When asked to describe his style, Sir David Adjaye OBE had six words in reply: “I don’t do tasteful and elegant.” Indeed, for the past two decades, Adjaye Associates has become known for its eclectic buildings, like the SKOLKOVO school in Moscow, and its edgy thought-provoking collaborations with contemporary artists. Garden of Eden is a notable example of the latter. Created with Faisal Abdu’Allah in 2003, the themes it covers—privilege, voyeurism, and reflection—remain relevant to this day.
In essence, the exhibit centers a cube-like structure made from two distinct but interwoven spaces. On the inside, a 2.6m x 4m x 4m glass box comprises the inner garden; on the outside, a 9.4m x 9.2m x 2.6m black felt-lined cube makes up the outer garden. Upon their arrival, visitors are separated into these rooms by eye-colour: while the blue-eyed individuals are led to the inner room, the brown-eyed individuals are led to the tunnel wrapping it.
For the blue-eyed visitors, the inner garden is a bastion of warmth. With its mirrored walls, steel ceiling, and a brass plaque on the floor, the room bathes in orange light. In an interview, Abdu’Allah once likened this space to the sun’s imprint on closed eyelids; though warm, the glow teeters on the edge of a blinding glare. Surrounded by light and their own reflections, the blue-eyed visitors indulge in a euphoric sense of exclusivity.
Unbeknownst to this first group, however, the brown-eyed visitors are able to observe this inner room from just outside its walls. In the darkness of the outer garden, one-way mirrors offer views into this sanctum while simultaneously blocking onlookers from entering it. This feature transforms the gaze of the brown-eyed visitors into one of a voyeuristic spectator. As the blue-eyed viewers move about their space, they are truly the unwitting subjects of the installation.
The inspiration for this piece came from Abdu’Allah’s experience on a train in Italy. As day turned to night, he mused how he stopped seeing the outside world from his window and began seeing reflections of the carriage’s artificially-lit interior. With each subsequent stop, he felt more and more like a fish in a fishbowl: closely studied by those on the platform, but with an obscured perspective looking out. When he finally got off, Abdu’Allah was immediately crowded by a group of men chanting “Ku Klux Klan!” Though he was safely brought away by his escort, he described this as the first time he felt distinctly fragile and alienated.
When Chisenhale Gallery commissioned him for an interactive piece, Abdu’Allah thus incorporated his train experience with the idea of selective access. Though he knew he wanted to separate visitors by eye colour, it wasn’t until he reached out to Adjaye Associates that the interconnected inner and outer gardens were born. “Sometimes you can engineer a space enough that the thinking behind the design of the space is enough to communicate the idea,” explained Abdu’Allah. “It was nice to have that conversation with an architect. Artists by their nature talk about things that are highly impractical, but the architect chips away at the nonsense and gets to the essence.”
Taken together, Garden of Eden prompts multiple questions. Where does exclusion stem from? What is privileged and unprivileged space? If the inner garden had known of the outer garden from the start, would they have interacted with their space differently?
In the world today, some people are born into privileged spaces while others are not. Interestingly, this distinction often relies on circumstantial factors of which they have no control: skin colour, geographic location, parents’ socio-economic classes. Because one grows up with this type of privilege, these advantages become ingrained within their way of life. Ultimately, this concept echoes the reflective interior of the inner garden, preventing those within from seeing those without.
On those on the other side of the fence, it’s virtually inevitable to develop feelings of exclusion and frustration. Like the brown-eyed visitors in the dark outer garden, their experiences enhance their awareness of those with access to brighter spaces. Through social barriers, these individuals are able to feel the glow of inaccessible opportunities, but only by proxy.
As conveyed by Adjaye and Abdu’Allah, the only way for those with privileges to recognize those without said privileges—the only way for the blue-eyed visitors to understand the structure of the entire “garden,” both inner and outer—is to exit their self-insulated space. By listening to the experiences of others and critically engaging with their surroundings, only then can they break free of their bubble.
“The Garden is everywhere, it is all around us,” quotes the brass plaque in the inner garden. “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. What truth you may ask? That you’re a slave… Unfortunately no one can be told what the true significance of the Garden is, you have to see it for yourself.” – The Matrix.