Garden Journeys began as a seed and grew into a desire to challenge the perception of visual art in Surrey. Alison Clarke explains how.
A wealth of open studios, exhibitions and small galleries are proof of the existence of Surreys many practising artists. However, the county is associated with a conservative attitude, a place where traditional arts and crafts have always flourished, but opportunities to see innovative contemporary art are limited. There is an understandable resistance to littering the villages and countryside with objects. A more temporary and site-specific approach was needed to suit the environment and the people. From here began a journey& a Garden Journey.
Surrey County Arts has commissioned 11 artists to create artworks in response to the formal gardens of Polesden Lacey, a Regency villa owned by the National Trust at Great Bookham, near Dorking. From April to June this year, the gardens will nurture exotic blooms for Garden Journeys, an extraordinary event created by artists in response to the historical garden site.
A 3D computer-animated fountain will spout from the terrace, ghostly etchings will appear on the gardens cold frames, and seeds and lentils will adorn the earth, taking inspiration from the Indian sub-continent. Garden Journeys encourages artists and visitors to consider and question their own preconceptions about the notion of a garden.
Lead artist, Lulu Quinn hails from Wiltshire and came to Surrey with fresh eyes. Her response formed the concept of the project: Surrey is overflowing with flora and fauna. From the rolling Surrey Hills to hanging baskets in Staines, its an area steeped in an English garden tradition from Capability Browns rolling hills and Gertrude Jekylls herbaceous borders to the ubiquitous town-centre floral displays and communal allotments.
The theme of the garden space is highly relevant to Surrey, and as Lulu discovered, is one aspect that unites both rural, suburban and urban communities. The finished works in the grounds of Polesden Lacey will relate directly to the site whilst addressing the wider theme of garden space. A garden site was chosen deliberately in order to exhibit digitally based work. Everybody understands what a visit to a garden involves, but a digital garden is an unknown. The artists responses are diverse. Most involve some form of digital media, including music, sound installations, computer animations and etching techniques.
Surrey County Arts has worked for the first time in partnership with the National Trust in what has proved to be an inspiring collaboration. Not all historic landowners would welcome digital artworks on their manicured lawns! The intention is that both organisations will benefit by attracting new audiences. The National Trust is thrilled to be providing the inspiration for this project, said Andrea Selley, Property Manager at Polesden Lacey, Garden Journeys has given us a great opportunity to introduce the wonderful gardens at Polesden Lacey to a new audience, and to encourage our regular visitors to see the gardens in a new light.
The artists have engaged with a range of different community groups in exploring the garden space. Participants include an Asian womens group from Woking; young people in Staines; East Surrey College; Planet People, a digital music programme performed by people with learning disabilities; the over 60s members of Staines Community Centre; and a travelling garden shed that has journeyed across Surrey providing horticultural advice to shoppers!
For the artists, theirs has been a journey of discovery, installing contemporary digital artworks in a traditional garden setting. Due to the short-term nature of the project, they have been able to take risks with the interpretation of their work that would not normally be possible in public spaces. The location of the art works is crucial to the overall experience but has had to be negotiated in collaboration with the garden-management team. All of the work has to be capable of withstanding a six-week exhibition period without damaging or interfering with the daily running of the garden.
Art in the landscape matters to Surrey. In a county whose residents regularly visit London venues for cultural stimulation, Garden Journeys offers a real reason to visit this green and pleasant land. The artists are inviting people to experience their natural surroundings in a new way, and to discover surprising new contemporary artworks. We hope visitors to Polesden Lacey will experience a truly unique Garden Journey, enjoying culture in the landscape and the perception that arts in Surrey can begin to change and grow.
Alison Clarke is Visual Arts Officer for Surrey County Arts. t: 01483 757258;
Garden Journeys: Digital Roots to Arts, takes place from 22 April to 4 June in Polesden Lacey, Surrey