Studio Nathan Coley

We Must Cultivate Our Garden 2006


Scaffolding and Illuminated text
9.9m x 0.45m


'Northern City' The Lighthouse, Glasgow

Photo Credit

Peter Dibdin

Other Information

Subsequently shown:

Il Palagio di Parte Guelfa, Florence, 2007
George Square Edinburgh, 2007
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, 2008
Nuit Blanche, Paris, 2009
'Parklive' Marabouparken, Stockholm, 2010
Perth Cultural Centre, Perth, Australia, 2012
Carrall Street, Vancouver, Canada, 2012


Jes Fernie

£24,000 per year is said to be the sum of money that a person needs in order to live comfortably in 21st century Britain. The protagonist in Voltaire’s Candide highlights the temptation to fall for a more comparative understanding of happiness. Candide travels the globe in search of happiness, and when he reaches the isolated country of Eldorado he meets children playing with emeralds and is waited on by maidservants of unsurpassed beauty. Candide and his travelling companion decide that their happiness is worthless in Eldorado.

If we stay here, we shall be no different from anybody else; but if we go back to the old world with a mere twelve sheep laden with Eldorado stones, we shall be richer than all the kings of Europe put together.

At the end of the book, after months of tortuous arguments with his famous tutor Pangloss concerning the best way to live life, Candide meets an old man sitting under an arbour of orange trees. The man is happy with his lot; he has twenty acres which he tends with his children and is ignorant of the political machinations of Constantinople and beyond. Candide leaves the farm a changed man: That old fellow… seemed to me to have done much better for himself than those six kings we had the honour of supping with. He returns to his small estate and organises his life according to the simple principle that happiness is to be found in cultivating the land, relationships and talents that surround you. His wife Cunegonde discovers she has a flair for pastry making and Brother Giroflee is a good carpenter. Candide concludes that in order to obtain happiness ‘We must cultivate our garden’.

Nathan Coley has mounted these words on a scaffolding structure at the far end of the gallery at the Lighthouse for the exhibition ‘Northern City (Between Light and Dark)’. Located above Gross. Max.’ display mechanism for images and models of past and present Edinburgh, the statement is powerful and complex. The use of the plural ‘we’ is inclusive, conveying the sense that a joint effort is necessary for an endeavour to have any effect. The imperative ‘must’ lends an active, almost dictatorial tone. 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.

The Penguin Classics edition of Candide translates ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’ into the rather more limp statement ‘we must go and work in the garden’. While Coley is convinced that he has selected the correct translation, he is interested in the idea that the sentence is open to multiple forms of translation and interpretation. As in all his work, this element of ambiguity is crucial. The onus is placed on the viewer to locate a meaning which interests them. In a recent exhibition on the Isle of Bute Coley mounted the words ‘THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE’ on a similar scaffolding structure in the grounds of a 19th century gothic mansion, using the same type of fairground bulbs and typeface (designed by James Goggin for the purpose). The statement is derived from a public decree issued in 17th century France in a village persistently troubled by supernatural activity. Such a bold assertion belies its essential tenuousness, leaving the viewer wondering where they can, indeed, be witness to a miracle. The speaker (in this case, the King) is clearly raising himself above the status of God, taking ownership of real and metaphysical space – a somewhat presumptuous position to take, particularly in 17th century France when religion was still at the heart of civilised society. At first glance the statement is absurd; on second viewing it is amusingly pedantic and even deflationary in that it seems to close down the possibility of an imaginary space where miracles can occur. But it can also be read as a wholly positive statement with which Voltaire would no doubt have concurred: a plea to citizens to shed their superstitious beliefs in favour of a rational, exploratory, evidence-based approach to life, resulting in a more satisfying and meaningful existence.

The formal elements of the miracles piece are echoed in the Lighthouse installation. In both cases the words are carefully set out on a makeshift scaffolding structure. The first line of THERE WILL BE / NO MIRACLES / HERE is declaratory and affirmative, the second line is equally declaratory but negative, while the third line emphasises the location of the statement, presenting a notional boundary within which the diktat must be adhered to. Coley sets out WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN in one line of text where the word ‘cultivate’ is sandwiched between four words, two on either side. This provides the eye with an element of visual harmony but also draws attention to the authoritative tone of the text. The upper case text exaggerates this tone, as does the location of the work in the room. An elevated sign (one that is above head height, at least) exudes very different overtones to one that is viewed at eye level. It becomes an injunction which lends an air of authority beyond the grasp of the mortal beneath it. Coley kills two birds with one stone here, as the space below the text provides ample room for a lush and well cared for garden to grow.


In the context of this exhibition WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN assumes yet another guise. The garden becomes Edinburgh, the city from which, according to some, modern life emerged. Candide was first published in France in 1759, when the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing and there are many parallels to be drawn between Voltaire’s philosophy and those of his contemporaries in Scotland. David Hume and Adam Smith echoed Voltaire’s insistence that empiricism and the inductive method were superior to superstition and metaphysics and that the division of church and state was essential for the creation of a modern state.

Contemporary Edinburgh is steeped in the architectural and emotive fabric of its past. Its distinctive topology lends itself to a type of conservatism that, while conveying a sense of stability, stifles imaginative and physical growth. The medieval castle, perched on its volcanic base and rising majestically above Princess Street, is an icon that is difficult for any contemporary visionary to compete with. The imposing museums, gardens, monuments and crescents were all born of the intellectual and economic renaissance that stemmed, in part, from Scotland’s political union with England in 1707. While this wealth of history is quite rightly carefully preserved in the 21st century, it also provides an insidious backdrop to cries of dissent from traditionalists who, for example, complain of the ‘blight’ to the landscape caused by Eric Miralles’ recently completed Scottish Parliament.

If you cultivate your garden with any integrity, you will obviously have to carry out the tedious task of weeding, but you will also need to experiment with new and perhaps exotic plants, some of which will no doubt disappoint, and some which will grow and become firm favourites.


In the broader context of contemporary society, WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN becomes a criticism of the current demand for easy access to everything, where the least amount of physical or mental effort is required to achieve happiness or enlightenment. Government policies which seem to support the idea that elitism is a dirty word are evident in their approach to education and the arts. Voltaire’s hatred of church and monarchy would today be replaced, no doubt, by a hatred of a media culture in which teenagers dream of fame for fame’s sake and the far corners of the world are reached in the comfort of an SUV.

Finally, the fact that the enlightenment baton was grasped so zealously by the founding fathers of America in 1776 adds an element of poignancy to Coley’s installation. The separation of church and state in the constitution drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton with help from, amongst others, Adam Smith, represented the culmination of Hume and Voltaire’s ambitions. This is a country where seventy per cent of the population now believes in Satan and the groundswell of support for Creationism (euphemistically called ‘Intelligent Design’) seems to overwhelm all rational thought. Two hundred and fifty years later, it appears to be more imperative than ever that we cultivate our garden.