Get art in that garden
Recent installations at Bloom and Chelsea show how well art works outside the white cube of the gallery. So are gardens art? And can a forest walk become an outdoor gallery?
A VISIT TO BLOOM or to the Chelsea Flower Show – in which, for just a few days, gardens appear fully formed – demonstrates the artifice of gardening. Using nature as a medium, designers create places and spaces out of nothing. The descriptions of many of the gardens imply that they also mean something. The World Vision Garden, for which John Warland and Sim Flemons won a silver medal at Chelsea, symbolises “how World Vision’s work with children also helps families, communities and, ultimately, entire countries”.
At Bloom, the Departures garden, by Cillian McDonald and Luke Byrne, investigated “the motivations of the emigrants in a contemplative setting”.
Bringing natural or manmade materials together to create something meaningful is one of the definitions of art. So are gardens art? When art goes into gardens, does art or nature emerge the winner? Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain on golf, is sculpture in the outdoors a good walk spoiled?
Gardens have always had meaning. Persian gardens were laid out according to the precepts of paradise. A walled, rectangular enclosure is irrigated with a canal, pond or fountain, often quartering the space, echoing the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. This template can be seen in gardens from the grounds of the Taj Mahal to Versailles.
The gardens and large landscaping projects by 18th-century designers such as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton were also made to convey something. Beyond merely creating charming views by damming rivers, forming lakes and sometimes almost moving mountains, they demonstrated man’s mastery over nature, even though the work of Brown in particular often involved copying nature closely.
Throughout history, sculpture has featured in gardens. At the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Abundance looks over the natural world while Neptune commands the water features, and the Roman emperor Hadrian once lent a not-so-subtle whiff of power by proxy to the Medici family. In contemporary times, art in gardens is more often a question of design and decoration. At Chelsea and Bloom, crafted objects were generally more aesthetic accompaniments than carriers of any particular meaning.
Nevertheless, there are places you can go to see art and nature come together in a way that stimulates the senses, making you look again at both. At its best, sculpture in outdoor settings, and not simply large public pieces on motorways and roundabouts and in civic spaces, benefits from being freed from the sometimes stultifying confines of the art gallery or museum.
In his groundbreaking study of art galleries, Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty writes about the way in which “the ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art’. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself.”
In describing how the cultural and perceptual forces embodied in the gallery not only turn objects in them into art, O’Doherty shows how art taken out of the gallery sometimes seems less “art” than when it was inside.
The same effect can be seen in other contexts: wine might taste better in crystal glasses and by candlelight, and dresses can appear more attractive on velvet hangers in designer boutiques than they do when thrown over the back of a chair at home.
Nature can be a far harder taskmaster than the white walls of an art gallery, and far less forgiving of art that doesn’t come up to standard. So what happens to sculpture when it gets down off the plinth? Against the riot of colours and forms that nature can come up with, the merely decorative is often not enough.
At Oak, which runs at Killenure Castle in Co Tipperary until the end of June ( killenure.com), Aoife Barrett’s Favela is a series of wooden dwellings that appear to have been made for fairytale-scale slum dwellers. They are made stranger still by their woodland setting. Tony O’Malley’s Nestled is a wrapped hazel-rod structure that reaches to the treetops. It gives a sense of the nature of growth, and the shifting shaping of climate and weather over the years.
Also mysteriously wonderful at Oak is Andrea Cleary’s Spore Drip, a cascade of felt hangings that grow like an invading organism across the path. Not all the work at Oak survives the setting, but it would be hard for any gallery cafe to replicate the sheer pleasure of having a coffee in the shade of the enormous tree in the courtyard, on to which Steven Aylin has painted delicate multicoloured lapwings. Oak is a temporary exhibition and admission charges apply, as they do to most gardens and sculpture gardens. This turns up the interesting paradox that we seem happy to pay to visit gardens but not art galleries, even though similar levels of creativity, energy, labour and commitment are required for each.
Some art, such as that of Antony Gormley, lends itself very well to the outdoors, but one person who has triumphed both inside and out is the Catalan artist Joan Miró, whose work is on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park ( ysp.co.uk) until January. Menacing the very English landscape with their wild surrealism, Miró’s works fit in with the park’s other pieces, which include works by Alec Finlay, Andy Goldsworthy, Anthony Caro, David Nash, Sophie Ryder and Henry Moore.
The gardens at Lismore Castle in Co Waterford ( lismorecastlegardens.com), which are open from May to September, have works by artists including Eilís O’Connell and Antony Gormley, and this year there are also sculptures by Hans Josephsohn.
At Liss Ard in Co Cork ( lissardestate.com) the Irish Sky Garden by James Turrell, one of a series of works the artist made around the world, frames views of the sky, concentrating the visitor’s understanding and experience of what often passes unnoticed above our heads.
Like the sky gardens, the best of outdoor art is often made in the landscape, rather than being imported into it. Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora in Co Offaly ( sculptureintheparklands.com) showcases art made during residencies in the workshops of this former Bord na Móna cutaway bog. Artists include Alan Counihan, Martina Galvin, Kevin O’Dwyer, Julian Wild and Johan Sietzema. It is one of the art treasures of Ireland, well worth a visit at any time of the year.
Putting art in a gallery asks us to look at it in a different way: as an idea, a comment, a piece of history and a commodity. Putting it outside can seem an intrusion into an already beautiful setting, but at its best, and freed from the often overbearing energy of those plain white gallery walls, something very special can occur. And if you think nature doesn’t need the artifice of art added to it, don’t forget it would be hard to experience nature at all if it wasn’t for the roads that bring us to it, or even the paths that wind within.
Greats outdoors Where to soak up sculpture
Gardens created by artists can be the perfect combination of nature and vision. Claude Monet created the gardens at Giverny that then inspired some of his most beloved paintings. Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness in Kent is a bleak beauty in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. Barbara Hepworth’s garden at St Ives contains many of her sculptures and is in the care of the Tate.
THE GREAT AND THE GOOD
From the quirky to the curious, the Ewe Gardens at Glengarriff in Co Cork ( theewe.com) are worth a visit. All the pieces, including Fish (RIGHT), are by Sheena Wood. (The gardens have a charity tea party today, from 1pm to 5pm, in aid of RehabCare and the National Learning Network.)
The Shekina Sculpture Garden at Glenmalure in Co Wicklow includes work by Leo Higgins, Alexandra Wejchert, Imogen Stuart and Ken Thompson.
Victoria’s Way in Co Wicklow ( victoriasway.eu) is a sculpture garden containing large-scale works from India.
The National Botanic Gardens will hold Sculpture in Context in September and October ( sculptureincontext.com).
Kilfane in Co Kilkenny has work by David Nash and Bill Woodrow. It opens in July and August ( kilfane.com).
One of the best sculpture gardens was created for the soft-drinks company PepsiCo by its former chairman Donald Kendall, in the belief that his vision for the company would be reflected in the atmosphere of “stability, creativity and experimentation” that the art creates. About an hour from Manhattan, the PepsiCo sculpture gardens contain works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet. The gardens have been landscaped to suit the sculptures.