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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Visiting Asger Jorn's Albisola retreat

When Danish artist Asger Jorn (1914-73) first visited Albisola on the Ligurian coast it already had a reputation as a vibrant artists' colony. The Futurists, and later others, including Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, had been attracted there by the possibility of working with the local ceramics manufacturers. In summer 1957 Jorn was able to purchase his own modest haçienda - a collection of ruined buildings, apparently dating from the time of Pope Julius II, perched high on a hillside with a panoramic Mediterranean view. Together with his family and that of his friend Umberto Gambetta - a veteran who had been a prisoner of war after the Battle of Stalingrad - he set about making the ruins habitable. Presumably plans for the garden took shape shortly thereafter. Judging by Troels Andersen's biography Asger Jorn 1914-1973 (2001), Jorn was formidably productive, compelled to radically rethink his work and to offer ways of reshaping the world - or at least as much of it as he could. A photograph of Jorn on a moped making tracks in thick clay for his ceramic Large Relief (1959) captures this mark-making spirit.

More than a decade after purchasing the property the results of Jorn and Gambetta's joint labours were celebrated in the catalogue Jorn/Le Jardin d'Albisola (1973), which was planned by Jorn shortly before his death and depicts the garden in full bloom. On every page riotous, clashing colours and patterns spring out, celebrating the garden's electric mix of art, architecture and horticulture. The best thing about it is that it's so obviously the result of spontaneous outbursts of joy and vibrant intuitive impulse rather than heaps of cash or a rigorously executed design. It doesn't rely on exotic species or expensive materials. Instead, it is created from recycled stone and mosaics of smashed ceramic tile, and planted with hardy, common varieties of flora, as if to say 'everybody can do this, and should'. In nooks and crannies Jorn's odd and amusing ceramic figures peek out from among the foliage. Paths wind around and cross each other like the lines in his paintings. It's a labyrinth, but the kind that makes you want to get lost in it. Jorn's friend and colleague Guy Debord saw the garden as the perfect expression of unrealized hopes and dreams of Situationist architecture. In his text entitled 'L'Architecture sauvage' (Wild Architecture) in Jorn/Le Jardin d'Albisola, he wrote: 'Jorn shows just how, even on the concrete issue of our appropriation of space, everyone can undertake the reconstruction of the land around him. The paintings and the sculptures, the steps that never quite match the differences in the ground level, the trees, the various elements with their various additions, the water tank, the vines, the sundry (yet always welcome) debris, all go to make up one of the most complex landscapes one could possibly visit in a fraction of a hectare.' The garden encourages the eye to wander, without stipulating focal points. Sideways glances are rewarded with intriguing clusters of pebbles, or bits of cave formation and the like. It's as if you're encouraged to forget the huge sky above and the ocean below, and there is always a bench or a shady corner at hand.

An impromptu excursion to the garden during a symposium for Albisola's 2nd International Ceramic Biennale (a project held each September to invite collaboration between contemporary artists and local ceramics manufacturers) revealed a different picture. These days the garden is in a somewhat weed-ridden hiatus. The buildings are emptied of furniture, although Jorn's studio still has its paint-splattered ledge where he used to prop up his canvases, and there are a number of wall murals and plastered-in paintings to be discovered if you peer through the dirty windows. After the death of Gambetta the grounds were bequeathed to the local council and, although there have long been plans to make it accessible to the public, nothing has been done except the cataloguing and removal of some of Jorn's ceramic works from their ledges and niches. Perhaps this situation reflects a natural return to a ruinous state; perhaps it is preferable to a half-hearted attempt at making it a cultural tourist attraction. But Jorn wanted it to be preserved and shared, as any passionate gardener would.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003
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