As revolution brews in the Arab world, Yto Barrada brandishes the flag of irony in the face of uneasy tyrannies. A Guide to Trees for Governors and Gardeners, published as part of the Deutsche Guggenheim’s retrospective of the Tangiers artist, is exactly what its title proclaims: a manual for rulers and those who tend their greenery. The book builds on an idea from Barrada’s 2003 installation, Gran Royal Turismo. In this piece, a model of a shabby Arab city is the backdrop for a cortege of toy limousines. As the cars advance, palm trees magically sprout from the ground. Barrada hones in on the fictional prosperity conjured up during official visits through “admiring” towns – a fiction that masks the reality of the Arab street. A Guide to Trees… toys with this gap, its earnestly instructive tone spelling out the optimal conditions for welcoming the potent ruler. The book begins: “How can you, as a Governor, give an impression of order and good management from the Visitor’s perspective? How can you optimize your visual assets, manage risks and be sure that the Visitor leaves your town impressed? This little book will tell you how.” Barrada cultivates this sardonic stance throughout the book via texts, photos, graphics, calculations, botanical lists, collages, etc. Within this consciously cynical program, Barrada’s photos pack a sting they don’t necessarily have when viewed elsewhere. We see half-painted houses, slip-shod constructions; the sleepers in the “Public Park” series resemble the outcasts of a despotic system in which carefully crafted national narratives conceal reality. Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is precisely how it illustrates fiction wielded as a tool by authoritarian regimes.
A Guide to Trees… is a superb object, formally speaking. Presented in a corrugated iron box, the book is made of four or five papers of varying stock, color and finish, corresponding to the “manual’s” diverse sections. Under the guise of what might be construed as a simple “how to” book, Barrada’s A Guide to Trees… has all the bite of a philosophical tale inspired by Jonathan Swift.
RC & MKB
English translation by Kevin Jones
Yto Barrada, A Guide to Trees for Governors and Gardeners, Deutsche Guggenheim, 124 pages. Clothbound, handworked, including signed artist’s print (frequency modulated offset) on India paper, in clothbound slipcase.
Limited, numbered, and signed edition of 350 copies.
A review of the Deutsche Guggenheim show by Kevin Jones here.