Exhibition preview essay by Jack Smylie Wild

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A title or a name obviously isn’t meant to – and cannot – fully convey the content of that which it designates or signifies. And for the exhibition in question, the simple, understated choice of ‘The Garden’ is a good one – unpretentious, describing an essential aspect of what’s on offer: the site itself. On the other hand, such a generic noun necessarily fails to portray the nuance, the peculiarities, the variation of this special location. The word ‘garden’ conjures myriad images and connotations for different people; or for just a single person depending on the context in which it’s used. For some a familiar lawn will spring to mind, perhaps with an old swing in the corner; for others flowers will be the central idea, arranged in orderly patterns and rows; or a vegetable patch beside a dilapidated shed and a compost heap; or a sea of raked gravel surrounded by small boulders and bonsai trees. What almost certainly won’t appear in the minds of those who hear the word is anything resembling the scene one confronts ‘in reality’ at the location of this exhibition, which is unique to say the least.

And perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. After all, it entails an element of surprise or novelty for those who arrive expecting to behold their own preconceptions. Essentially we’re talking about an old farm, on a hill, surrounded by greenhouses and Dutch barns and swaying conifers. But really it’s the ramshackle, weathered feel that is most intriguing; the encroachment of nature, of time – of the garden – upon the ‘human-built’ or ‘man-made’. But under the weeds, behind the cobwebs, beneath the peeling paint, hidden beneath dust and the detritus of years – here and there lie glimpses and clues as to the layered history and bygone inhabitants of the place. The past usually seems such an abstract, intangible, and perhaps incomprehensible concept; so to encounter it directly, through time’s incremental marks and traces and concrete accumulations strikes one as meaningful, profound even.

Evidence of oldness has always resonated with me – as have archaeological and anthropological suggestions, imprints and symbols of our forebears.  Ruins of a cottage hidden amongst oaks on Dartmoor; a shepherd’s hut high in the Alpujarras mountains, which lacks windows but still contains a pair of ancient shoes, a hammer and a bottle of murky fluid; a 1700 year-old Yew tree; a pre-Roman track, scraped by footfall and rain into a holloway enclosed by treetops; or even something as unassuming an old cupboard stacked with rusty tobacco tins full of nails and string and gramophone needles, such as we find in a barn here. The whole world and everything in it is a product of the past, but some objects bear this fact to a greater extent, and in the face of such entities we become aware of our own relationship to the immensity and power of time – of our own smallness and relative insignificance, which can be a humbling experience.

So in a roundabout way it seems fitting that an art exhibition has emerged from the ashes of a place lost to time –  a philosophical and metaphorical aptness born of the conjunction between the old and the new, the functional and the aesthetic. In fact, such distinctions and oppositions are false, if by old we mean the place, and if by functional we refer to the expired purpose of the place. This is due to the abundance of plants, which are arguably, like the artworks themselves, both new and aesthetic in nature.

This similarity is an important one, because it seems to me that the placing of art in this location results in something more than the mere showcasing of work in a pretty, quaint and novel place: in the giant greenhouse especially, now that most of the flowers have been and gone, the disparate pieces on display have somehow replaced, on an almost ontological level, their natural world counterparts. This is especially true of Kate Dunwell’s work – some of which was actually painted in response to the verdant, colourful, abundant plant life of her greenhouse. So in this respect her flowers have literally been replaced by her own colourful expressions. But other work too seems at home in, and even enhanced by, the flora which surrounds it. Sam Vicary’s cut-out watercolours of birds come to life perched amongst the creepers, whilst their frames help to maintain their status as expressive and human creations – tethers holding them back from full flight. The dreamy atmosphere of the space is also suited to the ethereal quality of Seren Stacey’s camera obscura images, which elsewhere find themselves situated in barns similar to those captured by her lens; existing then as the dreams of the building, a nucleus containing the DNA from which the surrounding shell is projected.  Perhaps all types of art could be neatly linked, thematically and metaphorically, to a place as rich in objects and spaces as this, but from what I’ve seen so far (a few preliminary positionings of Kate, Sam and Seren’s work) this two day exhibition promises to draw our attention to a real affinity between the site and the creations which find themselves there.

Written by Jack Smylie Wild

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One thought on “Exhibition preview essay by Jack Smylie Wild

  1. What a wonderful evocation Jack – thank you. All the more vivid having now seen the ‘show’.
    I was struck by the sense that, in the same way that poems are often surrounded by blank space on a page, and paintings are mounted on a neutral mount board, the art in this garden was showcased. It was surrounded by a softness and spaciousness that made the relationship between art and nature feel very alive. I was grateful that the nature outweighed the art, but in a way that made the art speak more clearly, if that makes sense. I also loved the glimpses of the place’s saucy history – a former venue for nudity and swingers’ parties leading eventually to the arrest of a former owner – and a General to boot; it was the focal point of colourful local anecdotes in the late ‘nineties, when referred to by the press as The Garden of Eden…..
    Well, in my opinion, Paradise, and Innocence, have been regained. Thank you all for a very special experience.

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