Saturday, 26 September 2015

Ephemeral Art, Blue Poles (and Other Pop Art in the Garden)

Landscape architect Martha Schwartz is a hero of mine; she came crashing into my consciousness, along with postmodernism and the use of pop art in the garden, or landscape, way back in 1989 at Melbourne's first landscape design conference (there was another last weekend). What I vividly remember was not so much her famous bagel garden (which horrified people when she made it!) as her garden on a balcony outside a gene-splicing laboratory: the garden was spliced too: half French, half Japanese-inspired, made with astroturf, and had topiarised trees coming out perpendicularly from the walls. I fell in love with this innovative and trail-blazing woman.
Readers of this blog will know that I've been tormented by wallabies chomping all my garden plants for 20+ years. It may have been the lack of actual plants in some places that made me start thinking along the lines of my hero a couple of years ago; along with inspiration from many speakers at landscape design conferences and delving into my own way of seeing the world.
How do I see the world, you ask, politely? As I majored in biochemistry at university, it's hardly surprising that I see the world mainly through a prism of chemistry:  atoms, molecules and electromagnetic radiation.
So, long before I read about the Garden of Cosmic Speculation (in the UK), I wanted a magnified DNA (more along the lines of a double helix you can walk through, and grow creepers on; not bright steel sculptures that can be viewed as...ugly and arguably out of place in a flower garden. Sorry Charles).
As I had a large circular area, of course I created a magnified atom a couple of years ago. Who wouldn't? (I am still figuring out the perfect plants for around my (large) central proton sphere and (smaller) electron spheres: this spot is very boggy.) What type of atom to make? Lithium, an antidepressant, with its one outer electron pointing to north, or Mecca, or Uluru, was an idea, fairly appropriate. But more appealing visually is carbon, with 4 outer, equally spaced electrons, and how deliciously political. Plus, we are carbon-based organisms...
And I would love a magnified apple (maybe, one day); I've settled for a small wooden sculpture of an apple, 35cm high, complete with rusty leaf. Why? Well, I love that some people might interpret this as representing fruitfulness; or as the Garden of Eden (and thus maybe sin or a garden as paradise or religiously); or just an attractive shape. But no; for me (bear with me), it's reminiscent of that very unlikely story of Isaac Newton and the apple and therefore the theory of gravity...and thus the Age of Reason, Science (even, maybe, the new, militant atheism).
Another scientific idea I've had for a long time is a rainbow; the product of light refraction from a prism (as studied by Isaac Newton and others). (Years ago, I even worked out indigenous plants for this, for J's garden area, below the house, with waves of light (semicircles of lower then taller plants): Correa reflexa (red), Platylobium (orange), dwarf or tall goodenia (yellow), Astrotriche (green; insignificant flowers), Wahlenbergia (blue) and Tetratheca (purple). But J wasn't keen.)
Maybe I'll make this rainbow with flags, instead, and like my atom, there's a political edge: it says I support gay rights, with an emphasis on the current issue of equality: gay marriage. Suddenly a subtle idea we'd barely see ourselves (mostly low plants) becomes blatant; and perhaps welcoming, too, if I place bright flags in a gentle semicircle near the gate as visitors approach the garden.
Three major ideas are probably too many (birds; science; and I have a rusty treble clef, too, in a little garden room of its own) in my garden but I still have plenty more I'd like to use, and have to restrain myself, for 2 reasons.
A cluttered garden is not attractive; and too many themes (more than one!) detract from the meaning, the unity, the strength of feeling the visitor gets (I can dream).
 I love birds and there's already the small birdhouse, a sandstone kookaburra, birdbaths and 2 whirling birds (or bird-like sculptures). There's even 2 little plastic flamingos which I love (to J's amazement). And other (small) avian ornamentation. But there's also my magnified atom, apple, and, one day, pergola of DNA. So there is now more than one theme to the garden; is this forgivable? Certainly I shouldn't add more - it's not like the garden is 20 hectares and well-divided into garden rooms.
As `The Age' garden writer Megan Backhouse commented the day she interviewed me at home, after the cyclamen book was published: `You do have a lot of garden sculpture' while she looked about the front patch. (It wasn't complimentary.) She's right - just there. I need to have a good look around and think what can be changed in this area that holds elements both J and I have contributed to.
More importantly, I'm afraid of repeating what I see as a mistake I saw at Veddw House in south Wales (still a special garden I hasten to add).
The heart of that garden is modern, crisp, well-designed by the owners (particularly self confessed `bad-tempered gardener'  and garden critic Anne Wareham) but it feels like it has been plonked in the middle of a country flower garden. Maybe Anne started a country garden then, like me, began thinking of exciting fresh ideas...but (to me) it seems like there's a disconnect. My garden will likely have this problem; I don't exactly want to rip out the roses, perennials and have a pebble garden(say) just because I have 3 small areas that allude - in a gentle way - to science. No, the `science' areas can be pretty. The atom can have rings of plants (all year) - tall ones (like Lillium) where the electrons have rings of high energy, of course. (It was going to be subtle but a combination of: the area being too boggy for my plan of white hellebores and small bulbs year-round (requiring more sunlight, and better drainage)isn't working; and I have lots of perennials in the shade house that need a damp place to be planted, has conspired to make me plan to make this area instead, I think, into an area of lovely woodland perennials.)
It may have been Phaidon's excellent `The Garden Book' which alerted me to the Dew Garden of Chris Parsons (See blog post 19/7/15) in the UK. I think this is the first time I really thought  of an ephemeral garden (although elements of a bulb meadow are, too).
And so I realised I could have fun in the garden and if it didn't look great, well, if it was ephemeral, who cared? So last winter I painted more than a dozen huge pumpkins engine-red and lined the front path with them, a welcoming sight (I thought) in the drear months. This has a nod to Martha Schwartz, too.
This winter I tried something quite different. After I cut down my circle of tree dahlias (see post 31/5/15), after their glorious autumn flowering season was over - about 25 of them - to about 3m high, I painted some of them sapphire-blue, bright blue. It's quite a sight. Of course it references abstract expressionist painting  `Blue Poles' by Jackson Pollock (in name only - and I have a personal reason for this) and they are blue when we are feeling `blue' yet the skies are not. In the stark winter garden it adds height and colour but, remembering Veddw House, they'll be cut down the minute that there's a strange clash between `modern art' and `flowery garden'. (It's influenced by Claude Cormier's Blue Stick Garden (2000, 2004) too (actually blue and red; it ` blurs the boundaries between design and art, nature and artifice, the real and the surreal '; bulbous Fibonacci spiral in the lawn (below) is flowering, another ephemeral feature. I love the little flowers, the curving pattern, even while there's only a few: many bulbs may have rotted in the boggy soil. Never mind. When the drainage is improved, I'll replant my spiral for early spring flowers each year. This is one ephemeral feature that is a delight, that `works', and that I look forward to it each year. 

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (

No comments:

Post a Comment