In recent times of ecological turmoil, it is difficult to think of gardens as anything more than natures last refuge at the brink of erasure. Yet artist David C. Alesworth’s latest show at Koel Gallery “The Glory of the Garden” sees it as that and much more; a point of confluence for man and nature, a space informed by cultural social and spiritual underpinnings. This extensive body of works spanning his beautiful embroidered carpets, photographs, collages, drawings and paintings with its focus on colonial horticultural practices emerges from his own dual identity as a British Pakistani practicing as an artist and a landscape designer, as well as his inspirations from his grandfather, F.W. Alesworth, who was a horticulturist who had an HT rose named after him.
Alesworth refers to his practice as research based as he looks into old records of extensive garden projects such as Hyde Park and the Versailles, but his main focus seems to be on horticultural archives of Lawrence Gardens, Lahore which he has been studying through the Kew Garden Archives in London. These archival records also appear in some of his works, such as “Edgar Spooner Kew, Plants – Gardening the Archive Series”, layered with images from his own gardens and the various natural spaces that he has visited.
Other works seem to look at the garden as a social space where man meet nature and perhaps attempts to tame it. The “Machine in the Garden” series seems to look at this aspect, following man’s interventions within natural spaces and the tools employed to design and shape its aesthetics. However, in the “Walk in the Woods” series, there seems to be a certain environmental concern where these found objects within natural spaces have been photographed, and various forms of litter has been digitally juxtaposed onto natural elements.
In his works, Alesworth of course uses the term “garden” loosely, as a metaphor for nature itself, and perhaps even spaces that may represent diverse concepts for different people around the globe. Environmental problems can indeed also be seen as social problems, as one of the works in a show running parallel to this one at AAN Gandhara Art-Space talks about the displacement of forest dwelling tribal people due to deforestation and urban expansion. This social and cultural context that Alesworth refers to becomes most prominent in his sprawling embroidered tribal carpets, which are really the star of the show.
These intriguing works intervene upon old rugs — which represent an Eastern vision of the Char Bagh, perhaps a spiritual space of sorts in line with the Islamic belief of the gardens of Paradise — with contemporary garden concepts represented through embroidered maps. While these can easily be interpreted as impositions that seek to assimilate, appropriate and erase, Alesworth looks at them more as amalgamations and a process of reviving these old carpets, giving them new lives and purposes. In “Versailles, Kashan” for example, he stresses the fact that the designer of the Gardens of Versailles, Andre Le Notre, was inspired by the Islamic Gardens, and this layering in a way allows for a comparison between two different cultural interpretations and experiences of the concept of the garden. Versailles itself represents both a heavily cultural and social space, designed to impress and intimidate through its various groves and the occupying fountains and sculptures. Its design after the French Garden meant as spaces of leisure and luxury to be enjoyed by royalty, perfectly manicured and managed with extravagance, spoke of the lifestyle of the elite ruling class at the time, as did Mary Antoinette’s choice to design her own grove after the American sensibilities of a pseudo-natural approach resembling a spontaneous waterfall in the middle of carefully tamed wilderness.
Perhaps it is the fact of Alesworth’s dual identity, or the focus of his research itself, but at a point it becomes impossible not to read post-colonial subtext in his works. Even the spaces within Lahore that he studies carry a post-colonial baggage. Perhaps this is the truest testament to the power of the garden to be more than just a natural space, but a map of the world, representing our historical as well as contemporary experiences through it.