On a clear September morning in 1998, local residents of Briey in eastern France awoke to a grisly sight: 11 garden gnomes hanged by the neck from a bridge. A letter found nearby indicated the true horror of this tragedy, that these gnomes took their own lives (cnn.com). The letter read (translation courtesy of cnn.com) “When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration.” Driven to the brink by their slave owners, these gnomes saw no alternative but to end it all, or so the Garden Gnome Liberation Front (Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin) would have the public believe.
Since their initial manufacture in Germany in the 1800s, the garden gnome statue has spread to gardens and front lawns throughout the world. Not content with expanding their geographical domain, the gnome has penetrated and colonized popular culture: appearing in movies, on TV, in books, on billboards, hosting ad campaigns, and printed on everything from t-shirts, to calendars to coffee mugs. In addition, there exist countless websites, fan clubs, collecting clubs, and liberation groups devoted to various aspects of the garden gnome. One can even take a vacation to one of the few gnome reserves and sanctuaries throughout the world and view the gnome in its “natural habit.” What drives this fascination with the garden gnome? It is inanimate, a thing, an object created by and for human beings, so why is it treated as alive by so many, young, old, owners and liberationists alike? At first glance, one may be inclined to believe the people obsessed with the garden gnome are simply in need of some special professional help. Yet the attribution of life to inanimate objects is a process one enacts almost every day. As W.J.T Mitchell explains in What Do Pictures Want? this process of animating the inanimate is not something that one does as a child and grows out of as an adult, or learns to not do as a modern person (2005: 8). Garden Gnomes present a case of the modern fetishization of the object. They act as a secular deity, a new form of idol, unrecognized as such by the people who worship them. This paper will first investigate the origins of the garden gnome, describe three dramatic forms of animate ‘life’ attributed to gnomes, and conclude with a discussion of whether the gnome represents a modern example of a fetish, an idol or something quite different.
Origins of the Gnome
In order to gain insight into situation of the modern gnome, it remains important to understand the context it derives from. The path to the garden gnome stature began as a legend of the gnome as a living, albeit magical, creature among many peoples of central, northern and eastern Europe. Their magical powers included the ability to transform into mushrooms when threatened by animals or humans and to become invisible at will with only children possessing innocent eyes having the ability to see them (Mennes 2004: 9). According to Will Huygen’s book Gnomes, the definitive modern source of gnome culture, Gnomes are small humanoid woodland creatures that stand approximately six inches tall and live for exactly 400 years (1976). Male gnomes, the most common kind seen in gardens, typically have a long beard and dress in boots, trousers, a brightly colored shirt and a red conical hat (Huygen: 1976). Gnomes generally live underground in elaborate tunnels, and remain unseen (Huygen: 1976). Gnomes act as guardian of woodland life, aiding wildlife in times of need and generally acting as protectors of forests and gardens (Huygen: 1976). Additionally, gnomes have the ability to travel large distances on the backs of other animals (Mennes 2004: 9).
During Medieval times, there existed a legend that gnomes lived in the earth guarding its minerals, but when humans began to dig mines, the gnomes become displaced (Mennes 2004:10). Many roamed the forests, building colonies in the roots of trees, with other taking up habitation with humans on farms and in gardens (Mennes 2004:10). German legend describes gnomes as farm helpers (Mennes 2004: 11). Even today, in Scandinavia, many people leave milk or porridge on their doorstep for the gnomes, who if neglected, would become a household pest (Mennes 2004: 10). A more modern legend tells of how in the past, gnomes lived in harmony with humans until humans began destroying nature, driving the gnomes away and estranging our races (The Gnome Tavern).
Some scholars suggest that the garden gnome statue represents a descendent of the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, whose statue was often found in ancient gardens (Mennes 2004). Early gnome representations depicted them as gnarled old men with long white beards or as misshapen dwarfs, all characterized by their small size (www.gnomeland.co.uk). In Germany, gnomes were often first portrayed as miners, and the pointed red hat on many garden gnomes today was originally a representation of the hat once worn by miners in the mountains of south-east Germany (www.gnomeland.co.uk). Gnome statues are believed to bring good luck to a household and to aid in the growth of plants (Mennes 2004: 5). The popular myth states that garden gnomes help in the garden at night when everyone is asleep. Only when no one is around will they awaken from their statue-state and work on the gardens and lawns in which they reside (Mennes 2004). Their magic causes flowers to bloom, leaves to change colors and streams to saturate the soil surrounding plants (Mennes 2004: 12).
The first modern garden gnome statues came from Gräenroda, Thuringia, Germany in the mid-1800s. The region was already well-known for its ceramic production prior to the manufacture of gnomes. Gnome mass-production is attributed to two German craftsman, Philipp Griebel and August Heissner in 1872 (Mennes 2004: 26). Griebel made terracotta animals as garden decorations and began producing gnomes based on local myths as a way for people to enjoy the stories of the gnomes’ willingness to help in the garden at night (Mennes 2004). Gnome manufacutre quickly spread across Germany, with numerous other large and small factories each possessing their own particular style and design. Gnomes spread into France and England, where gardening remained a serious hobby (Mennes 2004).
The Garden Gnome was first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, when he brought 21 terracotta figrues back from a trip to Germany and placed tham as ornaments in the gardens of his home, Lamport hall in Northamptonshire (Mennes 2004: 23). For the next 50 years, Isham crafted an elaborate shrine to the gnomes in his garden, for as a practicing spiritualist, he believed his gnomes were able to come alive and communicate with him (Mennes 2004: 24). After his death, his daughters, who hated the gnomes, had them removed and destroyed, except for one, which they missed in the recess of a wall in the garden’s grotto. This gnome, now named Lampey, was discovered and excavated in 1997 when workers refurbished the grounds. Lampey is the world’s oldest known garden gnome statue (Mennes 2004: 24).
Today, there are an estimated 25 million garden gnomes in Germany and another 12 million in France (Sampson 2000). Traditionally manufactured from clay molds, many modern gnomes are made from resins, plastics, or concrete. Most gnomes are now produced in Poland or China (Mennes 2004). Germany was once so protective of its own gnome production that authroities up until the late 1990s regularly seized alrge shipments of imported gnomes at the German border (Mennes 2004: 27).
The Roaming Gnome
The first report of a Roaming Gnome appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 24, 1986. A gnome-owner was distressed when she discovered her gnome had been stolen at the weekend. A note was found in its place reading “Dear mum, couldn’t stand the solitude any longer. Gone off to see the world. Don’t be worried, I’ll be back soon. Love, Bilbo xxx,” (wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelling_gnome_prank). Since that first report, thousands of copycat roaming gnome storeis have surfaced and the roaming gnome has entered the phsyche of mainstream popular culture. The most promanent popular culture examples are the gnome from the French film ‘Amelie’ and the Travelocity website’s advertising campaign mascot, simply called the roaming gnome. The roaming gnome phenomena has proliferated on the internet via websites such as Jerome the traveling Gnome’s blog and gnomediaries.com. Jerome blogs about his travels in the first person and claims to be the first Gnome to visit both the north and south poles (www.travelinggnome.net). Gnomediaries.com is a forum for various traveling gnomes to post blog entries, pictures, messages to other gnomes and their owners and friends and to track the travel adventures of other gnomes.
While the roaming gnome presents a comical practical joke for many, it technically remains a crime, and can cause the gnome owner much unwanted grief. Two cases, one from the US and one from England demonstrate how the owners are affected by their gnome ‘wandering off.’ In 2006, Karen Walker’s gnome was stolen from her front garden, much to her distress (Hetzel 2006). After a few months, she eventually gave resigned herself to the gnome’s dissappearance and replaced it with another. Her wandering gnome was eventually returned to her, with a gift of over 56 photos of the gnomes travels, and a lengthy note. While Karen and her husband were delighted to have their gnome back and even more delighted by the adventure he went on, she now had the dillema of what to do with her now, two gnomes (Hetzel 2006). A woman in Gloucester, United Kingdom, in 2008 had here gnome stolen and later returned with an album full of travel photos. While distressed by the loss, she too was very pleased with her gnome’s retrun and the gift, but was saddened that the gnome was damaged on its trip, for it had lost its feet (BBC News).
There exist various gnome liberation groups across the globe who fight for gnome rights and to ‘stop oppressive gardening,’ (freethegnomes.com). The Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ) of France, is the oldest and most prominent gnome liberating organization. Established in 1996 it achieved immediate success, liberating, more than 200 gnomes in a forest ouside the town of Alencon in Normany, France (flnjfrance.com/). Upon the gnome’s discovery, the statues had been repainted, were wearing spectacles in order to see in the dark and were found with large stores of pasta, supposedly so the gnomes would not go hungry in the wild (Mennes 2004: 46). Throughout 1997, the FLNJ stole over 150 garden gnomes, stating that the gnomes desrved the same freedoms as people. That yetar, the police arrested and convicted three mean of the possession of 184 stolen gnomes. The men were given a prison sentence of two months each (Mennes 2004). Following the mass suicide in 1998, the FLNJ remained quiet until the 2000 Paris garden show, which displayed over 2,000 gnomes. In a nighttime riad, the FLNJ ‘liberated’ twenty gnomes from the show. Following this reemergence, police in France issued a gerenal security alert to gnome owners (Sampson 2000). Many gnome owners resorted to taking their sculptures indoors at night. The people of Gignac, near Montpellier even formed a vigilante patrol using a truck with an elevated platfrom and a powerful serachlight to thwart any potential liberators (Sampson 2000).
According to Harpers Index from 1996 to 2001 the FLNJ relocated over 6,000 gnomes to the forests of France (Mennes 2004: 47). Not all have been found. In 2001, 100 gnomes were discovered in a forest in the Vosges region of France, and the following day, 74 gnomes were arranged on the stpes of a cathedral in Saint-Die (Mennes 2004: 47). That same year in Chavelot, dozens of gnomes were arranged in a traffic roundabout to spell out the words, ‘free the gnomes,’ (Mennes 2004: 47). As recent as 2006, the FLNJ stole 80 gnomes in the central Limousin region of France (flnjfrance.com/).
Many sister organizations to FLNJ now exist all over the world such as the Gnome Liberation Front and Gnome Liberation Army in the United Kingdom and Los Gnomos de Jardin Quieren Viajar in Spain. Others include Free The Gnomes in the United States and the Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime Giardino (MALAG) from Italy.
FreeTheGnomes, an american based gnome liberation group, is one of the youngest, founded only in 2006, but most widespread via the internet on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (www.freethegnomes.com). Unlike other groups, they do not advocate gnome theft or criminal acts, but instead call upon their supporters to peacefully protest and petition gnome owners and govenrments to end oppressive garding and emancipate captured gnomes. They also encourage the formation of local chapters of freethegnomes to work within the community. They have ongoing petitions to governments to legislate for gnome freedoms and long standing boycotts against businesses like Home Depot, which they referr to as Home Despot, who supply gnomes to potential slave owners (www.freethegnomes.com).
Gnomes in Their Natural Habitat
Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime Giardino (MALAG) in addition to calls for general gnome liberation, expressed the goal for the establishment of a European Gnome Sanctuary in Barga, a small town in Tuscany, Italy. They achieved the constitution of the sanctuary in 1999. The Barga News published an articale about MALAG’s efforts, noting the following: “For a number of months gnomes have been moving inot a small valley in the Province of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy. Most have decided to settle in the town of Barga, where they have found a sympatheitc population known as Barghigiani who are not only prepared to tolerate the gnome way of life, but are even prepared to protect it! We are proud to anounce the first European Gnome Sanctuary here Barga….Life here is protected, no more small garden prisons, no more torture, opression is a thing of the past here in Barga,” (www.barganews.com/gnomes/). The Sanctuary includes the city’s parks, the Castle of Barga, the town’s main council offices and the Teatro de Differenti (www.barganews.com/gnomes/).
The Gnome Reserve in Devonshire, England is home to more than one thousand gnome statues and constitutes over four acres of woodland, streams, ponds and gardens. The Reserve allows guests to view gnomes in their natural habitat, and even loans guest gnome hats and fishing rods so they will blend in and not frighten the gnomes (www.gnomereserve.co.uk). The reserve houses the largest collection of garden gnomes in the world according to the Guiness Book of World Records (Mennes 2004).
Gnomes: Idol, Fetish, or Something Completely Different?
Mitchell asks the question of how people can maintain what he calls a double conscious about objects (2005: 7). How can a person believe that a garden gnome is made in a factory out of clay and also believe it comes alive at night to help in the garden, or leaves to travel the world? Mitchell postulates that this double consciousness about images is a ‘deep and abiding feature of human responses to representation,’ (2005: 8). Thus Mitchell frames the question “what do pictures want?” not “what do they do?” (2005: 10). In his explanation of the importance of this question, Mitchell emphasizes the double meaning of want, as both desire and lack. Perhaps it is the physical semblance of life that drives humans to supply what this semblance lacks in substance: actual life. This lack is filled both by gnome owners and the liberationists alike. The former attributing the statue the life and powers of the mythical gnome beings, the latter by extending the rights of human beings to gnomes.
Peter Pels writes that “the fetish foregrounds materiality because it is the most aggressive expression of the social life of things,” (1998: 91). He continues by stating that fetishism demonstrates how a thing’s materiality can communicate its own message, for the materials themselves speak and act (1998: 94). Gnomes do not manifest this aspect of the fetish, for the belief in their life thoroughly rejects their materiality. People view the materials of a gnomes construction as unimportant, as not defining the essence of a gnome. The materials themselves that are not simply animated, but transformed magically into the flesh of a living thing. Both Mitchell and Pels discuss the double attitude of the fetish; to fetishize something is to designate it an “other” in relation to the accepted definition of a thing by its use and exchange value (Pels 1998: 98). The fetish manifests some other type of value and forever remains an object of abnormal traffic (Pels 1998: 94). This aspect of the fetish does manifest acutely in the case of garden gnomes. While originally purchased for a proscribed monetary value, their subsequent value derives from their perceived power and their ‘personality’ as developed and granted to them by their owners. Once brought home from the store and placed in the garden, the gnome leaves the realm of exchange and suddenly finds value in the joy it brings to its owner, or the prosperity it bestows upon the garden.
Christopher Pinney (2001), in his discussion of the use of chromolithographic deity prints for worship in the homes of rural Indian villagers, relates the need for the ritual installation of prints in the home to turn them from simply paper into the deities themselves. In this way, the ritual installation transcends the materiality of the image, transforming it from a mere image of the god printed on paper, to the god itself. Pinney observes that the villagers do no care about the artist who originally created the image, for they view themselves as the people who truly create the picture as a representation of the deity, because they actively install and transform the picture in their homes through worship (Pinney 2001: 171). Gnomes, in order to transcend their materiality and exchange value, must undergo a similar installation process, but one of a less uniform and more personal nature. A gnome is not just a gnome it is my gnome, or your gnome, with a distinct personality and life-history. It is through this process of personal possession that the gnome then gains the ability to act as the helper and household guardian. It is also this ‘life’ granted to the gnomes through installation by their owners, that the liberationist’s take advantage of.
W.J.T. Mitchell and Alfred Gell (1998) discuss in one form or another the question of what constitutes life. What differentiates the living from the inanimate? Mitchell recites the criteria for a living thing as a being that: is highly organized, is homeostatic, can grow and develop, can adapted, can take energy from the environment and change it from one form to another, can respond to stimuli and can reproduce itself (2005: 52). He writes how life remains one of the primitive concepts that grounds the whole human process of dialectical reasoning and understanding (Mitchell 2005: 52). It is for this reason that attributing life to something clearly, logically, not alive, remains so very dangerous. The fetish threatens to disrupt and throw doubt on this primary classification (Pels 1998: 112). The anxiety created by the fetish stems from the problems of classification that the fetish as an object presents for the subjects (Keane 1998:13). Mitchell continues by stating definitively that the definition of a living thing is something that can die (2005: 52). Gnomes are both subject to birth and death, as the following two examples illustrate.
The website, www.zwerglignomes.com, describes the ‘birth’ of the garden gnome as follows with corresponding photographs from a hidden camera. During the spring in Thuringia, Germany, when the temperatures have warmed, deep in the ground, little bits of clay begin to join together, to create a new gnome. It takes 14 days for a gnome to fully coalesce and emerge from the ground ready to be ‘picked.’ While the website later states that of course the process just described is nonsense, they do describe explicitly that the process of forming a gnome from clay is another form of giving birth. The process needs the “love of a parent to let gnomes become little creatures in your hand.” The website continues, describing the firing process as granting the ‘breath of life’ to a new gnome, and that a gnome’s exit from the kiln constitutes its birth. Following the birth, a new gnome is then ‘dressed’ by a painter.
In the example given at the beginning of this paper of the gnome suicides, the gnomes hanging from the bridge clearly died. In fact, it was staged specifically to look as though they took their own life. Unfortunately, no information is available as to whether the gnomes afterward were taken down and given back to their owners, or whether they were disposed of, or perhaps buried as dead. I suspect, that the gnome owners would not want their gnomes back after being mistreated in such a horrible manner, but that remains pure conjecture.
This attribution of life perhaps derives from the myths of living gnomes that have been embodied in the inanimate garden gnome. The idea is that these gnomes only awaken when no one is around to see them presents a scenario that can neither be proven, or disproven, since no evidence can possibly exist for or against the idea. Thus the idea, or belief, must be taken on faith alone, or dismissed by similar faith. It is in this manner that the roaming gnome phenomena operates. Roaming gnome stories and pranks are carefully crafted to leave no trace of human involvement. The notes are written in the first person by the gnome and the photos are always simply of the gnome in a foreign place, not posing with people. The gnome left and came back of its one accord and no evidence can prove otherwise. Human agency is always implied, but cannot be proven. The gnome simply leaves one night, when gnomes always come alive, and decides that instead of working in the garden, he will go on a trip. Upon the return of the gnome, once again at night, all evidence for the trip remains devoid of any human intention, save for whomever takes the photographs. Since no evidence exists that this travel is not simply of the gnome’s own doing, except for the ardent belief that it is impossible for gnomes to move or be alive, it remains theoretically a plausible possibility.
According to William Pietz, the fetish differentiates from the idol because the fetish possesses an ‘irreducible materiality’ while the idol derives from some immaterial origin (Keane 1998: 13). The gnome presents a case more akin to idol worship than to the fetish. Idols are not depictions, not portraits, but created bodies (Gell 1998: 98). Yet, the gnome does not provide a meeting place for a spirit, as described be Keane of the practices of marapu follows on Sumba, nor does it function as a vessel for a spirit that can go elsewhere. It simply has the ability to animate and possesses an individual gnome spirit that does not and has not resided anywhere else but within the gnome statue.
Gell writes that idolatry emanates from the same fund of sympathy which allows us to understand the human, non-artefactual ‘other’ as a copresent being, endowed with awareness, intentions and passions akin to our own (1998: 96). The idol is acceptable as a social other on the basis of ‘fitting in’ to the role expectations for idols as a particular category of social agents (Gell 1998: 131). The artists must produce a ‘faithful’ rendition of the features of the accepted image of the body of the god, triggering ‘recognition of the god among his worshippers (Gel 1998: 99). The gnome must look like a typical gnome to be recognized and treated as one. Idols my be animate without being endowed with animal life or activity (Gell 1998: 122). In fact ritual animacy and the possession of life in a biological sense are far from being the same thing (Mitchell 2005: 122). Yet some semblance of possible life, such as orifices assist the idea of animacy. Once something is equipped with ‘orifices’ such as eyes, nose, mouth, it would be possible not just to imagine that it had a mind, perceptions, intentions, but to actual believe this (Gell 1998: 132). Orifices indicate access to an interior, something that the gnome lacks, thus we provide the gnome with an interior that the orifices can access in the form of life. “Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood and animation: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; they speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively; or they look back at us silently across a gulf unbridged by language,” (Mitchell 2005: 30). While more than pictures, gnomes also do possess the ‘stigmata of personhood’: the look like little people, complete with eyes, ears, noses, mouths, arms and legs.
Gell writes that primitives are animists, while moderns are not (1998: 121). Then why do people continue to attribute life and animation to gnomes? While moderns have perhaps developed this double conscious to a larger degree than non-moderns, we have not managed to let go of our animist beliefs, only to push them to one side. Mitchell writes that we are stuck with our magical, premodern attitudes toward objects, especially images, and the task remains not to overcome these attitudes, but to understand them and work through them (2005: 30). While garden gnomes do not represent deities in the classical sense, they do represent a modern idol, one that is “worshipped” daily in gardens all across the world. The people who animate their gnomes are not delusional; they have simply embraced the other side of their double-consciousness.
To take Gell’s description of agency, as “attributable to those person and things who/which are seen as initiating causal sequences of a particular type; events caused by acts of mind or will or intention, rather than the mere concatenation of physical events,” (1998: 16) then gnomes certainly possess agency. Their very presence has allowed for the wide variety of actions previously described: nurturing by owners, liberation by radicals and world travels by pranksters.
There does exist something special about the gnome statue that allows for the types and forms of behavior described previously. If pure vandalism was the goal, gnomes would simply be stolen or smashed for fun, not elaborately released in the wild, or hung from bridges with suicide notes or sent trekking around the world. Is it simply that it looks like a little person? That because it has eyes, a nose, a mouth and arms and legs it is easier for someone to believe that it can walk off? Or does it derive from the ancient myths and stories about gnomes as real, living magical creatures and that as magical creatures anything is possible? Perhaps it stems from the process of ad hoc ‘installation,’ that first divorces the gnome from its materiality and exchange value that allows for the second step of animacy to occur? Or maybe we are simply supplying the lack of life that a gnome “wants.” The answer perhaps lies in the confluence, or network of all these factors.
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