Raining on the Digital Winter Garden

Live Writing: Past, present and future are linked together in the Winter Garden by Michael Newman, Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths

Raining on the Digital Winter Garden

I arrived at the ICA from a summer downpour. Inside the Studio where POSTmatter has its exhibition, rain can be heard on the concave skylights, pooling in droplets so it is like one is underneath a pond. In the 18th century estates rooms were built in the centre of lakes, extending beneath the surface of the water to preserve ice that perhaps had been brought from an iceberg in the arctic, so that the noble or nouveau riche owners could enjoy sorbets through the hot summer. Climate defied if not controlled. Recently in the newspapers, there has been much discussion of a UCL history project tracing the slaveholders in the British Isles who were compensated at the abolition of slavery – there were so many that the money was drawn from taxes on consumption, and none of it went to compensate the slaves.

Recently at La Monnaie in Paris, I saw a reconstruction of a Winter Garden (Jardin d'hiver, 1974) by Marcel Broodthaers, including framed 19th century images of animals, including camels, and a 16mm film of the original winter garden installation. (Remembering also that Broodthaers’ Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers (La Bataille de Waterloo) was originally made for at the ICA in 1975 — today downstairs the armed police come in to use the toilet.) Nature and the 'exotic' other are both the spoils of imperialism. Another part of it was a reconstruction of the Musée d'art moderne – Départment des Aigles. Now 'Aigle' (eagle) sounds very much like the French pronunciation of the name Hegel, the philosopher of totality and progress, and of the historical art museum.

Does the winter garden provide an analogy for digital space? How has the digital changed the relation to nature? The digitally constructed with the artificially grown? Nature encountered online as an artefact of zeros and ones. We know that nature always was a representation, both symbolic and imaginary, and that it cannot be equated with the real. And now there is no wilderness that is not affected by the human. Yet it is precarious, subject to destruction and extinction in a way that is not the same as digital decay and obsolescence, vulnerable in a word. Our sense of ethical responsibility is surely different.

The winter garden is an architectural structure – a pavilion – that is also a frame. It sets a limit, domesticates. Its opposite would have been nature as sublime, beyond the limits of the understanding. Technology also has its sublime, but the relation to limits has switched. The natural sublime is now the limit to the supposedly infinite progress of the technological sublime. The revenge of the analogue, perhaps!

Broodthaers' Jardin d'hiver exposed the Empire behind nature as artifice, just as the museum was subjected to the insignia of the Eagle as its principle of totalisation. What has changed is not domination and exploitation, but the relation to the future.


Michael Newman is Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths. Alongside teaching he has curated exhibitions at Independent Curators Inc. in New York, the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and ICA London. He wrote this essay live at the ICA Studio on 24th July at 5-6pm GMT, as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at the ICA 20th - 26th July 2015.

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