Thomas Padon, curator of the exhibition, “Contemporary Photography and the Garden: Deceits and Fantasies” (America Federation of Arts, 2004), noted in the catalogue essay that the garden is “a setting of total artifice”; a highly unnatural, willed state—an environment coaxed into being, prodded into shape, tended into perpetuity. Conversely, Richard Holden’s recent photographic series, “Gardening the Planet,” examines the garden as rogue state heedless of boundaries, intractable, relentlessly marking its territory. The series consists of six suites of photographs, each containing four interchangeable panels forming narrow, trailing, panoramic landscapes. The notion of a panorama implies a certain grandiosity of presentation and effect; the curious thing about these images is the artist’s choice of subject, which may be handsome in form, but suggests something entirely different in content.
In Britain, what we commonly refer to in Canada as “the backyard” is called “the garden.” The British term is obviously more poetic, albeit frequently misleading; in searching for a flat in London, I was repeatedly mystified by ads featuring mention of a “garden”—in reality, usually a walled-in patch of concrete with some straggly grass. It was not the definition of garden that I was familiar with, in the same way that the often lovely and verdant yards of Canadian homes can sound like an invitation to some sort of bleak industrial parking lot by comparison. Many of Holden’s images suggest the “yard” gone wild: scrubby terrain dotted with tenacious greenery. Anyone familiar with Winnipeg will recognize most of the sites: Henderson Highway, St. James and Empress, King Street and William Avenue, Wildwood Park, North Drive at Oakenwald. A few of the images reveal areas of cultivation, but there is no stock, sumptuous garden photography to be found here; beauty—when it exists at all—reveals itself quietly, like a fading memory.
The works in this series function as vignettes, or riffs on a common theme. In an artist’s statement, Holden suggests that while gardens historically functioned to protect human habitats from encroaching wilderness, the “inescapable irony” is that this same wilderness must now be protected from human interference. The first work in the show depicts a conservation area in rural Saskatchewan—not much to look at, until you consider that such seemingly unremarkable land might one day cease to exist anywhere — even in backcountry Saskatchewan. It’s a sombre image, andis lent a kind of beauty by the implication of its potential for extinction. Another work takes us to the heart of Winnipeg’s own “little America”— the big-box encampment between St. James Street and Empress. The hideous bunkers crouch resolutely amid the same type of hardy prairie grasses and shrubby trees that adorn the conservation area. This is some plucky growth, refusing to budge, like David before Goliath; it’s a weird little standoff, taking place on an unlikely battleground. The disturbing part is the knowledge that infinite ugly little standoffs like this are occurring across the planet, day in and day out.
A human presence is mostly implicit in these groups of images; in the few instances in which people appear, they seem indifferent to their surroundings, even while supposedly communing with nature. In a lone suite of photographs taken on the banks of the Red River, a community group is embarking on some sort of reforestation effort. However, the camera’s gaze is avoided, and while there is interaction among various members of the group, none of the action involves actual planting or gardening of any kind. Greenhouse-variety potted shrubs are scattered around the site, as people mill about or simply stand with arms crossed in a defensive pose, facing toward the camera. In a strange inversion of this scenario, the one set of images from the exhibition to display real evidence of conventional gardening (the Millennium Gardens on Henderson Highway) depicts carefully tended, brightly ordered plots teeming with plant life, without a person in sight. In the King Street photographs, the inner city is also largely devoid of human life, with the exception of a solitary cyclist and a tiny pedestrian further off in the distance. Amid a sea of concrete, a few pretty little trees decorate the boulevard; this is the very neighbourhood where the demands of a Hollywood movie crew nearly decimated even these paltry examples of urban green.
The most poignant set of images is taken at the Wildwood Community Club, at the site of an abandoned sporting oval surrounded by chainlink fencing. Boundaries erected some time past to protect the oval from the encroaching growth still stand, but the people have long gone. The attempts at an imposed order remain, holding this sorry little piece of land hostage. What is most striking about this image is its unexpected loveliness—haunted by the past, but regal in its monochrome barrenness, offset by subtle hints of flaming fall colour.
In the classic 1976 documentary, Grey Gardens, former society grande dame Edie Beale and her eccentric daughter, Little Edie (relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy), live in bohemian squalour in a ramshackle mansion in East Hampton. The brush and foliage of once immaculately tended gardens threaten to overtake them entirely; nature, in this instance, is clearly winning the battle, despite the attempts of a frightfully overwhelmed gardener. As Little Edie escorts the filmmakers through the thicket towards her home, she offhandedly remarks, “It is very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” The garden is landscape’s great eraser: sometimes mercifully obliterating environmental accidents and mistakes, sometimes laying siege to human settlements in its relentless march. Artist Robert Irwin, interviewed by Lawrence Weschler, said, in Robert Irwin Getty Garden (J. Paul Getty Trust, 2002), “That’s part of what the garden’s about. If you’re going to experience it, in all of its qualities, you have to keep coming back. A garden is a commitment.” But amazingly, even a garden can be overthrown. ■
_Richard Holden’s “Gardening the Planet” was exhibited at Ken Segal Gallery, Winnipeg, from November 30 to December 22, 2006.
Christabel Wiebe lives and works in Winnipeg._