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Sanctuaries

This is a description of the artist's affair with a secret tulip garden in Antwerp, Belgium during the lockdown, accompanied by photos of some of the tulip species he encountered.
We surmount isolation every time, again and again, when we for all the world describe who we are.

--David Whyte

It stood between the River Scheldt and the red light district in Antwerp, Belgium. It was once an old office used by sailors to check in with the local government, to brew a coffee, break bread, take a rest. Then, when the ship sounded its horn, to leave the city and get back out to sea once again. Now it was an illegal squat that had been occupied for over 20 years.

Its walls were still covered in old punk art in muted hues. Photo collages in drab purples and wilted greens. Some 80s toys were stuck to one wall. Plastic faded. There was a black and white poster of a band you would have listened to back then. And a stack of vinyls layered with thick dust. My room was lit with christmas lights. Through the dormer on the highest floor I could peer out over a mile of construction along the river’s edge. The city was changing, gentrifying, or so I was told. This house was one of the last of its kind. Outside now there was a bike path for fitness-heads that wound its way around the city along the water. Right where sailors and prostitutes would have mingled only a few decades ago. Right where some runaways would have done lines and played guitar at the turn of the century. The pandemic had changed the city too. Now there was no one out there at all. Just a solitary band of cement for shadows to folk dance and rain to hammer a rhythm.

I’d never planned to stay. I was in the middle of a long tour around the world. Perhaps I’d been adrift for too long: from Asia to Europe to South America and back again. I had no expectations, except the one all explorers possess: the discovery of the new. That hope had led me slowly to Belgium, even as, or just as, all travel was under embargo. The journey had expanded to over two years when the borders closed, leaving me stranded in that minute kingdom for the duration. Perhaps this was my punishment for wandering for too long. So I paid a small fee to stay in that crumbling building while I waited out the storm they called Corona. I had a room on the top floor, an office on the first. I sat. I wrote. I looked through the photos I’d collected and edited the film I’d recorded. I heard grim news from back home. Springtime in that lonely house lengthened and flamed, day after day, as I continued my work.

My one relief was the humble lawn I’d been visiting each day for the project that had brought me to Antwerp in the first place. A sacred garden hemmed in by a neo-gothic church and an old pastory, only a short trip from the irrefutable neighborhood where I was staying. The landscape designer had invited me there to film at the height of the tulip blossom. Within its small dimensions were over 5000 tulips and over 200 varieties from around the world, all unseen behind the stone facade surrounding them. One would never know the garden was there even though it was right at the center of the city. It was a secret to most, and even the well-informed locals I talked to had never heard of it. It was a hortus conclusus: an enclosed garden. Over the centuries, princes and bishops, diamond moguls and honored dignitaries had walked its paths and contemplated world events. So I had to laugh that it was some Colorado cowboy sitting in that divine plot during a global quarantine.
Those were the two places my life had been locked down to: an unloved house among brothels and the consecrated grounds next to a house of god.

With the virus raging, the very act of crossing from redlight district to city center felt a bit subversive. I had to be clandestine. And although I sat in each place alone most days, invisible to other denizens nearby, the path between the two still felt reckless. I still felt somehow like a sinner, while the golden crosses affixed to the top of the towering church spires above the garden looked down on me. So I took precautions. The key to the pastory was hidden outside; only me and the owner knew where. To mitigate the risk of being discovered, I would stash my bike in the nearby plaza. Slowly, I peaked around the corner of the church; those blocks of stone sit on the same sacred earth on which even more ancient ones stood during the time of the black plague. Leaning in, my palm gripped the rough, gray limestone for balance. After a glance behind me to check for the authorities, I would make a quick sleight of hand to retrieve the key, turn it in the lock, and listen for the snap. It was a bit like the way a magician moves or, perhaps more appropriately, a gambler in a darkened doorway.

Once inside it didn’t take long for the world to disappear. It happened in a nervous breath. At first the gray and tan of the city were replaced with the vivid colors provided by the multitude of tulips. Taking my camera from its bag, I began to peruse the ocean of blooms before me. The sunshine yellow and red of the beloved Striped Bellona. The incomparable evening-maroon of the Fringed Black tulip. In the wind, the glare of midday light on the White Parrots moved like a shimmer on the sea. While the lithe fingers of the Acuminata licked the breeze like the wisps of a fire. All at once, the sounds of trams and bike chains outside gave way to the whirring of bee wings and the moving of the branches in the shifting air. And the nose was greeted with pollen and the scents of culinary herbs.

In this miasma of the senses, I began shooting. The broad, empty canvas of the city became populated, petal by petal, with the exotic occupants of the hortus conclusus. As I captured their forms and abstractions with my lens, I also captured the human alone among them: the movement of a shadow, the sound of a foot fall, the jerk of a muscle. Somehow, the camera is never really a perfect device: it always seems to be a connection, rather than a division, between what’s in front of it and who’s behind it. After all, it’s a window not a wall.

In that fecund space I found myself looking for shots just as always: to zoom in on natural divinity, to frame the universal. It was a dance with plants and insects, lenses and light. If I could find the angles, I saw the stems of tulips rising like spruce trees in the Himalayas. I could see the cherry blossoms like snowmelt in a wild Peruvian cascade. And at a certain time of day, the sun balanced on the limestone wall looked like a little girl playing on the white sands of Sri Lanka. It could almost, if I let it, feel like any other April; although, of course, it was like no other. Day after day, I was locked away just like the tulips. Together we were bending toward the light, rooted in that place. Beyond the project, I had to admit, I went back there to stand on hallowed earth, to unite with it, to be one among many, just as I had always done traversing the wide world.

I’d been invited to film flowers in a walled garden, even before the pandemic changed everything. But because of what was happening out there, the garden looked different inside. I worked alone in that sanctuary. Alone and unseen. No one else was welcome. I was distant in my creation just as the designer had been in his. But as I walked among the tulips and the narcissus flowers, upon the coolearth with my bare feet, they in turn walked right into me. They approached the mountain vistas and hot sand islands I kept within; finally, they even visited the very place where I thought I had been marooned, right at the edge of what I feared. Lying in bed at night in that drafty house where sailors and punks had come to find solace or an escape from their solitude, I dreamed of those mariners facing their fears in a storm or between the narrow streets of the red light district. In my dreams they walked openly through the streets with me, the spring sun ablaze. As they passed, I wondered who else was visiting a secret garden? Who else slept in a foreign bed? And who else was playing their little ships against the waves of loneliness pounding against the hulls of their souls?