Modest gestures: art and gardening in Liverpool and beyond

Watching the rain out of the window again, I am kept from working on my garden for another day.  Being forced indoors has; however, made me think about the concept and meaning of gardens, and how their meaning is explored in contemporary art.

Back in June 2011, I met  Apolonija Šušteršič  (pronounced apple-ony-a shoshtershay) when I was visiting her home town of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Our group was lucky to catch her there as Šušteršič’s international practise takes her all over the world.  We caught up with her in a community garden that she initiated for one neighbourhood in Ljubljana.  The garden occupied a former wasteland space, in a city where land is cheap and abundant, but the pace of rejuvenating run-down areas is slow – reminding me a bit of the situation here in Liverpool.  (Interestingly, we were visiting at a time when Maribor – the country’s second city – was preparing for 2012 when it would have European Capital of Culture status.)  Around 30 people participate in the care – and reap the rewards – of Šušteršič’s garden, which is surrounded by high-rise flats.  Each family or individual has their own raised bed and everyone shares in the hard work required to keep the rocky ground hydrated.

Ljubljana is a capital city trying to spearhead a new identity for its country, and move away from its pigeonhole as a former Yugoslav nation. Former architect Šušteršič wants her projects to help audiences to think differently about their environment as well as about the decisions and motivations of politicians and policy makers.  Urban gardens symbolise togetherness as well as responding proactively to the global food shortages and the anxiety around food miles and industrialisation. Ironically, Šušteršič revealed to us she isn’t actually that green-fingered and she learns gardening skills from the other participants.

I was reminded of Šušteršič’s garden recently, when I heard Fritz Haeg speaking at Metal, the arts venue at Edge Hill station in Liverpool.  Haeg is working on the Everton Park project, which will be part of Liverpool Biennial 2012.  Like Šušteršič, Haeg was trained as an architect; although he has moved away from what he calls ‘Art and Architecture with a capital A’, to create events, build gardens and teach yoga, using the lifestyle he has adopted at his home in Los Angeles as the starting point. In his project entitled ‘Edible Estates’ Haeg helps families to build vegetable gardens at the front of their houses; by being visible he hopes to encourage more conversations to start.

Haeg’s projects are about empowering people to find local solutions to globalised problems as well as, sometimes, introducing young people to gardening for the first time.  He has worked in cities such as Istanbul and Budapest, introducing gardens and ‘modest gestures’ to what he calls ‘the dystopian mess of early 21st-century urban life’.  At Everton Park, Haeg hopes to initiate a long-term project which may or may not involve ‘food gardening, cooking, tours, wildlife restoration, native wildflower plantings, archaeology digs, performances, and maybe even a pond’ in partnership with Field Operations and the National Wildflower Centre.  For more information keep an eye on his website (www.fritzhaeg.com) and www.biennial.com.  Another interesting local project is www.alphafarm.org, which is part of Manchester International Festival – hopefully I will be writing more about that soon.

Some of the time my own garden feels like a hard fought battle against weeds, cats, slugs, sciarid flies (a new and unwelcome resident) and high-winds to generate a modest amount of edible produce; and yet it is an important expression of my desire to impact as little as possible on the resources of this planet.  I say ‘as little as possible’ as it is hard in a world of disposable fashion and the expectation of international travel and tomatoes all year round. Sometimes projects such as those by Haeg and Šušteršič blur the boundaries between art, life and, well, gardening.  But I think that they are important in taking art theory and making art active and meaningful and embedded in daily life.  I am not making art when I am gardening, but by thinking about these issues and actively trying to make our planet more sustainable I hope I am taking on some of their spirit.

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