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A window onto Israeli settlers’ gardens

In ancient Mesopotamia kings would return from conquests with plants. They were trophies in the same way treasure was and there was a certain status attached to procuring them: “A garden represents wealth to acquire and buy the plants; wealth to have people to look after them and wealth of water especially in that region. They’re a status symbol and a symbol of power,” British artist Corinne Silva tells me.

Centuries later and lush green plants in the region are still a symbol of wealth and power, in Palestine at least. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli settlers consume around six times as much water as Palestinians, though the latter’s population is far bigger. Palestinian agriculture is suffering as a result yet the Israeli state has continued to plant gardens to earmark territory and reshape the landscape. “When you plant a garden you do so when you intend to stay somewhere,” says Silva.

Plants and the politics of landscape has been the focus of Silva’s work for the last 10 years. Garden State, her upcoming exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms in London, offers a subtle, yet powerful insight into how the Israeli state uses suburban gardens and national parks to colonise Palestinian territory, cut communities off from one another and cover the remains of Palestinian villages from 1948.

Silva hired a car with Israeli plates, visited 22 “Quality of Life” settlements and photographed their public and private gardens. These images became Gardening the Suburbs, an installation comprised of 110 photographs that loosely map these settlements as they extend from the coastal areas around Tel Aviv, up to the Green Line and onto the hills and valleys of the West Bank.

Settlements in the coastal areas, she explains, are poorer because they’re no longer strategically placed. This is visible in the gardens here which are decorated with generic coastal plants you might find in California or Southern Spain. They have green lawns surrounded by American-style plastic, white picket fences.

Settlements around the Green Line and Route 6 are more strategically placed, receive government subsidies to lure people in and, as a result, have much wealthier gardens. They are adorned with stone walls, recalls Silva, and lush, varied plants. They are scattered with hose pipes used to feed the abundant greenery.

In the outposts in the Jordan Valley gardeners are almost trying to create a biblical landscape, says Silva, reminiscent of photographs taken by Francis Frith in the 1850s. Frith was an English photographer who travelled to the Holy Land and attempted to take images which would evoke the European idea of the biblical landscape.

“Of course it didn’t – there were people living there and it wasn’t a barren wilderness,” she says. “But then you’re tempted to make it like that and I think you see that in their garden designs, they use a lot of rocks and there’s an attempt to make them quite wild and sensual looking; and ironically they’re often emulating Palestinian gardens.”

“What struck me,” she continues, “was that some of these gardens appear to have been very rapidly constructed and then made to look older and to look more embedded in the landscape than they actually are.” It’s an appearance that reflects the façade of the Israeli state, she says, and which comes across upon closer examination of her images.

“The wall installation is supposed to operate in a way that is quite alluring when you come in and you’re surrounded by all these pictures and they’re all green and lush and there is something quite compelling and sensual about them. Of course, a garden is an attractive thing. But the more you examine them the more you see the cracks in the façade. What is underneath that, what should have been there, what was destroyed to make that garden be there?”

“There’s this pretence that they’re being sold to people as a lifestyle choice. But of course there is this big mechanism behind where these places are being built and who’s putting money into having them built. The point is that it’s a very strategic move because once you house thousands and thousands of people, no matter how far talks of a different Palestine take place, those people are really going to put up a fight if they have to leave their homes.”

Inside the settlement blocs you can hear the sound of birds tweeting, recalls Silva; it’s tranquil and those built on hilltops enjoy sweeping views over the country. But they are not necessarily as serene as they appear: “There are gated communities springing up all over the world and people wanting to live in a ‘protected space’ and of course there’s no such thing. The garden is a protected space, an extension of the domestic space, but there’s a false sense of security there and you’re lulled into thinking that those places are safe places.”

Silva arrived in the country two weeks after a forest fire devastated Carmel Forest in the north of Israel, destroying more than 25,000 square kilometres of oak, cypress and pine trees over the course of four days. Wounded, Silva’s second installation is made up of nine photographs she took in the aftermath.

The images have been suspended from the ceiling so that visitors can move around them. “It’s very subjective and you’re confronted with these trees on a very human scale,” she says of the work, adding that forests are generally associated with beauty, or leisure time, but in Israel we are reminded of something darker. Since 1948 Israel has planted over 200 million trees in the country as a way to occupy land.

“The forests are 95 per cent planted and they’re planted with this intention to make the desert bloom. It’s a kind of continuation of Ben Gurion’s vision,” reflects Silva in reference to the first Israeli prime minister’s promise to make the desert bloom, or prosper.

“The forests are symbolic and they also have very practical purposes. By planting a forest, that land then gets classified as an Israeli national park. It can’t be built on, it can’t be altered, and they cover up the remains of Palestinian villages that were lost in 48. They also allow the Israeli state to move the migrants to Israel to position them in certain places around the country to work in planting.”

The images of Wounded are accompanied by a sound recording of Silva stumbling and pulling herself through the burnt trees and flora, made two years after the fire. By this time the natural flora of that region began to grow again and plants appeared that had not been seen for years.

Garden State, Silva’s upcoming book, includes photographs from Gardening the Suburbs and is set to be published this autumn. Included inside are observations from Dr Sabina Knees, head of floristic research at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, who has identified some of the plants in Silva’s photographs and the journeys they have taken.

Also inside is the text of a conversation between herself and architect Eyal Weizman about decolonisation and the future of the landscapes. Weizman told Silva that NASA reads Israel simply as yellow desert with circles of forest. “It must be one of the strangest landscape phenomena which you can see from space, the disparity between the green and yellow. The settlements blend into the desert and it just reads the flora,” she says.

Planned population dispersal, the unfair distribution of water and the use of gardening or planting to expand territory are issues that should not be confined to the consideration of Israelis and Palestinians alone. A quote on Silva’s website from Winston Churchill reads: “War is the natural occupation of man – war and gardening” which reminds viewers of Britain’s involvement in the creation of the State of Israel.

“It’s about responsibility and not thinking of this place as being somewhere just far away and disconnected, but actually our collective responsibility,” she says.

As part of London Festival of Architecture and Chelsea Flower Show the Mosaic Rooms is exhibiting Garden State by British artist Corinne Silva from 14 May – 20 June 2015.

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