Tina Keane: Le Jardin

Sketch, London, 2005

Over the last twenty-five years Tina Keane has produced a body of work notable for its tireless experimentation with new technologies. Her interest in the electronic and the digital has manifested itself through numerous projects encompassing interactive live-streaming media works, electronic billboards, neons, lightboxes, cassette sound pieces, and countless other forms of intervention. It might seem slightly perverse then, that given the opportunity of developing a twelve-screen video installation for her new exhibition at Sketch, she has chosen that most sedately un-technological subject: the garden. Clearly, this is not an artist interested in new media for its own sake; Keane, instead, simply exploits its potential as a tool in allowing her poetic meditations to take shape.

Her new video work Le Jardin plays continuously in the gallery, its twelve projectors forming a series of massive video triptychs across each of the four walls. In addition to this visual feast, the unrelenting sound of quickened footsteps over gravel can be heard; the effect, unsurprisingly, is one of complete immersion. Close-ups of flowers opening constantly feature, their time-lapse photographic effects by turns beautiful and hackneyed – the imagery a little too familiar from its over-use in advertising and in countless nature programmes. Shots of blossom-laden branches of trees rustling in the wind appear, then disappear. More flowers, this time filling a whole wall in a vast freeze of video. Then they too are gone, and your attention is drawn to a tranquil garden landscape with an ornate Japanese pagoda: a rare piece of man-made stillness in the heart of a technologically animated natural vista. The imagery is as overwhelming as it is seductive. The only brief respite comes when, suddenly, the pounding footsteps cease, and a whole wall turns into sky. The silence is deafening: only in its absence do you become aware that the whole thing has all the time been augmented by the dubbed-in whirring of a film projector. Narratives begin to form in your mind – is this the moment when an unseen protagonist has collapsed to the floor, gazing to the heavens in exasperation? Or has some manic botanist paused for a moment to catch their breath, exhausted by the sheer abundance of stimulus? But as swiftly as they arrived, these fleeting hints at comprehensible events dissolve into another rhythmic round of fragmented imagery.

Perhaps this kind of brief impasse was intended to be read more abstractedly – could it be a metaphor for, say, the gap in our understanding of an alien culture, for instance? Keane herself supports this assertion: she says that the work ‘visually explores the idea of personal and public space and the philosophy/politics of the East and West,’ noting that, ‘the Japanese distilled a form of gardening that reflected (and defined) their culture.’ The garden is here made to stand for the passage between East and West; a concrete manifestation of the fluidity of cultural exchange. As soon as you start reading the work from this particular angle, the imagery takes on a different character. Apart from the direct glances at actual Japanese gardens (which serve to confirm our expectations of what an authentic Japanese garden ought to look like), there are numerous allusions to their influence on Western art. Formerly serene images of blossoming trees start to take on the soulful intensity of van Gogh’s portentous renderings of nature, and lilies floating mundanely on the surface of a pond lead us to recall the visionary intensity of Monet’s sublime handling of the subject.

Despite the often fugitive and hazy origins of the imagery it is hard not to be seduced by its sheer beauty. In fact the overall effect is one of almost barbaric splendour – this is a wonderfully ostentatiously overwhelming spectacle. And whilst the exquisitely luxurious interior of the gallery at Sketch does tend to encourage any work installed here to be experienced as pure spectacle, the criticality and intelligence inherent in Le Jardin ensures that the work resolutely refuses to consumable as unthinking visual candy. Keane’s use of the moving image is too sophisticated to grant us the pleasure of sinking back into those plush white sofas and passively observing; she is too interested in what she describes as the ‘heightened self-awareness generated by interactive systems and immersive environments – the construction or articulation of ambiguous spaces and the spectators’ relationship with them.’ This assault on our expectations as viewers serves to make problematic the very ability of the moving image – and by implication, language itself – to communicate. Visually seductive and yet with a compelling refusal to satisfy, Le Jardin steadfastly refuses to pander to the pleasure-seeking superficiality of its trendy venue.

Review published in Dogmanet magazine, Sep 2005.