Avant-Gardeners

The evolving nature and art of landform

The following article first featured in July 2004’s issue 11 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article compares a contemporary examples of permanent and ethereal environmental art, as designed by the likes of Charles Jencks and Andy Goldsworthy, when set against the historic innovation of gentile landscape designers like Humprey Repton and his Red Book series

The Royal Horticultural Society, now celebrating its bicentennial, is a self-appointed ‘gateway to gardening’. Yet only within the last decade has the organisation really begun to treat its scholarly membership to a wider artistic spectrum, by embracing at either ends of it, both the populist garden design approach of the ‘Home Fronts’ genre and the fine art culture of the purist. All schools are currently to be seen in two shows that explore these creative fields (no pun intended). The exhibition Art of the Garden at Tate Britain examines the relationship between the garden and British art over the last 200 years, whilst Everything’s Gone Green: Photography and the Garden is a major new installation created at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, and explores the significance of domestic and public gardens as “man-made Eden, arcadia or simply as a plot of contained nature”. Of current in-vogue landscape ‘artists’, probably the best known is Diarmuid Gavin, and his decision to try for gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has resulted in the on-screen creation of his controversial National Lottery sponsored garden A Colourful Suburban Eden. Curiously inspired by County Kerry, Damian Hirst spot paintings and Telletubbies, Gavin calls it his “Festival of Britain meets Willy Wonka”. Not to everyone’s taste no doubt, but then, wasn’t art always meant to be challenging and innovative anyway?

Talking of eminent awards, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently won the Gulbenkian Prize (at £100,000 the UK’s richest single arts prize) for its dramatic and radical landscaping project, called Landform. The judges were captivated, with Chairman Loyd Grossman (incidentally, also current Chair of the Cultural Consortium of England’s Northwest) describing it as an “inspirational, beautiful project”. Landform, a two-year £380,000 art commission, consists of a serpentine mound, with three crescent pools covering three acres. Conceived by US architectural theorist Charles Jencks (author of the seminal 1973 architects bible ‘Modern Movements in Architecture’), his design reflects the Edinburgh landscape and was inspired by chaos theory and weather systems.

The perennial RHS crops up again at Cheshire’s Tatton Park in July, where an 18th century Humphrey Repton landscape will form the backdrop to another orgy of green-fingered culture. This year however marks an interesting point in time in the park’s evolving history. In addition to celebrating the conclusion of a significant part of its walled-garden restoration programme, it is also about to try and commission a major landscape art project of it’s own, by internationally acclaimed artist Andy Goldsworthy (and artist for Cumbria’s world renowned Sheepfold project). As well as providing a new cultural draw within the park to set against Repton’s Red Book classic design, it may even act as an aerial gateway to the Northwest – being potentially only visible in its entirety from the main international flight paths to and from Manchester Airport. An ultimate landmark is one possible final conclusion to the project called oneplace, which is hoped to develop over a number of years, and will begin (funding permitting) with a series of temporary commissions, created by the artist to sit in the park alongside parallel international artist residencies and compliment the work and mirror the historic connections between Lord Egerton’s estate and the Commonwealth.

As with architecture, the artistic interpretation of landscape is something that has passed through many style and fashion changes over the centuries, with the physical scale and degrees of artistic ambition achieved directly proportional to an era’s wealth and general outlook. Consequently, opportunities to create major contemporary artistic designs for the landscapes do not occur that often. As it happens, Goldsworthy and Jencks share many commonalities already: both are visionary artists in site-specific environmental installations, both are permanent residents in their respective Dumfriesshire estates, whilst Goldsworthy reportedly once even worked at Jencks’s fabulously eccentric Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack some years before.

There is no doubt that Tatton Park and Cheshire County Council have the desire to commission an ambitious world-class piece of public art, and hopefully landowners The National Trust will become convinced of the importance of this also. Whether oneplace can eventually hold it’s own when pitted against a classic landscape design and whether it ever receives the popular and critical acclaim of Landform, will be like waiting for Chelsea gold on Diarmuid’s Colourful Suburban Eden – in that only time will tell. Not in question is Goldsworthy’s ability to deliver for Tatton Park and the Northwest, a literally groundbreaking work of Land Art – providing the appropriate tools, time and freedom to deliver are made available, that were afforded to Repton back in 1791 and Jencks in 2002.

Categories: Writing

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