A SURREALIST SCULPTOR’S LOST MEXICAN GARDEN
Written by Akiko Kurematsu
Photography by Peter Ash Lee
On the rare occasion that you hear of a Surrealist garden in the middle of a Mexican jungle, where waterfalls cascade into blue pools and queer sculptures hang midair, you go. It is a matter of urgency, for something so strange and magical cannot exist in its hidden state of being for much longer.
Should you venture out in search of the garden, what you would find today are the remaining architectural ruins of one man’s fantasy. Edward James is something of a curious character, with questionable bloodlines from English royalty; he was an undeniable source of support and influence on the careers of Surrealist artists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. Wildly wealthy and notably flamboyant, he often set his mind making real the fantasies the Surrealists could only dream of painting.
In 1949, one such project, Las Pozas (The Pools), began to take shape, tucked deep within the subtropical rainforest just outside the foggy town of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Remote and fairly inaccessible, it’s a four-hour drive from Tampico, the nearest airport, or a seven-hour drive north from Mexico City. James bought twenty acres of dense jungle here, and set out to grow a garden containing 29,000 orchids and other rare and exotic flowers. When a freak frost in the 1950s all but wiped out his folly, without training in architecture or engineering, James commenced construction on thirty-six towering sculptures—a multimillion-dollar labyrinth.
Half a century has passed since Edward James brought his vanity project to this rural mountain town. The jungle has taken over, and the garden’s history has faded into stories and secrets. Traveling to the site itself makes you question if it was worth it in the first place.
When you land in Tampico, in the state of Tamaulipas, the first thing you notice is the humidity. Situated at sea level in the coastal wetlands of eastern Mexico, the airport is six miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 300 miles from the Texan border. The airport is small and deserted. Passengers quickly fetch their bags and make their way out. At the car-rental counter, the woman handling the reservation says sternly in broken English, “No driving nighttime.” It is 2 p.m. Google Maps gives us an ETA at our destination of two hours and fifty minutes. There are four hours until sundown.
Exiting the city of Tampico, my stomach is in knots. The town is shuttered and dilapidated. We drive by a dog dying on the side of the street surrounded by black crows. There are no women or children in sight, only men. The “highway” outside the city is in rough condition, and we make our first mistake by following Google Map’s “shorter” route, south of Ciudad Valles through the town of Pánuco, instead of staying on federal highways all the way to our destination, the remote outpost of Xilitla.
We have not yet noticed the gravity of our mistake as we drive 35 kmh on 80 kmh roads, avoiding massive potholes covering the width of our lane. We pass through small towns full of bad vibes, shifting our faces away from pickups carrying men who leer at our rental sedan. Anywhere that money changes hands—tollgates, gas stations, a shitty strip mall—there are armed security personnel. Outside of Tampico are security checkpoints, military vehicles carrying teams of soldiers, and arms, arms, arms. There are guns everywhere.
In recent years, Tampico has become the site of an all-out turf war between Los Zetas and the Cartél del Golfo. Equipped with a major airport on the Gulf Coast and highways straight to Reynosa on the border, Tampico makes the ideal hub for major criminal activity, including, but not limited to, drug trafficking. The Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs travel advisory warns: “Throughout the state, violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, pose significant safety risks. Violent conflicts between rival criminal elements and the Mexican military can occur in all parts of the region and at all times of the day.”
Two hours outside of Tampico, Peter, our photographer and navigator, observes that our “Google Map has shown two hours to our destination for the last two hours.” The “shorter” route has forced us off-road onto a dirt path. My heart beats fast as we stop for roadblocks by crews that may or may not be conducting any real construction. The navigation finally leads us to a gravel road running alongside an orange grove. And though the scenery has changed from threatening to bucolic, we no longer have a phone signal, and with the sun setting, there is no turning back. Another forty-five minutes at a walk’s pace on the gravel and we pop onto a real road at last, and make our way up the mountain to Xilitla in the dark.
Half a century has passed
since edward james brought this vanity project to a rural mountain town. the jungle has taken over, and the garden’s history has faded into stories and secrets
The Man, Edward James (1907–84)
As we arrive at Posada El Castillo, it starts to rain. Luisa, my e-mail contact at Posada El Castillo, greets us at the entrance and we settle in the common room, where the staff builds a fire and brings us cervezas and tequila, the effects of which help us to unwind after our unraveling journey of sorts. Luisa is the granddaughter of Plutarco Gastélum Esquer, Edward James’s guide, dear friend, and right-hand man in the building of Las Pozas. (It has been whispered, with denial from the family, that James and Plutarco were at one time involved in a romantic relationship before Plutarco met and married a local woman.) Luisa lives at the posada with her parents. Her father remembers “Uncle James” staying with them at that very house during his extended stays in Xilitla.
As with royal families and confusing bloodlines, James was rumored to be the illegitimate son of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and his mistress, the Scottish socialite Evelyn Forbes. For his part, James denied this lineage, a position he firmly articulated in George Melly’s documentary The Secret Life of Edward James (1978), insisting that it was was his mother who was actually the daughter of the king.
Regardless of his murky royal ancestry, James inherited an immense family fortune from his entrepreneurial American father. And, with his godfather, King Edward VII, frequently visiting his parents’ estate in West Dean in Sussex, from an early age James led an extravagant and bourgeois childhood, surrounded by England’s royalty.
It’s not clear how James found his passion for Surrealism, but he committed to the movement for life. In Melly’s documentary, James explains Surrealism, the people and the movement, in his own words: “It is people who were close to their subconscious, their world is not completely logical, they make the illogical logical, they make it more vivid than life, like how dreams are sometimes more vivid than their actuality.” James helped make the illogical logical as wealthy benefac- tor to struggling Surrealist artists such as Dalí and Magritte. In his case, the relationship was not so much about potential or profit, but about pure appreciation and intellectual interest; he certainly had a keen eye. Not only did he financially support great Surrealist artists, he also provided practical means for them to continue creating their art—providing housing and securing shows in England and in America, ensuring that the work and movement spread among the art world.
Perhaps to escape the society he was born into, as well as his devastating failed marriage to Austrian dancer and actress Tilly Losch (who sued for divorce on grounds of his homosexuality), James left England for America in 1938. He eventually ventured as far away as Mexico, where he met Plutarco and found Xilitla, the site where he would eventually leave his own Surrealist mark on the world: Las Pozas.
The next morning I wake up in a cloud. My bed is in a corner of the room, between two gothic windows that reach to the high ceiling. I push open a lavender latticed windowpane and look out over the village of Xilitla and the surounding Sierra Gorda mountain range. Low clouds hang like a sheet across the sky, blanketing the surrounding treetops and rooftops of the village. In the room, floor-to-ceiling curtains drape damply and a green sculpture shaped like a lightning bug hangs overhead. Posada El Castillo is built at the halfway point of a stone stairway to Xilitla’s town square. The three-story building feels out of place in the humble mountain town, the ornate architecture immediately recognizable to anyone staying in Xilitla for a visit to Las Pozas. The house was designed and built by Plutarco for his family, but with obvious influences from his friend, Edward James; there are balconies and mezzanines on each floor, domed cupolas, towers and columns, custom windows with hexagonal glass pieces.
On the ground floor is a mural by the artist Leonora Carrington, former lover of German Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Household cats roam the property, three parrots live in their individual cages, and a pool that’s seen some wear over the years sits still. Luisa maintains a whiteboard at the entrance of the posada, keeping track of the occupancy of the eight guestrooms.
Luisa tells us that while they have visitors who only stay two nights, as we did, there are some who stay for a month, making Posada El Castillo their home and Las Pozas their backyard, as James did on his trips to Mexico.
Las Pozas is a few minutes’ drive from Posada El Castillo. Along the gravel road a small sign at a stone gate serves as a marker for its entrance. The gate’s symmetrical top has crumbled with time. The steel doorway is in the pattern of barbed wire. We have arrived.
We pay fifty pesos and enter the foundation. The place is empty. There’s no line, no vendors, no maps or directions. Walking along the pathway just past its entrance, we see the first sculpture—two large, long-legged birds arching over our heads, poised to take flight. They have rusted to a brownish red. Ahead, a waterfall cascades into a series of manmade pools surrounded by overhanging vines, manmade columns, raised platforms, staircases, and perches. Stairs, heading up and around the waterfall, are cordoned off with yellow caution tape. Wondering if last night’s heavy rain has caused the water levels to rise, making the jungle dangerous to walk, we consider turning back. But, considering the arduous travel that we’d undertaken to get here, we ducked the tape and ventured out on slippery steps. Gusts of wind sweep through the jungle as thousands of tiny leaves fall onto us and into the pool. There is water everywhere. At the top of the stairs we look out onto a bigger waterfall, two stories high, straight ahead. At its foot, there is a raised podium overlooking the stream running off the waterfall. On it is a bath shaped like a halved avocado with the pit removed; the perfect size for one man to lie in, shaded by the foliage overhead. The only others that we come across that day is a small group of European tourists with a hired guide telling stories of how James liked to roam the garden in the nude and his penchants for perfumed baths and peacocks. The sculptures have names like Vereda de los Serpientes (Path of the Snakes), Puente de Bambú (Bamboo Bridge), Casa de los Pericos (House of the Small Parrots), and La Plaza de Don Eduardo. Unlike the avocado, the peculiar sculptures have no distinct shape, and at times it is difficult to ascertain where the sculptures start and land begins. It feels natural and unnatural at the same time.
It is possible to walk, climb, and, with a bit of effort and blind courage, hop across orchid-shaped sculptures. Everything feels purposeful, yet none of it seems to make much sense. The spontaneity and randomness of the forms, shapes, designs, and placement create a free environment in which to roam about without map or signs; we found ourselves hiking up a large gutter chasing airplants and dipping in and out of small pools at the feet of waterfalls.
The abrupt and unexpected discovery of each new sculpture takes us deeper into the jungle, climbing up staircases and passing through archways that lead to nowhere, deeply out of the bounds of the garden. As we progress deeper into the maze, day slips into evening and, without water or food, it’s time to leave the grounds. Seeing the street after six hours is like coming down from a fantastic high. Slipping back into the real, I make a mental note to remember that stone stairway on the side of the river wall for my next trip.
James’s sculptures have often been labeled as follies —a term originally coined in the eighteenth century to refer to British and French architectural extravagances that held little or no use beyond their aesthetic appreciation. That evening we ask ourselves whether the art was good. It is certainly eccentric in concept, luxurious in creation, foolish in inception, imperfect in its execution. It is also absolutely useless. I have never seen or heard of anything like Las Pozas, and now that I have been here, I know it is singular in its existence.
Until recently, there has been little attention or effort made to preserve this spectacular sculpture garden. Founded in 2007, Fondo Xilitla, an organization with aims of putting Las Pozas on the map, plans to begin work on restoring the grounds with the assistance of the Mexican concrete company Cemex and with assistance from the San Luis Potasí govern- ment. With the possibility of corporatization, access to the garden and these sculptures may become limited. There will be no jumping from flower top to flower top. There will be no getting lost in the jungle. The way that it exists now—far from reality—is certainly how James envisioned Las Pozas. To be sure, James was an exile until his death, but his art will continue to live, its fate undetermined.