the private data of an artist.

But long before breaking the geographical and psychological borders of countries, Alesworth had entered into another domain; he was one of the first generation of Pakistani artists now termed as ‘Karachi Pop’. A characteristic of his work from that period -- early 1990s -- was appropriation of ‘found’ imagery, materials and technique, mostly in urban background/context.

Over the years, the city has been replaced with nature. Earlier, Alesworth’s collages, metal sculptures, mixed media constructions and videos investigated urban aesthetics. While doing that, he was also working as a garden consultant for private houses and organisations, including Aga Khan Cultural Services. It is only lately that the two sides and streaks of his ‘tasks’ have merged. His recent art is a bridge between the man-made environment and nature (a garden is the meeting point where a civilised individual tries to tame nature).

Whether situated in the centre of a city like Lawrence Garden in Lahore or on the outskirts like Kew Gardens in London, a park reminds one of nature within the concrete jumble of a town. Alesworth’s work is a map of man’s interaction and inference with nature. One came across digital prints based on documents from Kew Garden’s archives about different kinds of plants, superimposed with cut-outs of stems, leaves, and flowers; carpets with motifs that are a traditionally stylised form of vegetation; an oil painting (collaboration with Angela Lizon) comprising of a typical still life with a vase and flowers, skilfully rendered; and descriptions of plants in a scientific tone on archival sheets, all allude to the way mankind treats, transforms and pollutes nature or the current condition of the environment. In a number of prints and mixed media, Alesworth created montages: a TV monitor inserted in the middle of grass; cans of different beverages pressed against foliage; bottles scattered on green fields; abandoned furniture in an open lot.

His other prints delineate intervention of a different sort. The tools used for gardening, sections of pruned hedges, cultivated bushes are attempts to beautify nature but, in a sense, also mutilate it. These works can be read as a metaphor of learning or teaching. Alesworth has taught several generations of artists at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (1989-2014) and at BNU (2005-2015). He now does occasional tutoring in the UK. Thus the work can be a reflection on the role and relevance of the training of artists -- if one can ‘make’ artists by ‘cultivating’ them.

Whether it’s organising a garden or guiding a young person in art, there is the presence of power, no matter how covert. You change a piece of nature as well as an individual according to your ideas of perfection. Persistence of power is questioned in the solo show of Alesworth, documenting different names of vegetation, in Latin or in the vernacular. After constructing various documents (‘The Kew Letter’; ‘India Office 1892, Cyperus’; ‘Royal Exotic Nursery, Papya’) in some of his works, he composed a grid with labels of plants from Lawrence Garden (‘The Garden of Babel’). These included indigenous, popular and Latin names, suggesting ‘different roots’ of a natural phenomenon.

Arguably the term ‘different roots’ is the key to decode the art, aesthetics and state of David Chalmers Alesworth. In a sense, all his work stems from his life spent in varied places and professions. But, interestingly, the artist manages to convert a personal experience into a wider concern, akin to Amos Oz saying that reading "Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio’, taught me that sometimes the more provincial a story is, the more universal it may become". What one saw on the walls of Koel Gallery was a chronicle of past observation and private fixation but these turned into narratives about structures that govern a society.

Along with the artist’s completely detached tone of a botanical researcher, occasionally you spotted a shift, with painterly marks and blending of techniques (like in ‘Arcadia’, a collaboration between David and Natasha, his 7-year-old daughter). More than these, these works denoted an important feature -- the difference between fact and fabrication, reality and replication. This was experienced in the triptych ‘Fig.1+Fig.2, Phasmid Project’ (a collaboration with Adnan Madani). In the photo print on rag paper, you read a detailed description of an insect, which is transported to a "foreign environment", and the study was carried out by the two artists between June 1977 and August 1980 (notwithstanding the fact that Madani, the other participant of the research was born in 1977!) which included drawing of its wings and parts of body as well as names of two personages, an English botanist (George Steveens?) and a certain Hakeem, (Meerza Sheerazee, actually the maternal grandfather of Madani) "who accompanied Charles Napier and Richard Burton during their London trips and worked as interpreter".

The most enticing aspect of this work is its doubt. No one is sure if these two characters existed, but one knows they are real as they reflect two sides of one person. The artist, the gardener, the gora, the desi -- David Alesworth!

A walk in the fictional garden