This article was originally published in the December 2021, Issue #6 of The Democracy Chain.
I live in a garden. The garden is the pastime of my landlord who spends the warmer months of each year tinkering, inspecting his grounds. The garden keeps him company. Always, I see him passing from here to there on his RV — off to meet tree doctors who inspect his trees and make recommendations. Or over there, in the far corner, to see about some part of the lawn that’s either too dry or too muddy. Back again, this time behind the house to spray his fruit trees with organic pesticides. And then again to the front gate to meet a sprinkler technician who has come to get the dry grass green again and the muddy patch dry. Tree doctors return when the evergreens show signs of overwatering. The landlord wraps his fruit trees in nets to protect the fruit from animals, only to visit them subsequently each day to extract ensnared hummingbirds, some already dead. As a result of his activities, I remember the garden exists as a manufactured space that corresponds with my landlord’s power.
If I leave the garden, the neighbors say hello. They comment about the landlord. They don’t like the fence around the perimeter of his land. They want to know what goes on inside. If they peered over the wall, they would disparage his abundance of grass. He knows this. Grass is a notorious waste of water and he mentions it occasionally — pointing out the two wells he can legally use without restriction, a point that often leads to assessments about civic regulation. Because the town is backwards, he says, water rights are reserved to one bullet point on an agenda of fifteen items. More pressing concerns inevitably eat up the time, so nothing changes. But he knows better. The neighbors know this too. I don’t mention the coolness of his property, the way the grass emits moisture, the way the maple trees and fruit trees cast cooling non-native shadows on the ground such that I sometimes lie on my back to gaze at the sky, lazily drifting off.
“The garden is a space of potential,” remarks the Tucson-based Iranian artist, Nazafarin Lotfi over the phone. I walked through the arroyo beyond my landlord’s fence as we spoke. The arroyo is an organic space defined by the historic patterns of flash floods. Its seasonal instability resists commodification — no one in their right mind would build here — and its pathways snake through residential neighborhoods, past the backyards of houses, a thoroughfare for all kinds of species.
Conversations with Lotfi always consider how we differentiate between what is inside and outside and where borders lie, but especially how borders are porous. Last summer we focused primarily on deserts; she had an exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art, “Where Two Seas Meet.” In the gallery, dark blue walls instilled a meditative space in which select flood lights illuminate, among other things, a photograph mounted on the wall. “All things that grow” (2021) features a gray orb that looks ever so slightly deflated, a little earth-like with white, cloud-like forms patterning the surface. The orb is situated within a fallen tree trunk and surrounded by tawny grass. A single human arm reaches out of it. In another photo from the same series, the orb sits in a larger field, again with a limb extending from its center. The back of a head crests above the orb’s topmost curve, identity still obscured. Accompanying papier mâché sculptures rest on the floor, similarly illuminated, though these appear more like discarded fabrics, one bulbous as though concealing something, perhaps a figure. A second photograph stands perpendicular on the floor, capturing the charismatic orb again, this time partially reflected in a natural pool of water. All of the forms convey anthropomorphic properties. Lotfi took these photographs in the Sonoran Desert, a site known for the potentially fatal journey it affords migrants who enter the U.S. illegally. The artist illustrates how bodies try to become the environment as though to exempt themselves from human boundaries.
Nazafarin Lotfi, “Traces,” detail, 2021, papier-mâché, colored pencil, graphite and paint, 10 x 33 x 21”
As more and more people are on the move, the borders become flash points, reflexive political exercises whose significance is exponentially greater than their physical measure. Imagine the consequence for Leif Elggren and Carl Maichael von Hausswolff, who established the micronation of Elgaland-Vargaland in 1992 consisting of the borders of other countries. Perhaps in response to intensifying border conditions, thirteen arts organizations across five states and two nations have collaborated to produce cross-disciplinary discussions and art projects on the topic of the Southern Border. “Desierto Mountain Time” opened in September (and will continue until May) in the interest of facilitating public discourse following what organizers refer to as “an unprecedented time of patience and uncertainty,” hoping to “[shine] a light on the hub of vital, interconnected arts activity happening in our shared region, and [engaging] art as a means of political, social, economic, and environmental dialogues.” Both Elgaland-Vargaland and “Desierto Mountain Time” undermine the authority of borders, redefining borders and ownership, commonality and entitlement.
I think about people lining borders around the world—Iraqi Kurds shivering in the woods between Belarus and Poland, for instance, and the subsequent dispute of national policy, the ways in which nations weaponize exiled individuals’ bodies to prove a point, like an aggregate of symbolic matter. Will you, Poland, stand to leave these innocent people shuddering in the woods? How dare you, Belarus, use the suffering of innocent people to force the hand of Poland and the European Union. Or more recently with lives lost on the English Channel — migrants passing between massive commercial cargo ships — there has arisen a dispute of responsibility between the UK and France. Who is accountable? Countries wish to hold the so-called coyotes responsible, as though we haven’t all agreed that the pursuit of happiness isn’t a basic human right. Never mind the ongoing contestation of the Southern US border, used repeatedly to signify the strength of a given political administration. Has Biden let too many people into our great nation since taking office? Recently a self-proclaimed Texas cavalry lined their cars along the Rio Grande to block Haitians refugees who arrived, carrying only plastic bags, because their native country is so distressed with the coincident factors of natural disaster and political unrest.
Undocumented Migration project, “Hostile Terrain 94: Toe Tag Wall Prototype,” 2021, 16 x 20’ map with tags. Courtesy of Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College
And this is the thing: natural disasters strain socio economic and political conditions, which means global borders will only get more exacerbated. A traveling installation, “Hostile Terrain 94,“ recently opened at the Museum of Us in San Diego and serves as a reminder of how we have already been personally affected by loss at the border. It’s an interactive project, produced by Sanchita Balachandran and Alessandro Angelini of the Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum, that seeks to “rehumanize” migrants who died while crossing the Sonoran Desert with over 3,200 toe tags that visitors are invited to fill out with names of loved ones. America. My landlord’s garden. Exclusive places where, supposedly, admittance affords opportunity, legality, the right to individuality, the freedom to cultivate, and a sense of belonging in a nourishing space.
This past fall Lotfi presented work about gardens at a Chicago gallery, Regards. “Maps of No Return” included multiple framed drawings based on the footprints of garden spaces. Much of this work was developed while Lotfi visited her hometown in Iran, a place noticeably altered by development and climate change. With less water, once prolific fruit trees are dying out, even as more and more of the older houses are being replaced by high-rises. “I was looking at architectural plans from historical gardens in Iran,” Lotfi says. “Then layered and combined architectural elements from my [Arizona] house’s earth view as well as that of my parents’ Iranian home. The combination of the real and ideal is very interesting to me.” I look out the window and notice a small hawk in a far tree, sitting perfectly still, studying the ground for something to eat. “In the old archetypal Persian gardens,” Lotfi says, “they would bring animals from all four corners of the world to recreate a representation of the world. It was supposed to be a harmonious space. The geometric patterning also comes from the idea of harmony and order … I would assume the world meant the [Persian] Empire — Africa through East Asia.” The garden thus represents stability and dominion, particularly the magic of the gardener to create an oasis in the middle of seemingly barren landscapes. In his article, “Geopolitics of Tabula Rasa: Persian Garden and the Idea of City,” Hamed Khosravi wrote, “The idea of the king creating a fertile garden out of barren land, bringing symmetry and order out of chaos, and duplicating the ‘divine paradise on earth’, constituted a powerful statement symbolizing authority, fertility, and legitimacy” (Journal of Architecture and Journalism, 2014). Lotfi’s drawings are decidedly abstract, calling forth the ways in which a garden is an idea, a hope that compartmentalizes space. “We imagine our existence in the garden,” Lotfi said. “It is a way of life — something equivalent to the courtyard in the southwest. You don’t think about stepping out [into the garden] because it’s part of your house. Growing up the garden was a private space where we could be safe and comfortable, removed from the hostility of public space, the self-policing … the war.”
I return to a regrettably abandoned interview I did with Eduardo Kohn on the occasion of his book, “How Forests Think” (2015). “Think first of language,” he observed, “Language creates a super important dualism that’s part of what it is to be human, which is that symbolic reference has to disconnect itself from the world from which it comes. In order for me to have a meaningful conversation with you about sitting down and standing up, we have to know that those words are disconnected from the actions.” Refugees along borders undermine the symbolic authority of arbitrary but historic borders. Yet we all need shelter. “That’s the nature of much of human life,” Kohn went on. “The creation of shelters, creation of clothing, agriculture, plant life and animal husbandry. You’re taking these things that were embedded in complicated environments and pulling them out of context to control them … Dualisms are never absolute, but we need to try to figure out those connections despite whatever divisions have been learned, to go back and learn to use connective logic to structure of a new form of thinking about agency and politics.” Extracting those things, exercising a degree of control over them to make them predictable commodities — all of that is possible in the garden and in a stable world.
But our world is unstable, and increasingly so. As climate change ruptures the Holocene’s predictability, more and more people will migrate, adding increasing pressure to national boundaries and identities — even to the extent that the seemingly unassailable concept of property ownership is called into question. Why buy a house if one anticipates an onslaught of natural disasters? According to the World Bank more than 200 million people will move within their own country by 2050. Clearly our modern infrastructure is not equipped to fully absorb those shifting patterns. Whereas some wealthy countries throw money at the reinforcement of existing borders — whether Trump’s border wall, tightening restrictions on the English Channel, or pumping water from the shorelines of cities like Miami — we would do better to acknowledge the radical changes we face and cultivate new forms of thinking that embrace rather than resist the flow.