30 January 2009

Watering the Seeds of Doubt

Jamelie Hassan's garden of light questions the process of peace

Miriam Jordan and Julian Haladyn
The Lester B Pearson Garden for Peace and Understanding was designed by the landscape architect Paul Ehnes in the grounds of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. It commemorates the life of Pearson, who graduated from Victoria University in 1919 and served as Chancellor from 1952-1959. As the fourteenth Prime Minister of Canada and the 1957 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Pearson was a fierce advocate for peace who, as the inscription on the railing overlooking the garden reads, 'established Canada's reputation in the 20th Century as one of the world's great peacekeeping nations and helped define Canada's modern foreign policy'.

A small waterfall flows from beneath this railing and cascades into a calm pool of water surrounded by a lush perennial garden that includes bugleweed, anemones, coneflowers, globe thistle and heuchera.1 Flat stones in the pool make a shallow, gradated water garden, punctuated by larger rocks similar to the space in a Japanese garden. The calm and peaceful atmosphere of this tribute to Pearson comes from Paul Ehnes' use of 'water in all of its states to illustrate the process of education which is essential for peace'. 2

The winner of the 2001 Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, Jamelie Hassan's practice as a Lebanese-Canadian artists, writer and curator often confronts issues of colonialism, patriarchy, militarism, censorship, sexuality and cultural identity. She explores personal and public histories often ignored in public discourse, such as the salient fact that peace is not a daily reality for all too many people throughout the world. She chose the Lester B Pearson Garden as the context for her installation Garden of Light, a site-specific artwork that was part of Nuit Blanche, an all-night art event that took place the night of September 30, 2006. This event featured more than 130 contemporary art projects that interacted with other sites throughout Toronto, including Maize Barbacoa, a corn roast in Yorkville Park by Hassan's partner Ron Benner.

For Garden of Light, Hassan added night-blooming lilies, plastic flowers that let of a soft glimmer of light when placed in the water and, also in the pool, a series of 10 letter-shaped ceramic pieces that spell the word 'eventually'. Through these elements, Hassan invited spectators to reconsider the concepts of peace and understanding specifically where Ehnes used water as a symbol for the process of peace.

The most interactive element of Hassan's installation was the glowing plastic flowers which could be seen floating throughout the space of the pool adding an intimate illumination to the garden. The flowers were transformed into an element of delight. When people realised that the flowers stopped glowing when removed from the water, they started to play with these flowers, picking them up and throwing them back into the water as through making wishes. This interactivity between the spectators and Garden of Light turned the calm, passive and meditative space of the Lester B Pearson Garden for Peace and Understanding into an arena of communal activity. By relating this participatory project to the conceptual construction of the garden itself (water as symbolic of peace and understanding), Hassan invited the spectators to become participants, actively working towards peace through the communality of play. The coming together of spectators from all walks of life during this one-night encounter illustrates the necessity for people to work together to forge real and enduring peace throughout the world.

This is heightened by the ceramic letters scattered throughout the pool. That these white letters might combine to form the word 'eventually' can easily be overlooked – a discreet reminder that peace has not been achieved in spite of our intentions, a reminder that we cannot sit passively by and hope that people will be achieved 'eventually'.

How easily this was overlooked can be seen in many responses published after the event, in which Garden of Light is discussed almost entirely in terms of the beauty of the glowing flowers. But anyone familiar with Hassan's work knows that her presentation of beauty is always accompanied by political commentary; in the case of this installation the commentary is very subtle and must be pieced together using the original intentions of the garden itself – a meditation on peace and understanding. The beauty of Garden of Light is that the peacefulness of the installation depends on a fragile moment in time when visitors come together and forget their differences in the play of the lights and water. The addition of the scattered letters adds to this participatory experience, in which the activity of piecing the word together required visitors to walk around the garden and, as was often the case, to talk to one another, communicating this little secret.
'Since that night', Ashley Gallaugher writes in her article on Nuit Blanche, 'when I look at the garden on my way home from class, it seems like something vital is missing. It was great seeing people interact with the garden'. 3 What is missing is the community that Hassan brought together for one evening with Garden of Light. The water in this garden symbolises the clarity, enlightenment and understanding that comes with peace. By situating her installation in this water Hassan planted a seed of doubt about whether we have truly reached this state of understanding. The fragmented letters drifted in the water, implying that if the currents come together in the right way, peace will follow – eventually.

1 For a list of the perennial plants in the garden, see http://www.vicu.utoronto.ca/Alumni/The_Lester_B_Pearson_Garden_for_Peace_and_Understanding/Perennial_Plant_List.htm
2 Victoria University website on The Lester B Pearson Garden for Peace and Understanding, http://www.vicu.utoronto.ca/Alumni/The_Lester_B_Pearson_Garden_for_Peace_and_Understanding.htm
3 Gallaugher, Ashley. "Nuit Blanch help us up all night, in a good way". The Strand, 15 October 2006: 11.

Jordan, Miriam and Jason Haladyn. 'Watering the Seeds of Doubt' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Miriam Jordan and Jason Haladyn and On Site review

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