The Gesamthof

a lesbian garden

By Eline De Clercq

In 2019, I started to rent a painting studio in the old monastery in Antwerp that was temporarily converted into artist studios by Studio Start (now Morpho vzw). Over the past ten years, I have taken a contained garden in flowerpots with me from studio to studio. When I arrived here, I discovered a huge monastery garden that was neglected. I asked if I could put my plants in the real soil and if I could have permission to work in this garden? Studio start said ‘yes’. At the time, the garden wasn’t used much, there was a lot of trash, there were loads of nettles and the ecology couldn’t restore itself because every year the city maintenance would cut down everything that was growing. It was a very disturbed place. I wasn’t looking for a hobby as gardener, but I used to work as a volunteer in the botanical garden in Ghent and I started to work in this garden. Out of the set-up of this building with the artist studios, a communal gardening evolved, and especially during the first lockdown in 2020 the garden was a nice place for many artists. The kunsthal Extra City joined the monastery site and together with Studio Start they took an interest in the garden. They see the garden as an extension of the exhibition spaces they curate in the monastery and adorning church building. The garden became a backdrop for art. Several artists from within the monastery realised that this didn’t feel right, the garden wasn’t an empty space. There are birds living here, there are insects, the soil is full of plants, and we felt the garden should have rights of its own. We negotiated to keep a part of the garden for plants and animals, behind a fence we created a non-human centred safe place for who lives in the garden. Because of my interest, I took up stewardship and started this project called ‘Gesamthof’ after ‘working together’ in art and ecology. Out of necessity, I started to work a lot in this part of the garden by both caring for the ecology and in studying the theoretical concept. Garden work is usually not considered as an art form, the garden I care for is not considered to be art. Possibly this has to do with the temporal aspect? The multilayered nature of gardening makes this work complicated. For example, there is so much history connected to the location because of the monastery. This history is attached to the soil. The garden has no financial set-up, it receives and gives plants for free and garden tours are available on request and are free of charge. The way we garden is intersectional, it is a lesbian garden, and intersectional means everything is connected: age, gender, ethnicity, race, class… Because I am a lesbian I noticed the lack of public lesbian spaces in Antwerp. I could see a similarity with nature, what is not mentioned becomes invisible. Like plant blindness there is also a people-blindness. I was already working on the Gesamthof project when I decided to make this into a lesbian garden. Everyone who was already involved was happy to work in a lesbian garden, even if they are not lesbians themselves. They say: “We don’t need the outcome to be our reward, we’re happy to be allies and support this project”. Everyone is welcome in the lesbian garden, it is not an exclusive space, but we’re opening a space that has certain rules. When I compare this to the white cube exhibition space I can see the white cube is not neutral, it looks like it is, but the rules are invisible. Who has a right to enter? Who is invited in? Who has the network? Who has the degrees and the financial background to grow as an artist to be invited in? Those are the invisible rules. By setting up a lesbian garden we change these rules. We are going to do something else. We don’t know what exactly a lesbian garden is, though there are many similarities between gardens and women (to be beautiful, to bear fruit, to be equally exploited). The Gesamthof is not strictly defined, but it gives me something to work on. More artists have joined the project and we’re thinking together. When I started this project, I got a lot of inspiration from Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble and I use it as a handbook for gardening. Moving on, I discovered this project is not about me and my personal interests, it is much more about what is the urgency today and what can artists do to make change? The Gesamthof is an example of intersectional gardening, gardeners who are interested in how the gardening differs can read this Gesamthof recipe online:

The Gesamthof has been made possible by support from the artists at the Ploegstraat Katrin Kamrau, Oliver Leu, Joost Elschot, Iris Carta, Peter Hulsman, Younes Faltakh, Anna Housiada, Julia Dahee Hong, Cléo Totti, Bela Juttner, Josine De Roover, Andreas Depauw, Francesca Hawker, Anne Reijniers, Jeanette Slütter; lots of support has been given by Morpho (thank you for the wooden fence and the rainwater tank) and much support comes from the botanical garden Plantentuin Gent, Marc Libert, Oliver Dubois and a heartfelt kinship from Joris Thoné who shared his expertise from the Natuurtuin. Many thanks to Samentuin for the compost and mulch. There would be no Gesamthof without all the gardeners who generously shared plants from their gardens, thank you!