The Politics of the Garden

Theatrum Botanicum Sculpture

Lothar Baumgarten, Theatrum Botanicum, 1995: View of the building (and garden), Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2013. © Jean Nouvel / Adagp, Paris. Photo : © Luc Boegly

Since ages, in all cultures of the world, the design and care of the grounds has been established as a form of art like any other. There is no better example to illustrate the dominion of man over nature from an artistic perspective. However, it is worth noting that since the emergence of conceptual art in the Western art scene of the 60s gardening has crossed the border that separated it from the sphere of visual arts. Interest in growing plants, as happened with many other non-mainstream art practice actions, joined the concept “art is life” and has since undergone an interesting evolution in its approach.

Alan Sonfist was one of the forerunners of this type of intervention in the 60s, even before the concept of Reclamation Art was known, with its Time Landscapes in which replanted native species of a forest, as it would have been in the XV century in Illinois and New York. However, it was not until the last years of the 70s with the rise of the environmental movement and especially in the decades of the 80s and 90s when the use of monitored vegetation and reintroducing native vegetation was common practice of Reclamation Art, which pursues the recovery of degraded areas due to industrial development and subsequent abandonment. Some Land Art artists like Robert Smithson made this type of artworks, but we could say that the most iconic are those of Mierle L. Ukeles and Agnes Denes, not to mention the less known Herman Prigann and his Terra Nova major project in Germany. All these examples have in common the occupation of large tracts of land, indispensable as an essential component of the artwork either historical or social significance, either because they are the object to be repaired through art.

Thus, the use of vegetation as an artistic medium is not new to the contemporary scene although it has mostly been a claiming content for the defense of nature against the destruction of industrial development, having a strong social aspect, in which the community involvement plays an important role. However, it is noteworthy that in the last two decades there has been a series of site-specific projects focused on the concept of the garden and led by conceptual artists -note: no landscape architects or artists- whose career is characterized by the great diversity of media used in his work.

Theatrum Botanicum Sculpture

Lothar Baumgarten, Theatrum Botanicum, 1995: View of the building (and garden), Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2013. © Jean Nouvel / Adagp, Paris. Photo : © Luc Boegly

One characteristic of this type of work is its work in progress status for obvious reasons of submission to the natural process of plants and transmits the basic idea of ​​a traditional garden and peaceful place, whose main objective is the satisfaction of caring and sharing, to see it grow and to evolve at different times of the year and to model it by creating paths and spaces that move and delight in its contemplation. In short, projects that promote a return to the more traditional approach, some of them lacking double readings and some others offering deeper thoughts under its idyllic appearance, but all of them recovering somewhat picturesque spirit of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries. The most interesting, from my point of view, to analyze these works is to look at the role of each artist to address the issue of the garden and might be precisely in this respect, their involvement in the process of completion of the work, which really we can know something more of their intentions.

In 1995 the Fondation Cartier in Paris Inaugurated the gardens That Were commissioned to the German artist Lothar Baumgarten Earlier a few years to complete the surroundings of the foundation’s remarkable new building designed by Jean Nouvel. Under the title of Theatrum Botanicum, Baumgarten developed the concept of the garden that occupies a prime space in the whole of the foundation as an “arcadia” of the twentieth century in which the volumes of plants in different seasons create a harmonious whole under his feral appearance. Since its inception it features the work of a professional gardener dedicated to maintaining around 200 species, some of which are protected or rare. And it is that Lothar Baumgarten is an artist sensitized to ecological and anthropological questions in all his works; specifically, in this garden becomes apparent a concern for meeting the environmental aspects such as insert native plant species and at the same time encourage the presence of birds and rare insects in urbanized areas.

Garten Sculpture

Fischli/Weiss, Garten, 1997. Photo: Roman Mensig,

Since 1977, every ten years, the small German town of Münster celebrates a major exhibition of outdoor sculpture throughout the city with site-specific projects mostly. Maybe because one of the characteristics of urbanism of Münster is the abundance of gardens both public and allotments, you would expect that some artists chose this subject as the object of their participation in the event. In the third edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1997, Fischli/Weiss presented their work Garten in a secluded private garden in the city center. The two artists, advised and aided by local gardeners and a local association that did most of the work, cleaned and prepared the ground for planting a garden and several areas of native flowers, apart from keeping the old vegetation, as were some several fruit trees and topiaries. The statement of their project -very much in line with sharpening the most trivial aspects of life- started in such a simple way: “A garden with flowers and vegetables, seats, a table and chair, equipment, tools, and appropriate utensils will be created for the ‘Sculpture. Projects in Münster 1997.’ ”

In the next edition, in 2007, Jeremy Deller proposed an alternative to the popular urban gardens. In his usual role as mediator in activities that require the participation of different groups, Deller proposed to all associations of allotments in the city to conduct a “nature diary” over the 10 years between one event and another with the intention of putting it in the next Skulptur-Münster in 2017. Speak to the earth and it will tell you 2007-2017 uses historical “Schrebergarten” -allotments- to inquire into the history of the people who keep them and their internal relationships within community that go beyond mere garden care.

More recently, in the last Biennale of Sydney, the Australian artist Gabrielle de Vietri was expected to present Garden of Bad Flowers, a garden composed exclusively with plants containing a “negative meaning” according to the nineteenth century famous book “The Language of Flowers”. However, the project did not materialize at the Cockatoo Island venue because of the controversial boycott of the Biennale by several artists who complained the main sponsor of the event at the time was the same company subcontracting the administration of offshore immigrant detention centres in Australia. De Vietri was one of the two artists who chose not to rejoin the Biennale after the controversy, however, her garden project finally took place in a radically different scenario as to the attractiveness and the effect that could have provided its presence in a Biennale of contemporary art that in its latest edition received more than half a million visitors. The Garden of Bad Flowers was welcomed in the back and front yards of a house in the suburb of Earlwood, south of the City, where tenants promote a sustainable lifestyle in which creative and cultural initiatives also play an important role. Unfortunately, the garden can be visited only during “open days” and is not accompanied by the side events that were scheduled in its version for the Biennale which, I think, would bring a contemporary perspective needed to prevent it falling in pure romantic reflection.

Garden of Bad Flowers Sculpture

Gabrielle de Vietri, Garden of Bad Flowers, 2014. Photo: Lucy Parakhina,

Anyway, with the gesture of moving the garden into a private space that tries to maintain the maximum sustainable life style Gabrielle de Vietri has taken on political overturns, this is a remark that leads us to the reflection we made at the start on the vindicatory power of the vegetable world in art. At present, Reclamation Art is relegated to the sidelines in favor of a perspective focused on ecological grassroots activism. Interesting examples of artistic proposals of this type are shown in the exhibition “Vegetation as a Political Agent” organized by Arte Parco Vivente in Turin until 2nd November, which investigates, according to the curator, “historical and social implications of the plant world in light of the ever-Increasing resurgence of “green” as an agent of change in relation to current economic Processes”, a view that prioritizes creativity in the form of popular intervention/action above the idea of repair.

By Paula Llull

5 responses

  1. it was an interesting walk thru gabrielle’s improbable garden. The flowers had not blossomed so it reminded me gardens without plants and flowers of Patrick Corillon

  2. Thanks for this review of the possibilities of gardens as art. I am the curator for an environmental art project in Taiwan that for 2015 wants to include some artworks with living gardens….have to be able to adjust to salty soil and changing environmental conditions. Please see the Blog at for the complete call for proposals and all information about what to send to apply. Artists receive a stipend, airfare, accommodations, meals, etc. Proposals are due by January 16, 2015 and selected artists are in residence in Cheng Long Wetlands from April 9 to May 5, 2015.

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