Painting a garden is surely the epitome of painting for pleasure; there is something innocent and enticing about capturing colour, light and leaf that continues to occupy the attentions of amateur enthusiasts. For an artist who forged her practice in the context of 1970s’ experimental film, Performance and Feminism it is, however, not the most obvious choice of subject. Tina Keane’s new 12-screen video installation Le Jardin (The Garden, 2005) consists entirely of such images, filmed during visits to four gardens: Claude Monet’s at Giverny, France; one in Kyoto, Japan; a wild garden in upstate New York; and Holland Park in London. In the 1970s and 1980s Keane used video to articulate concerns surrounding female subjectivity and identity, having started working with the medium as an adjunct to her performative practice, documenting actions and experimenting with live feed. At first sight her turn to a subject that has been so successfully embraced by painting presents a contrary concern.
Le Jardin delights in its subject: the camera skips with a carefree step from Japan to France and back again. Screens four and a half metres wide surround the square room diorama-like, each offering a different escapist idyll. All the clichés of the garden are on offer here: Monet’s water lily and Japanese spring blossom, images that would be more at home on a dentist’s waiting-room wall. The slow spread of a grossly bulbous orange dahlia sliding across the room, blooming and dying within seconds, speaks on the level of school science programmes, while images of Kyoto’s golden pavilion are as banal as a screensaver. So absurdly familiar as to have become almost invisible in daily life, such imagery is here rendered strangely alien. Increasingly abstract sequences interrupt the prosaic: flashes of colour punctuate the screen, rapidly pulsating splashes of red are pushed up against the camera. Having trained as a painter, Keane has never rejected her education and states that when making a video she always asks herself, ‘how would I make a painting?’ Here the two disciplines intersect to startling formal effect.
The relationship between form and content is where Le Jardin leaves Keane’s previous work behind. Her 1988 video Faded Wallpaper harnessed digital technologies as a means to dissect issues surrounding female subjectivity, madness and domesticity. The layering of representation literally reiterates the subject; peeling wallpaper and skin become one with the decomposing surface of the film. Yet Le Jardin’s whirlwind world tour seems entirely free of such concerns. Structuralist techniques are divorced from their subject, forcing the viewer to concentrate on the formal: close-ups, panning shots and contrived viewpoints. This dialectical relationship between video and painting can be traced back to Keane’s 1978 work The Swing. Black and white footage of a solitary swinging figure is overlaid with a chalk sketch of the movement, the repetitive act increasingly obscured by ever more layers of white light bleaching the screen. Keane exposes video’s proximity to painting and drawing, forcing us to question whether contemporary video practices engender the passive forms of viewing that its 1970s’ experiments sought to dispatch.
Her oft-noted attentiveness to the role of the viewer in the construction of meaning is evident in Le Jardin. The soundtrack’s discordant crescendos of jabbering voices and the relentless crunch of marching footsteps jar with the captivating interplay of light on screen, widening the breach between form and content. Keane seeks out these fissures and presents them to us, allowing her audience to interpolate its own ‘way in’ to the garden. Yet the impetus to do so is somehow lacking; we are never quite compelled to complete it, leaving the work curiously curtailed. The arrangement of screens surrounding the viewer recalls Keane’s previous use of ring-like shapes, which Guy Brett has noted as paradoxical – shapes that speak of both freedom and entrapment. Although here the gallery feels empty, the room at Sketch doubles as a restaurant, the sofas and chairs that litter the space attesting to its alter ego. The work somehow seems inhibited by the venue, straining at its edges.
For many, an artist’s choice of medium is no longer a politically loaded decision. Le Jardin obliges us to reconsider these conclusions. By using her medium to probe behind the idea of the garden Keane reveals how even the simplest of subjects is culturally mediated.