Saturday, November 08, 2008

Avant gardening

I've been a bit preoccupied with Very Modern Gardens lately (just for something I'm writing).

By this I mean what's rather meaninglessly called Conceptual Gardens by the RHS. What exactly does "conceptual" mean anyway? Aren't all gardens conceptual - it's just that sometimes the concept is more usually Gertrude Jekyll than Mondrian...?

Anyway - I've always really enjoyed the Conceptual Gardens section at Hampton Court. They're not only fabulous works of art: they also really challenge what you think you're seeing and how you think you see it. Did anyone see Forest2 by Ivan Tucker? All those silver birch trees surrounded by mirrors. And the wonderful experience of looking through the holes in the sides only to see your own disembodied face staring back at you, floating somewhere in the air among the trees. And as for Ecstasy in a Very Black Box... This really challenged, with no plants but a load of baby lettuce but probably the best evocation of what it must feel like to be a manic depressive that I've ever seen.

So - I'm thinking about all these gardens which are thoughtful and thought-provoking, based on skeletons or what it's like to be a parent or autumn or, in one case, the Electric Sheep screensaver, and I'm wondering what exactly it's all meant to be about. I love it as art: much as I love going to Tate Modern and having all my ideas about the way things are turned upside down.

But the middle-aged lady in me says, would you have it in your back garden? I think it's rather revealing that the champion of avant-gardening, Tim Richardson, recently confessed to Gardens Illustrated magazine that his own garden was full of hardy geraniums. Constance Spry roses and kids' bikes. I wonder, if Tony Smith offered to come along and paint the whole thing black and put multi-coloured shards of glass in it, whether he'd take him up on it?

I suspect I'm just missing the point here. But I kind of wonder, sometimes, whether there is a point. It may be art - but is it gardening?


James A-S said...

I really want to answer this in some way but am too knackered: sat up too late last night watching a very old friend of mine smoke a great deal.
I don't think conceptual gardens are supposed to be in your back garden. It is confusing things to equate such things with our domestic gardens. We might well not want Francis Bacon triptychs in our sitting rooms but that does not make them any less powerful. Conceptual gardens would be wasted tucked away in suburban gardens: they should be on display where we can all see them and Daily Mail readers can splutter about the waste of taxpayers money. Much more fun.

The Constant Gardener said...

hello James, I thought you might weigh in on this one :D

don't you think though that calling them "gardens" is a bit confusing then? Shouldn't we just be calling them outdoor art and having done with it?

and I wouldn't mind a Francis Bacon triptych in my living room... though I couldn't invite my mum round any more...

VP said...

Isn't that the point - to get the discussion going and the juices flowing about what gardening actually is?

I thought a lot of Hampton Court's was tosh, but I loved Forest2 (sorry don't know how to superscript the 2 in Blogger comments).

I thought the same about Westonbirt's garden festival, but some of it was absolutely sublime and made me think about gardening in a different way. And another plus to Westonbirt was they were on display for months, not the odd week or so. A pity it foundered after a couple of years.

The Constant Gardener said...

yes absolutely VP, totally agree, and that's kind of why I like them too - it really gets you thinking about the whole big picture.

Didn't get to Westonbirt - though I know one of the designers who did one of those gardens quite well (it was the most outrageous thing she's ever done and she had a ball!)

If you liked Westonbirt, visit the Future Gardens at the soon-to-open Butterfly World (that's what I'm writing about). Like Westonbirt it'll be a) very modern and b) will be there several months. Sounds fab...!

James Golden said...

Living in the good ole USA (Obamaland) my access to conceptual gardens is limited - except for one much diminished garden by Martha Schwartz in downtown NYC. But I've read Tim Richardson's Avant Gardeners and recently listened to the Conceptual Gardens podcast on the Gardens Illustrated website.

Some of these designs are extremely powerful. Others I could care less about. I'm not convinced they all belong in a single category called "Conceptual Gardens" (this may be mixing mudballs and oranges) but the discussion Tim Richardson has so ably sparked certainly has people thinking about gardens much more broadly.

There is a very strong concern about context, place, culture among many of the conceptual gardeners that is certainly relevant to any garden. Some have suggested contextual gardens might be a more meaningful name, though Tim Richardson insists conceptual is the more appropriate word. (Let the fray go on.)

I'd certainly take a Francis Bacon in my living room. I could retire and garden full time.

VP said...

I meant to mention Future Gardens yesterday, but couldn't for the life of me remember what it's called - picture me going round the room muttering, 'I know it begins with F, it's at St Albans and JAS is involved with it'...

I'm looking forward to it :)

Thanks for the reminder - I seem to have a life full of disconnected senior moments this week!

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