Gardens as Domesticated Exclusion: Abbas Akhavan’s “Untitled Garden” Blog Post by Julia Park

Abbas Akhavan’s Untitled Garden is an imposing hedge wall of tall Emerald Green Cedar trees that confronts the viewer upon arrival in the ICA’s Beverly Reynolds Gallery. Cradled in their cedar planter boxes, the trees look soft and round, but they simultaneously stand iron and erect, firmly blocking the path. While the room around the hedge wall is large, the plants engulf the negative space; they are suffocating.

There is no doubt that the hedges in Untitled Garden are beautiful, even mysterious, feats of horticulture. Beyond this, however, there is a deeper meaning as intended by the artist. What, then, do Akhavan’s hedges mean - especially in the context of Richmond?

The use of hedges as highlighted by Akhavan is that of a separation of people. The perceived separation of civilized from uncivilized; the rich from the poor; the white from the other. It is these domesticated parts of nature which are used to create a physical barrier to entry, an affront.

Leylandii Hedges in Akhavan’s London show at Delfina Foundation, image via http://www.hydardewachi.com/abbas-akhavan-study-for-a-garden/

Akhavan uses his artistic practice to comment on the environment in which he finds himself. In his first solo show in London at Delfina Foundation, Study for a Garden, Akhavan made use of the British suburban privacy screening, Leylandii hedging. It was a specific reference to the UK’s 2005 High Hedges Act, one which tackled “resolving differences with your neighbor” over high hedge disputes.[1] This can be connected to the current current context in which his art is exhibited: take a drive down River Road, or through Windsor Farms, and you can easily see to what Akhavan is referencing. The yards are vast, the plants are intensely manicured, and the hedges are high. While there is no sign that states some are not welcome nor desired, the message is clear.

Richmond Hedges. Photos by Julia Park.

From where does this political use spring?

Akhavan highlights and calls into question this human attempt to assert control and dominance over “othered” groups through the use of nature. Humans living in an unpredictable and volatile world often seek to create some semblance of control. Those who hold the reins of power and privilege seek control over relations to others. In this case, nature is not revered, but forced to bend to the will of humans. Plants are created and cultivated in such a way as to exclude and differentiate; it casts the great many on one side of the hedge and a select few on the other. This is exclusion, as mandated by the physical environment and the horticultural make-up.

Who has the right to own land? Who has snatched land way from others, only to use the horticulture of this land to block out those on the fringes or those who have been deemed unworthy?

Akhavan’s Emerald Green Cedar hedges in the ICA’s Beverly Reynolds Gallery. Photo: Julia Park.

Through the act of the domestication of nature, humans attempt a civilization of the untamed. In this context, and in the context in which Akhavan works, gardens are the height of civility. This civilization is used to block the uncivilized from the precious garden, and thus the people within it. These hedges make an excellent screen. Nature is used to separate ourselves from the artificial worlds we create in our physical spaces, but also to physically separate humans from each other. It is a way of blocking off owned land, the act of which is a marker of power.

It is a certain few, the white, the wealthy, the male, who have the historical privilege of land owning and cultivation, and thus the ability to guard that land. The territorial autonomy afforded here allows the space for exclusion. It is in this way that a Akhavan’s seemingly soft garden hedges are turned razor sharp.

Abbas Akhavan, Untitled Garden, 2018. Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Julia Park


[1] "Collection: High Hedges," Gov.UK, July 11, 2008, accessed October 3, 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/high-hedges#resolving-differences-with-your-neighbour.


Julia Park is a senior at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and intern in the ICA Curatorial Department. She is a Richmond, Virginia native. Julia dabbles in studio art, but her greatest interest lies in art facilitation, appreciation, and commentary. She is also passionate about plant-based food and wild jewelry.

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