We Must Cultivate Our Garden: #52mantras
Photos by Scott Massey
It stood tall and spoke silently to all those who passed by. Between Pender and Hastings looking down on Carrall Street, a string of green bulbs on top of the Portland Hotel Society Pennsylvania building formed the phrase, “WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN.” This travelling installation by Nathan Coley presented by Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery is the second in our original series, “52 City Mantras.”
When Coley’s piece was initially installed, all eyes were to the sky. At 425 Carrall St, Fetch Kiosk manager, Lisa Dauncey, became the inadvertent curator of the exhibit, gathering all forms of curiosity and interpretation from the public as she worked directly under the exhibit's green glow. With a quick Google search of the phrase, she soon located the source to an 18th century satire novella entitled Candide, written by François-Marie Arouet , better known as Voltaire. Lisa scrolled through the synopsis outlining the disillusioning journey of a sheltered young man full of parodies, wild humour, and tongue-in-cheek ridicule. Concluding on the very last line, the main character Candide announces, “we must cultivate our garden,” as if advising others to act practically and not optimistically when faced with similar disillusionment. While explaining the reference to an a Portland Hotel Society member, his response was, “Hm. Ya, that kind-of fits … for this area…”; that is to say, Downtown Eastside Vancouver.
I relayed this story to Nigel Prince, director of the Contemporary Art Gallery on Nelson Street, and he smiled with a sense of satisfaction. “That’s exactly the point,” he explained, “Nathan and I wanted to see what kind of stories we could generate with his work.” To an extent perhaps we’ll never fully know, this looming structure inspired true, genuine responses to the DTES neighbourhood. During an interview with the “WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN” artist, Nathan Coley, he remarked, “I’m interested in the work being read, and misread, and ignored...”
The rest of Nathan’s exhibit, “Knowledge, Kindness, and Courage” speaks to similar themes of meaning-making within structures, monuments, and memorials. After browsing the gallery, it appears Coley’s absence of the identity of people, objects, and contextual actions turns what was once familiar into the unfamiliar (i.e. the estranged). The viewer is left to construct a new understanding to the piece and as a result, they must create their own connection to the art in order to reach even a basic level of comprehension. Thinking back to the brightly lit quote perched above the DTES community, perhaps Coley is encouraging us to find a connection with those who we tend to find strange and unfamiliar. Without context, identity, and understanding, isn’t it any wonder that when walking down Hastings Street our common approach to behaviour is to keep our head down and our guard up?
This week, we at This Is Vancity encourage you to reflect on this city mantra, “WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN.” By no means is this article the only way to “read” Coley’s work. Find your own interpretation. Create your own meaning. The key point is to be active, not passive. Look up, not down and consider the practical opportunities available to you as a citizen of Vancouver. Although this exhibit ran from November 22, 2012 to January 20, 2013, we invite you to carry on its legacy by using the hashtag, #WeMustCultivateOurGarden or #WMCOG, via Twitter, Instagram, etc. Coley’s work will be missed but not forgotten and perhaps its absence is a new form of cultivation. Click here to read more from the Contemporary Art Gallery and here for Nathan Coley’s interview.
Also, look out for more public art mantras; if you find any we should look into, email us at email@example.com