Frank Hesse / Projects / Gardens of Adonis (2003) Space Space
Frank Hesse - Gardens of Adonis
Slide installation »Gardens of Adonis«, HfbK Hamburg, February 2003
Slide-installation with four projectors and digital control unit. Loop, 37 minutes.

Two projectors blend the pictures, the other two blend in the text as subtitles. The resulting projection resembles an undertitled movie without sound. The only perceptible sound is the characteristic click of the revolving slide canister and the hum of the projector ventilation.

View Flash documentation of the slide installation "Gardens of Adonis"
[720x560, 40 min, 8 MB]  ...>
View Flash documentation of the slide installation
"Gardens of Adonis"
[720x560, 40 min, 8 MB]  ...>
Subtitles  ...>

My interest in gardens was first aroused by reading Dan Graham’s essay »Garden as Theatre as Museum« from »Rock my Religion«. I progressed onto Herbert Keller’s »Kleiner Geschichte der Gartenkunst« in an attempt to provide myself with an overview of different epochs in garden architecture. Whilst reading the chapter on classical antiquity however, I was so absorbed by the following passage that I decided to channel my entire attention to the pursuit of this one phenomenon.

»During the Adonis Festival, tender sprouts bedded in clay pots are exposed to the heat of the sun, to commemorate the youth-god. The plants’ rapid demise symbolises the premature death of Adonis. This ritual stimulated the culture of potted plants and the cultivation of annual flowers«.

The idea that our geranium boxes are the ancestral heirs to a radical form of gardening fascinated me, and I tried to follow Keller’s chain of argument. Unfortunately, there were no precise source directories and only a generalised bibliography. My inquiries to his publishers were met with the news that Mr Keller had passed away earlier that very month. My passion had been roused however, and I spent most of the summer in libraries trying to find the missing links. During research, the structural relation between the different branches of science and mythology became increasingly apparent and this is reflected in my documentation. My work on The Gardens of Adonis attempts to reconstruct this relation and illustrate the phenomenon with the images I have found.


Queen Cenchreïs maintains, that her daughters’ hair be more beautiful than that of Aphrodite. Consequently the daughters fall out of favour with the Goddess. She condemns them to marry foreigners. Then they will either be banished or turned to stone. Finally they die in Egypt. Aphrodite punishes one of the daughters, Myrrha, with relentless love for her father, Cinyras. With the help of her nurse, Myrrha succeeds in gaining access to her drunken father’s darkened chamber. During this night, while her mother chastely attends the holy festival to celebrate the grain harvest, Myrrha becomes pregnant. In the pursuing nights she visits her father again until he expresses the desire to see his unknown lover and sends for light. As he recognizes his daughter he reaches for his sword and tries to slay her. Myrrha flees from her father. She prays to the Gods and begs for a just penalty. She wishes neither to remain among the living nor the dead and pleas for transformation. Aphrodite acknowledges her pleas and turns her into a myrrh. The tree exudes hot resinous tears. Through a crack, created by the pounding of a boar, Adonis is born.
Aphrodite adopts Adonis and instantly falls for his beauty. She hides him in a crate from the Gods and brings him to Persephone in the underworld. Alas, Persephone also falls for Adonis and doesn’t want to part with him. So Zeus is called upon to preside over Adonis’ fate. He shall spend a third of the year alone, another third with Persephone in the underworld and the remaining third belonging to Aphrodite. Adonis becomes so enchanted by Aphrodite that he wants to spend his third of the year with her as well.
Aphrodite is so spellbound by Adonis’ beauty, that she begins to neglect heaven and earth. She escorts him while he hunts. She holds him in her arms. When they part she warns him of the dangerous animals that lurk in the forest, “Be bold on cowards for whoso doth advance himself against the bold, may hap to meet with some mischance.” But one of Adonis’ dogs chases a boar from its hiding place. The boar wants to flee, as Adonis plunges his spear into its side. As Adonis retreats, the wounded animal rams its tusk into his loins. Aphrodite hears his groaning from afar and rushes to the dying Adonis. She rips her clothes, tears at her hair and beats her chest.
She bears his dead body on a bed of lettuce. “The memory of my sadness will last eternally, Adonis; and the annual celebrations to mark your death, will be the manifestations of my mourning. Your blood however, will become a flower.” She sprinkles his blood with perfumed nectar. On contact, the blood blisters, like a transparent air bubble in brown mud. After an hour, a flower of the same colour issues from the blood.

The Gardens of Adonis are first mentioned in Plato’s “Phaedrus”. The writings occupy a special position in his works. The lyrical way Plato manages to combine eros and rhetoric, lead interpreters to assume that it was his first work of youth. Meanwhile, it is generally accepted as proven that Plato wrote it as he was reaching his sixtieth year.
At the beginning of the piece is Lysias’ speech, which Phaedrus reads to Socrates. The speaker tries to win his favourite over by claiming not to love him and that compliance can only be of advantage when shown to the non loving. Socrates despises the speech, because Lysias does not acknowledge the divine Eros. According to Socrates, friendship without love is incongruous, thereupon, he decides to sublimate Eros: Lysias is right to view love as a mental illness but he doesn’t realize that there is a divine frenzy, a mania. This mania allows loving mortals to share the celestial wisdom of the deities, by looking at the immortal in their loved ones.

The gardens of Adonis describe fragile clay dishes in which fledgling crops are yielded. Wheat, barley, lettuce and fennel seeds are watered in the dark so as to produce pale shoots. During the Adonis festival, the women of ancient Athens placed the dish-crops on the roofs of their houses, where they danced, sang and played with friends and neighbours all night, in honour of Adonis.The Adonis festival begins with the rising of the dog star, Sirius. It’s appearance, just before sunrise on the 27 July, indicates the start of the annual days of the dog. During these days, Sirius presides over plants and humans. The humans will suffer heat stroke and sunburn, while the plants and the cultures will be struck with sideratio. The siriasis finds it’s victims among the infants, the weakest human offspring, while the sideratio befalls the young shrubbery and plants whose roots are not yet strong enough to draw the indispensable moisture form deep in the soil.
The humans are half parched and dying of thirst, like those unfortunate beings, who are tortured by thirst and at the same time stricken with an aversion to water, because they were allegedly bitten by dogs, which, due to the searing seasonal heat, have become mad. The women are at their most lascivious at this time, and the men are at their weakest. Sirius sinks their heads and knees, and the heat dries their skin out.
As the women dwell on exuberant obscenities, the sound of abandoned laughter mixed with glum lamentations for the dead Adonis, emanates from the rooftops of Athens. Mourning their dead God, symbol of the mythical unity between the love of nature and sexuality liberated from social constraints. The way in which the Adonia is celebrated varies from place to place. Thus, the women of Byblos, who refuse to shear their heads during the time of mourning, commit themselves to strangers for one entire day, and bring the proceeds of these engagements to the sacred shrine of Aphrodite. During the festival, the rootless gardens dry out on the roofs, under the influence of the very heat that facilitated their hasty growth. The parched remains are thrown into the water. The women of Alexandria, in mourning dress with flying hair and exposed chest, carry an image of the dead Adonis to the seashore, where they deliver it to the waves.
From this cult originates the potted plant tradition and the custom of rearing annual flowers. Later, during the Roman Empire and up into the Middle Ages, the gardens of Adonis described a species-rich garden or part of a garden, planted with annual flowers.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates’ criticism of Lysias’ speech leads to a discussion about true knowledge and its means of expression. The question of suitability and inadequacy of the script, where its use is beautiful and where it is unbefitting.
Then forgetfulness is planted into the soul of he who neglects memory, whilst learning the script, for by trusting a foreign, externally imposed document, he doesn’t draw on his own interior source: his memory.
This is the reservation invariably linked to writing, in this way, script resembles the truth in painting. These works also appear to be alive and yet, when asked, they remain proudly silent. You could believe that they speak, as if they have understood something, but when you ask however, as if to comprehend the spoken, then their façade remains rigid.
As a consequence, one should not seriously write ones insight in black water, propagate speeches with the quill, that are incapable, of helping themselves through words, incapable, of accessibly teaching the truth. Instead, for the sake of the game, one should nurture and illustrate the seeds of script, when writing, to collect treasures in ones memory for the time when one reaches the age of absent-mindedness, and for all, who follow the same path, and it will cause great pleasure to watch the tender growth. It is more beautiful however, when someone chooses the appropriate soul, and therein plants and nurtures with speeches, the seeds of knowledge, a self cultivating soul, capable of skilfully raising the fertile seeds, which flourish, and in turn carry the seeds capable of perpetual propagation in new souls, thus giving them the power of immortality and the capacity to bestow the highest humanly possible happiness on their carrier.

Adonis was considered a weakling by the Greek men, immature, lacking masculinity, with a following of women and hermaphrodites. The young lad with opulent semen, precocious lover to beautiful mistresses, was considered the opposite of marriage and the fruitful sexual union. His exaggerated sexual potency being the product of his immaturity, premature sexual activity, which is tantamount to sterility, then he scatters his raw and unripe seeds in stony gardens, where they will never take root, so that they never reproduce their own nature. They are destined to produce, deceptions, false images, like those bastards or discarded newborns, who, having been abandoned in vessels on barren land, evoke comparison to the Adonia plants.

In Phaedrus, Socrates uses the Gardens of Adonis to illustrate the written word: Would a country man, with any sense, seriously sow the seeds he wishes to raise and harvest, in the summer heat in an Adonis garden, and be thrilled when he sees, that they have sprouted after eight days?
Or would he do this as a game to celebrate the festival, assuming he does it at all. Then, he would certainly sow the seeds he wishes to profit from, according to the art of farming, where they belong, and he will be most content when he sees them fulfil their destiny after eight months.
Script provokes the illusion of life, but is in fact sterile. The spoken word however, which stimulates the listener’s soul, so that he in turn can reap fertile seeds, corresponds to the grain, which the farmer sows at the right time and that takes eight months, not eight days, to mature. As serious agriculture endeavours to school its plants, so are the gardens of Adonis mere games.

Translation: Philip Jacobs