Vivian’s Garden 2017 is a thirty-minute colour film with sound that depicts the relationship between two Swiss /Austrian émigré artists who are mother and daughter – Elisabeth Wild (born 1922) and Vivian Suter (born 1949). The film was shot and is set in the connected houses the two women share in a jungle garden in Panajachel, Guatemala, where they have developed a matriarchal compound in an environment that seems to be a site of both refuge and fear. The home and garden are places of terror as well as healing, and the film outlines how, for example, a recent problem with a criminal neighbour caused the pair to be under curfew and threats, while catastrophic floods, kidnappers and fear of intruders are ever-present. On the other hand, they lead an idyllic life, making art in beautiful surroundings, living simply, being taken care of and taking care of each other.
Elisabeth is in her nineties and Vivian in her sixties and they live with the constant company of two or more indigenous villagers as guardians and maids. The film takes a close and intimate look at their artistic, emotional and economic lives. Rituals of care and the intricate ambiguity of their colonial situation – which the film does not shy away from – are combined with images documenting the extremely close bond between mother and daughter, as well as the sensuous life of the garden itself. Nashashibi has commented: ‘Vivian Suter and her mother Elisabeth Wild are two artists in self-imposed exile in Panajachel, Guatemala. They are as close as maiden sisters; each is at times mother and daughter to the other, and sometimes they are my mother and my daughter too.’ (In email correspondence with Tate curator Laura Smith, 5 June 2017.)
The film brings together a number of themes that have become increasingly common in Nashashibi’s work, including: an exploration of the nuances of everyday life in unusual or remarkable surroundings, questions around confinement or enclosure, and the role of women within and without communities. In works such as Electrical Gaza 2015, Nashashibi combined observations of domestic life in Gaza with animated segments that consider the notion of community in contemporary Palestine (the artist herself is of mixed Irish and Palestinian heritage). Footage of families and friends engaged in everyday activities are contrasted with unapologetic reminders of the local political situation and geographical isolation. Her collaborative work with Lucy Skaer, Why Are You Angry? 2017 (Tate T15054) takes its title from one of Paul Gauguin’s (1848–1903) late paintings, and follows his voyage to Tahiti. As a contemporary exploration of the established narratives that surround Gauguin and his time in French Polynesia, the film functions as a reclamation of the exoticised woman and asks fundamental questions about representations of women, colonised lands and the power of myth.
A tender and emotive portrait, Vivian’s Garden furthers Nashashibi’s interest in the tension between private self and public performance within an isolated community, examining it through a matriarchal lens in which care, creativity and self-sufficiency flourish. As viewers, we become party to the work of Suter – whose paintings make use of the volcanic and meteorological landscape of Panajachel, and Wild – whose vibrant and taut collages seem to punctuate the film. We watch as they eat lunch and talk to their dogs, as they spend time in their respective studios or make work in the surrounding gardens. We also watch as Wild leafs through an issue of Artforum and stacks of her drawings, or as Suter prepares to depart for Documenta in Athens where she is also exhibiting work, laying potential outfits for the trip on her bed for her mother’s consideration. Suter provides the voiceover throughout the film, explaining the decisions and narrative behind their relative isolation, their care for one another and for the indigenous population with whom they share their home, and the ways in which the particularities of their context have shifted their artistic output.
Vivian’s Garden exists in an edition of three, of which Tate’s copy is the first, plus two artist’s proofs; it is shown as a projection in a darkened space. It was first shown at Documenta 14 in both Athens and Kassel in 2017. Nashashibi often presents her films alongside objects and paintings that expand on their themes, and in Kassel she exhibited several abstract paintings with the film. One of these paintings in particular, In Vivian’s Garden 2016, is also in Tate’s collection (Tate T15036). It has a strong resonance with Vivian’s Garden and was made in direct response to Nashashibi’s time spent making the film in Guatemala.
Francis McKee, Rosalind Nashashibi, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 2003.
Herbert Martin and Rosalind Nashashibi, Rosalind Nashashibi, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 2009.
Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, Documenta Daybook, Munich 2017.
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