Doing the Art by Holly Allen

August 15, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

What is it like to create a garden as a work of art? Holly Allen discusses that in this piece, which is an interesting follow up to last week’s review of ‘Are Gardens Art’?

Anne Wareham, editor

Holly Allen:

Most people will probably think it precious to compare the desire to garden with the urge to make art, but for me, the driving force behind these two creative pursuits comes from the same place. The process of creating a ‘successful’ garden, taking good photographs, or making an object or an installation are all about striving, tenacity, and not stopping until you have reached a temporary solution that is both acceptable to you and succeeds in at least partly relaying your intentions. I emphasise the word ‘temporary’ as I think that good garden makers or artists will always want to continue to find more answers to the challenges they set themselves.

Is this a ‘masochistic’ tendency, in some of us, to doggedly push and push for better and better versions of something, whatever it takes and in spite of there being no real answer? And where does it come from? Is it something exclusive to creative people, or do mathematicians and engineers tussle with a similar set of problems? It could be argued that while there may be tidier, more concrete answers to most mathematical problems, creating something worthy of being described as ‘art’ is a very slippery beast indeed, after all there are no formulae. Some people think that if one person believes something is art, then that makes it so.

Drawing by Holly Allen, Turbine Hall on thinkingardens.

Drawing by Holly Allen, Turbine Hall.

Louise Bourgeois is an artist well known for reworking, revisiting and remaking her work, in response to a very narrow set of themes that are revisited over and over again. (see also an interesting page about Louise Bourgeois here)

Her piece ‘I Do, I Undo, I Redo’ could cast some light on the question – even simply taking the title as a cue. The work of art, the poem, or the garden, is always in flux, and will continuously be refined, re-refined, and refined again. (Bourgeois’ piece was commissioned for the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 as the first of the Unilever series: see also- video).

Holly Allen drawing 'Topiary'

Drawing by Holly Allen, Topiary quote.

Bourgeois has said herself many times that ‘art is a guarantee of sanity’ and describes her own work as an attempt to ‘transform hate into love’. Do both of these statements imply that the creative individual would, without the act of making, essentially be unhinged? Perhaps she is implying that all non-artists are more susceptible to madness. I acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily imperative for all makers to see their own hand in their finished work, and do not equate depression with insanity – but as someone with a tendency to depression I do feel that by putting in hard work and performing all the myriad mundane tasks that a good garden demands, I could be staving it off.

The sum parts of all these tiny acts are not only a deterrent to depression but add up to something which gives me a real sense of personal satisfaction, and could culminate in something really extraordinary. Equally, it might not work, and all the work may be for nothing – but it is the possibilities that motivate me. The whole process seems to perfectly reflect the sometimes gristly and unsavoury problem of living. It proves I can keep going, keep on trying.

So, aside from all the repetitive and mundane tasks, the will to create something is an outward, proactive way of carrying on. The repeated action of weeding, placement of plants, brushstrokes on a painting or strikes of the chisel on marble are all mundane acts in isolation, but the overall outcome is hopefully its antithesis.

My mother wrote a very powerful poem ‘Turbine’ in response to Louise Bourgeois’ ‘I Do, I Undo, I Redo’. Roughly speaking it is a poem about building something and then knocking it down again, cycles of destruction followed by making and then remaking. It more or less describes my own personal reasons for and struggles with creating something, with keeping going.

Turbine Poem

Poem by Liz Almond

Gardening, or making something, also allows me to try and control my world (a tendency which is now chronically overdeveloped). I sometimes wonder if this tendency could be part of why women in particular seem to be such great garden makers: women more often than men have little control outside of their domestic worlds, and to garden, or to create, is to subvert that lack of control.

You could argue that before modernism, post-modernism and the feminist movement in the 1960’s and 70’s started to level out the playing field for women a little, historically ‘female’ pastimes like sewing, knitting, tapestry, and even writing were all equivalent ways to do this, and you frequently come across pieces of this (often dismissed as ‘folk’ art) which genuinely transcend the realms of ‘craft’ or ‘folk art’ completely. Perhaps many creative women still identify with the type of ‘craft’ activity which is still associated with gardening? Artists such as Annette Messager and Tracy Emin have used quilting and sewing repeatedly in their work, deliberately referencing and subverting these craft traditions while exploring problematic contemporary subjects, (mainly female sexuality).

I think Tracy Emin shares my view that to focus frustrations inward is to feed doubt and negativity, whilst to create is to keep the feeling of hiatus and inactivity at bay; to invite resolution. You may never feel you have truly finished or perfected what you set out to achieve, and might never do so, but it is about the act of trying, and the beauty of the attempt to distil and capture an idea. I am never satisfied, even is something I do is a relative success. The feeling that my work could be improved upon never leaves me. Nothing is rock, it is all sand. I like it like that.

Holly Allen

Holly Allen portrait


You can find more of my writing on horticulture and culture at:

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