From Robert Burton's advice in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) that depression can be lifted by a saunter around the flower beds to Voltaire's suggestion in Candide (1759) that the surest path through life is to 'cultivate our own garden', horticultural therapy has a venerable history. In My Brother's Gardens (2003), a 35-minute video adaptation of his eponymous novella from 2001, Belgian artist Hans op De Beeck joins this lineage, positing the sketching of plans for complexly Baroque gardens as a method of symbolically controlling life's chaotic flow. His philosophy, however, differs from those of his antecedents (and of the typical backyard-makeover TV show) in that, after viewing his sombre, mostly monochrome video, you feel that this isn't a permanent solution so much as a finger in the dam.
The sketches - some 800 of them - spring from the mind of Erik, one of three youngish brothers whose lives have all in some way been dashed on the rocks, and whose traumas the video recounts. Like many a fictional hero, Erik (played, like all the story's characters, by a member of New York's Leonard Theater Troupe) is a corpse at curtain-up - his funeral is the opening scene, and the ensuing jigsaw-like structure of My Brother's Gardens traces his last years. Flashbacks show him sitting, wheelchair-bound, at his drawing table. Five years earlier, a voice-over tells us, he had moved to a house in the country with substantial raw acreage, planning to create a voluptuous garden. After doing nothing more than planting 'a row of horrible conifers', however, he somehow lost the use of his legs and, thwarted, switched to making endless drawings of the landscape variously transformed - an activity that seems to have satisfied him more than actual spadework.
Erik has a twin, Marc, and an autistic elder brother, Koen. ('We thought of him as a thing, an object', says Marc with casual cruelty.) Koen's own early attempts to find relief through creativity came to nought - as a child he made towers of bricks which the twins always knocked down - but, as the narrative unfolds, he eventually receives some scattered blessings, attaining graceful movement through hydrotherapy and, finally, beginning to draw. This is not the only point at which you wonder if op De Beeck sees art as the single enduring outlet for frustration and bewilderment. For such is Marc's solution too. Initially he creates his own problems by being, as he says, attracted to his own melancholy and by refusing to commit to his girlfriend because he is 'afraid to lose the depth and chaos in [his] existence', which he fears she is sapping in her quest for a normal life. After Erik's death, however, Marc goes into his dead twin's workroom, sits at the desk and begins sketching gardens where Erik left off, carving into ordered form on paper the wasteland visible outside the window: a project that, as Erik's girlfriend brings him a steaming cup of tea, we suspect will last the rest of his life.
That's the whole story, but only half the video; the rest draws attention to the mechanism of its making. The actors are wooden, perhaps because they're theatre thespians unused to film; close-ups exaggerate their awkwardness. Cut-aways show various actors recording the voice-over in a studio. Motifs of artifice recur in inserted shots: fake flowers, a fake blizzard and a model house, the latter of which is one of op De Beeck's sculptures and has been shown separately. The key sequence is a lengthy animated segment in which, to the sound of Thomas Tallis' 40-part chorale Spem in Alium (Towards a New Hope, 1573), about 50 of Erik's drawings slowly cross-fade into each other. Again op De Beeck has previously shown this, as Gardening (2001).
There are, inevitably, consequences. As the last few of these sketches appear, featuring yet another previous artwork - a small, dark, blocky building that the artist made in 2001 and permanently installed in a Belgian field - the narrative structure finally fades into the background. One realizes that op De Beeck (who made all the drawings years before this film) has something of his fictional characters within him and, under the auspices of fiction, is opening a discussion about the benefits of building a symbolic structure to inhabit, a latticed bulwark against life's turmoil that is more important than any single creative product. The title's use of 'my brother' comes to sound like a sheepish alibi and, while ostensibly analysing a defensive process, My Brother's Gardens reveals itself to be also performing one.