This article is from 2007.
The idea of a public garden might stir up images of lurid flowerbeds and incontinent pigeons, but Lucy Sweet finds somewhere altogether more highbrow to get fresh air
Jardins Publics is an ambitious al fresco art project that intends to bin the traditional hanging baskets and benches, and replace them with huge abstract wall paintings, daring floral designs, and harmonious social architecture. ‘We want people to stumble upon the works, rather than seeking out art in a gallery,’ says curator Katrina Brown, whose impressive CV includes roles as deputy director at Dundee Contemporary Arts and curator of Glasgow’s spectacular Radiance lighting festival from 2005.
‘There’s such a density of visual art all year round, but not so many outdoor commissions, so this felt like a new thing. Edinburgh is such a fantastic context for it because there are so many extraordinary gardens anyway.’
Featuring the talents of three internationally acclaimed artists, Taiwanese painter Michael Lin, Stockholm-based former architect Apolonija Sustersic, and Glasgow-born Richard Wright, the project devised by Brown and International Festival director Jonathan Mills aims to celebrate the garden as a social space, as well as a work of art. The site-specific works at four or five locations around the city centre are all within walking distance of each other, and promise to turn the traditional idea of the garden completely upside down.
‘When the project first came about, there were a number of voices in my head,’ Brown says. ‘One of them was this quote from Ian Hamilton Finlay, who said: “Certain gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.’ You realise that gardens aren’t this natural thing. They’re utterly man-made.’
So out go the hydrangeas and in come Lin’s massive hand-painted floral works, inspired by exotic Oriental textiles and standing 20-30 metres high. Elsewhere, Wright’s similarly vast abstract wall paintings form dense patterns that create what Brown calls ‘a secular sanctuary.’
The Beechgrove Garden it ain’t, but anyone who fears avant garde blots on the landscape needn’t worry. A major inspiration for the exhibition, and the man responsible for Edinburgh’s existing abundance of gardens, is 19th century godfather of town planning, Patrick Geddes. His belief in the social importance of the garden transformed many of the Old Town’s back courts into green and pleasant public meeting places, and it is this community spirit which dominates the project.
‘Geddes was quite naïve and romantic,’ says Sustersic, a fan of Geddes who, alongside architect Mieke Schalk, designs outdoor spaces in collaboration with local communities. ‘We want to take his idea of participation even further. It is process-based work and the methods we use involve communities making their own place.’
Sustersic, born in Slovakia and currently a professor at Stockholm’s Royal University College of Fine Arts, first worked in Scotland when she designed an outdoor space during Brown’s tenure at the DCA. But, despite the project’s international angle, Sustersic’s concerns for her site – a courtyard on the Royal Mile – will strike a chord with beleaguered Edinburgh residents.
‘The Royal Mile is an archetypal tourist zone, and there’s no real focus on local life. It’s interesting that Edinburgh is this international city and during the Festival people have to live within it. So we want to introduce workshops with local people and involve them directly in the garden. The idea is that we start something and they would continue it.’
Jardins Publics is an admirable concept, mixing fine art with social interaction and a bit of old-fashioned mucking-in. There are no plans to make the gardens a permanent fixture, but if people like them, the organisers would be happy to hear outcries and petitions to save them. Which brings us to the public themselves, a notoriously fickle bunch prone to defacing monuments and putting traffic cones on the heads of statues. Will they appreciate these modern art sanctuaries in the city and, more to the point, actually use them?
Katrina Brown hopes so. ‘Putting art in a public space is an act of good faith. It’s a generous thing to do. You try your hardest to make something, and you hope that people are going to like it. In the end, gardens are places to hang out in, they’re not like galleries, with “do not touch” signs everywhere. We’re actually saying “do touch”. And bring your sandwiches.’
Jardins Publics, Edinburgh city centre, 0131 473 2000, 10 Aug–2 Sep, free.