Upon my most recent visit to Rudolph Hall, I visited the “garden—pleasure” exhibition. Although the exhibition is run by graduate students in the Yale School of Architecture, it is a collaborative work produced by artists with varying ties to Yale and, more broadly, New Haven. Yale Schools of Drama, Music, and Art, as well as local non-profit arts spaces like Artspace, created a space for participatory interaction with the goal of reshaping viewers’ understanding of the present. I was the only one in the Architecture Gallery at the time of my visit. I’m used to walking alone in empty museums, but somehow this time felt different. The exhibit isn’t in a traditional setting—it offers instead an experience.
“garden—pleasure” provides a hole in the Yale bubble. While the exhibition is on Yale’s campus, “garden—pleasure” focuses on New Haven and strengthening Yale’s relationship to it. All assumptions about museums must be checked at the door. Much like how a real garden grows and changes over time, the pieces in “garden—pleasure” move and change over its three-month exhibition. The monumental plywood forms in the gallery can be rearranged to resemble pews, provide space for a stage, or even stack to make a bar. Projections of flowers onto walls and transient quotes created what I first believed to be an unsuccessful exhibit. I almost wished I’d brought a friend to bring me back to reality.
In the center of the gallery are plywood “figures” that resemble scaffolding. At first, I wondered if I’d stumbled upon a work in progress. These figures take advantage of the vertical two-story height of the location. Some of the scaffolding is painted with a blue camouflage-like pattern and while other parts are left blank. The shapes of these figures almost look as if they were failed boxes from a woodworking class. Their infrastructures are precise and sound, but the exterior sheets of wood curl out from the interior planks. The plywood used to construct these figures do not seem old, but the bent wood gives the impression of a piece of paper left to the elements.
I took advantage of my solitude in this gallery and broke one of the cardinal rules of museums: I touched one of the figures. The strangeness of the exhibit called for me to step out of my comfort zone. No screaming sirens. No security guard coming to handcuff me. The next thing I knew, I was inside a plywood interior. I found a pink light flashing against one of the inside walls, imperceptible from the outside. I looked inside some of the other interiors and found other light projections, as well as configurations of sticks and strings. Was this what I was supposed to do? The interactive nature of “garden—pleasure” is unique, but not one-of-a-kind. Other tactile art, exhibits tailored to the human touch, are beginning to gain traction.
Between the figures are structures that look like crosses between vanilla beans and pool noodles. The long black structures are encapsulated in thin, clear plastic. The way the plastic and black rod-like objects are configured, it is almost reminiscent of a plastic straw in a wrapper. These rods hang from the ceiling above the plywood figures, showcasing their relation to the height of the gallery. Mushrooms and other fungi grow from some of the rods. Is this the “garden” element of “garden—pleasure”?
Other than the rods and the figures, a box of milkweed seedlings sits in the main gallery room. Milkweed is a staple in the monarch butterfly’s diet. Because of habitat loss and climate change, 90 percent of the areas where milkweed once grew is now gone. With the newly endangered status of milkweed, the monarch butterfly is not too far behind. The milkweed in the exhibition is alive, all of the sprouts reaching toward the closest window. While the figures and the rods are stagnant in their environment, the milkweed moves and reacts to the room.
Visitors are free to experience the inorganic elements of the exhibition. We can touch the exhibit and venture inside its structures. The only piece we are not allowed to touch, however, is the real garden. The milkweed’s protection is similar to the precautions in which museum curators partake in a normal museum setting. The different pieces in the gallery only fit together in their inherent oddness, leaving the visitor to make sense of what is going on and come to their own conclusion.
The mental image of a garden is a peaceful place celebrating flora. The artists behind his exhibit want “garden—pleasure” to mean something different to each visitor. The goal is to create a “pluralistic critical mass” of different interpretations from each visitor to the space. “Garden—pleasure” creates a semi-organic beauty within our bleak, utilitarian world. Perhaps by seeing “garden—pleasure” for what it is, we can go on to analyze our world in this light.
Part III of garden—pleasure will be free and open to the public until Feb. 8, 2020, in the Yale Architecture Gallery.