Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus.
The term hortus conclusus has its origins in the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs – an erotic poem written around the 3rd century BCE, celebrating physical desire and sexual intimacy. It’s lusty, earthy stuff, full of yearning and bodies and fluids, and the garden courses through it, a metaphor both for purity and fertility: ‘A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up’.
Lilia Luganskaia’s Hortus takes its inspiration from a similarly cloistered practice: Victorian flower books – annotated volumes of botanical illustrations through which genteel young women of the era could display a kind of socially acceptable scholarship, and perhaps, by implication, a hidden sensuality. Although its explicit subject is the language of flowers, Luganskaia’s book is also a meditation on the unnaturalness of the garden as an enclosed space, and on the constrained and constructed nature of femininity.
The book is organised into five sections or stanzas. In the first of these, we see four photographs of the artist’s studio, with images and fragments of mirrors lying in rows on the floor, postcards and test prints lining the walls. The studio is itself an enclosed space, set apart from the world that the artist observes, and Luganskaia’s is as orderly as a medieval garden, her materials organised with geometric precision.
Although its explicit subject is the language of flowers, Luganskaia’s book is also a meditation on the unnaturalness of the garden as an enclosed space, and on the constrained and constructed nature of femininity.
The second stanza, ‘Rustic Oracle’ – a 12-month cycle of still-lives created from flowers that Luganskaia collected from urban gardens near her home in west Amsterdam – is the core of the project. Each month is represented by a different arrangement of flowers and mirrors; occasionally, the mirror fragments reflect fragments of Luganskaia’s studio as well. Goldenrod, mallow, buddleia, thistle, geranium, dahlia … though the species in Luganskaia’s still-lives are often found in formal gardens, most of them are hardy types, growing rogue on any patch of available ground. As the months progress, the arrangements become increasingly contrived – the floral segments more carefully pruned, the mirror-segment structures more elaborately geometric. The last few constructions resemble architectural follies – the mirror fragments organised into miniature pagodas and terraces landscaped with foliage and moss.
The remaining three stanzas are much shorter, but they push the work beyond a simple reinterpretation of the Victorian flower album and towards a more subtle challenge to some notoriously intractable binaries. In the third stanza, we encounter a series of abstract poems, each one linked to an individual flower arrangement. Using Victorian-era ‘floriography’ texts (which set out the meaning and symbolism of specific flowers), Luganskaia translated each arrangement into a unique verse. Here we circle back to the Song of Songs – not, this time, as fluid verse, but in halting sentence fragments that read like a cross between a bullet-pointed list and a haiku. It’s not the elegance of language that stands out here, but its failure to accommodate slippery qualities such as ‘nature’.
Following this is a short section of ‘Temporary Mirror Sculptures’ – just mirrors, no flowers. Like the photographs at the beginning of the book, these have a more documentary character. Together, they put a kind of reflexive frame around the project, commenting on its strategies and its limits. It’s interesting, for instance, to note the way that the mirrors create dimensional shifts within the images, as well as openings out into the small, restricted space of the studio. This brief stanza sets out a challenge the idea of enclosure: the boundaries of the garden, the boundaries of the image, the boundary between the confined space of the studio and the outside world.
Flowers and mirrors are two powerful emblems of a delicate and passive femininity. Hortus digs to the root of stereotypes such as these.
The final section of the book – ‘Twenty-Four October Plants’ – includes twelve selections from a series of twenty-four polaroids. Each photograph depicts a flower arrangement set on a plinth, the hard flash from the Polaroid camera throwing stark outlines onto the wall behind. There’s not much in the way of order or control here: the plant’s stems have been set roughly into kenzan (or ‘flower frogs’, the spiked holders used in Ikebana flower arrangement) and the resulting ‘arrangements’ feel more like mugshots, their subjects trapped and awkward under the harsh light. Are they deliberately sloppy floral creations, or attempts to mimic a more natural setting? It’s impossible to tell – and that, I think, is the point.
There’s something anarchic about this last set of images, and they cement a theme that courses steadily throughout the book. Hortus is about flowers, but it’s also about boundaries – particularly those that we’re in the habit of drawing between the categories of nature and culture, which are themselves used to map out distinctions between feminine and masculine. Such boundaries aren’t inherent, of course – they’re constructed and reinforced in thought, speech and action. Flowers and mirrors are two powerful emblems of a delicate and passive femininity. Hortus digs to the root of stereotypes such as these.