Monday, October 15, 2007

The Great Gardening Challenge is to talk sense

Following on from an entry on garden designer James Alexander-Sinclair’s blog about the need to take gardening more seriously (ie. more intellectually). ……“Fudge_pit_props_what_an_astounding_notion”_said_the_engineer.html#

The debates you mentioned (Great Garden Challenge) are a good example of what we need more of – garden people talking about what makes a good garden – in plain English. Ie. without descending to talking “pretentious tosh”.
The great danger of our little campaign to take gardens more seriously, is precisely this; that thinking gardeners will start talking that peculiar dialect of English widely known as ‘art bollocks’. The sort of gobbledock that gathers like a grey mystifying fog over whatever is being presented to as us ‘art’. Or the arguably even worse dialect spoken by students and teachers of academic cultural studies. Of course not all art, and by extension not all gardens, should ‘mean something’ on first sighting, but the kind of art which can only be understood by reading an essay, usually ridden with jargon and clichés, before having any incling as to what it is about, stands as a warning. In the garden world, the gardens which have come closest to this are the conceptual gardens of Chaumont, Westonbirt etc. It looks as if they have not been very popular with the public. What a surprise – but still a shame. Maybe they have fallen between two stools - too gardeny for the art crowd, too much like installations for gardeners.
I have looked around a couple of seriously ‘thinking’ gardens in the last few years, including Little Sparta, and loved them. What actually interests me, wearing my hat as a writer for the popular gardening/lifestyle press is this: how do make this style of garden not just comprehensible to the general public but inspirational? The organisers of Chaumont always intended the ideas shown in the gardens there to be “ideas to steal” – the organisers of Westonbirt stole that slogan too. But people need to be shown how to think about how they incorporate ideas, from their lives, memories, thoughts etc. into conceptual and metaphoric gardens. I would love to do a book, of the ‘twenty weekend projects for your garden’ variety based on Little Sparta and similar. You could have people creating sculptures, mini-installations, pieces of text, and dotting them around their gardens. The results might often be risible, kitsch or embarassing, but it would be great just to get people thinking laterally and creatively.
Talking intelligently about gardens must keep clear of the pretensions of joining the art world. Yes, it would be nice to be taken more seriously by the art and media elite, but we will not necessarily achieve this by trying to join them on their own terms. Better we put our own house in order first: have some serious discussion about what a good garden is? What is the role of plants? Of hardscape? The role of the house? The surroundings? What is the relationship between the other arts and gardening? etc. etc.
I very much hope we can begin to discuss some of these issues at the events that we are organising as part of the Vista Debates in London. They are invitation only (have to keep out the riff-raff you see), but if you would like to come, then drop me an ‘e’ and I’ll put you on the guest list.
By the way, here is a thought. What are you doing when you put a gnome into a garden? Are you being conceptual? Because you are not planting, or making hard landscaping, or somewhere for the kids to play, or to barbecue, or relating to nature. Or doing any of the other things people do when they make gardens. What is the gnome installer doing? It would be interesting to get some answers. But not in cultural studies language please.