- Nathan Coley born 1967
- Aluminium, plastic, led lamps and electronic components
- Overall display dimensions variable
- Purchased with assistance from Tate International Council 2019
This is a large-scale, text-based sculpture by Glasgow-based artist Nathan Coley. It is made of fairground-style light fittings which spell out the phrase ‘WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN’ in capital letters. The text can be displayed either as a single row of text or as three horizontal lines of text. It can be installed in a number of configurations: on a free-standing scaffolding structure, above head height; or directly on a wall, using custom wall brackets. The work can be placed inside the gallery, outside within the landscape or on the external architecture of a building.
There are twenty-four letters, each measuring forty-six centimetres high. The overall dimensions of the installed text depend on the layout – as a single line of text or split over three lines. The letters are made from 3mm thick Dibond (a brushed aluminium/polycarbonate sandwich) and are screwed to eight frames. The scaffolding structure is constructed with clean unpainted steel or aluminum tubes using the ‘tube and coupler’ system.
We Must Cultivate Our Garden takes its wording from the satirical novella Candide (1759) by the eighteenth-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778). Its young and naïve protagonist Candide – schooled in a philosophy of optimism – travels the globe in search of happiness, only to become disillusioned as he and his companions stumble from one misadventure to the next, fighting in wars and suffering arrest, beatings, starvation, and natural disaster. His travels touch on historical events and discussions of the day, different world views and philosophies. A biting commentary on human nature, the story is full of parodies, wild humour and tongue-in-cheek ridicule as Voltaire satirically reflects on the social ills of the day – from science, philosophy, religion, government and literature. Candide’s quest leads him to El Dorado, which is presented as a social utopia, though he chooses to return to Constantinople, where he finally meets an old man sitting under an arbour of orange trees who is content with tending the land alongside his family. Candide concludes that to find happiness ‘we must cultivate our garden’. It is an ambivalent ending. On the one hand, it proposes that going back to the land is the way to leave philosophy and the world’s evil behind. On the other hand, withdrawal from the world also implies that there is no hope of improving it. In Coley’s work, spelled out in electric lightbulbs, with their funfair gaudiness and nostalgic glamour, the phrase becomes a proclamation, both urgent and open to interpretation.
Curator and writer Jes Fernie has commented:
The words ‘cultivate’ and ‘garden’ are loaded with metaphorical weight: we can cultivate our minds, our souls, our relationships as well as the soil. Our ‘garden’ might constitute a house, a spirit, a child or a patch of land … The intention of Voltaire to allow for multiple interpretations is clear and this is the point that interests Coley. A literal reading of the statement is obvious: tend to your garden and you will feel better about life. A broader, metaphorical reading might yield an anti-church, anti-royalty message which propounds an active, self-reliant approach to life; a belief that a hunger for knowledge and understanding can be satiated through investigation and hard work rather than reliance on fate, tenuous beliefs or social standing.
(Jes Fernie, ‘We Must Cultivate Our Garden’, Studio Nathan Coley website, 2023, https://www.studionathancoley.com/works/we-must-cultivate-our-garden-3, accessed 27 February 2023.)
We Must Cultivate Our Garden 2006 exists in an edition of three, of which Tate’s is the third; the first and second of the edition are in private collections.
Coley’s sculptures and illuminated text constructions, photographs, drawings and videos speak to a range of ideas, frequently focusing on how the built environment and public space are invested, and reinvested, with meaning. The short phrases of his illuminated works can be evocative, evasive and open to many interpretations, taking on new meanings in each location that they are exhibited. Coley’s illuminated text-based sculpture titled I Don’t Have Another Land was shown in 2022 in the grounds of Charleston in East Sussex, the modernist home and studio of the ‘Bloomsbury group’ painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Nathan Coley has commented:
(I Don’t Have Another Land: In the Studio with Nathan Coley, YouTube, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVF2tjertLs, accessed 27 February 2023.)
Nathan Coley: There Will Be No Miracles Here, exhibition catalogue, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 2004.
Jes Fernie, We Must Cultivate Our Garden, text for ‘Northern City’ at the Lighthouse, Glasgow, 2006, https://www.studionathancoley.com/works/we-must-cultivate-our-garden-3, accessed 27 February 2023.
Lisa Le Feuvre, Brian Dillon, Tom Hunt et al., Nathan Coley, Ostfildern 2012.
Helen Delaney, Juliet Bingham
January 2019, updated February 2023
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