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:

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Clare August 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm

I don’t think science, art or gardening can transcend its maker and should’t try to. The idea of some kind of objective rational eternal truth or ‘fact’ is bad enough as an entrenched illusion in science but the arts have never had any truck with it. I don’t see that art ever transcends the maker, how it could or why it would. The arts (incl. gardening) are deeply in the land of the subjective. Long may the soil of subjectivity be full of [organic nutrients].

Tristan, I don’t understand. How can an experience transcend its maker but still have a powerful emotional resonance. What is emotional resonance if not a response *to* someone, or to a memory (which is another kind of someone) or a memory of a feeling. The Gardener and the Person Who Experiences the Garden are hopefully in an emotional dialogue. G: “This feeling matters to me”. PWEG: “Yes, to me too. It reminds me cottage gardens in margarine ads when I was a child”. “Yes, to me too. It feels like my den where I hid from my angry father as a child”. etc

As for science, Scientists find it useful to claim that they are describing an eternal objectively found fact, but the parameters of scientific investigation (what they choose to hypothesise about, what is already assumed to be true, what counts as evidence) are all completely contingent on historical circumstance and personal motivation and are subjective too. Newton needed an explanation for the movement of light that fitted in with his millennial beliefs, which he already knew to be true. Galvani’s electrical experiments with frogs were witnessed, but their authenticity depended on the social status of the witness, gentlemanly evidence. the subject matter of modern research depends on what will be funded, etc

I’m a relativist. So shoot me.

As far as gardening goes, I thought that this is what Holly is saying. It’s deeply subjective. We strive through the continuous changes we make to find a very personal sense of harmony. And hope that it has emotional resonance for someone else. It probably will because we have such a lot of shared experience, i.e. we are not particularly unique at all. My subjectivity might well be pretty close to your subjectivity. If it is, we score!

Paul Steer August 29, 2014 at 8:34 pm

I don’t think to anyone is going to be shooting Clare any time soon.

Sarah Coles August 25, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Great piece by Holly Allen. And you could say that if art is a temporary solution as the artist goes on to create more and more, developing, doing the same thing differently, this temporariness has always been forced on the gardener by nature itself, the unacknowledged partner in the enterprise. As someone, I can’t remember who, wrote, gardening is painting with disappearing inks.

Holly Allen September 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Thank you, beautifully put and very neatly illustrating the point I was trying to make. The quote about gardening as painting with disappearing inks is very fitting, and a familiar idea that I immediately recognise. Although I don’t remember who said it either!

Nature can also be a saboteur – forcing compromise in new and challenging ways every time you attempt to bring an idea to life. So even when you think you’ve reached a solution, often you bloody well haven’t.

New Garden Style August 21, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Hi there, I’m new to this website, having stumbled upon you whilst researching a blog post. Having read both pieces, I am in agreement with the view that describing a garden as art is entirely dependent on the intentions of the creator. Whilst Sir Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) might be seen as masterclass of architecture, and designed as artistic expression, the same cannot be said for my local NCP car park. Bit of a crass way of putting it, but I think that makes my point perfectly. The artistic intention of the gardener dictates whether we can consider the garden as art.

annewareham August 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Welcome to thinkingardens – and I hope you find your way back again. Anne

Jane Stevens August 19, 2014 at 8:09 am

What a lovely piece, nothing pompous or competitive about it, but hitting nail after nail on the head. The problem about the garden needing to transcend the maker, about gardening being a dialogue and a response rather than an imposition, might be one that every artist has with their materials – I don’t know. But the materials of gardening are so exciting and alive, so hyper- responsive – that is the glory of it really.

This is the best piece I have read on the drive to garden and the meaning of gardening. It shows that the garden (as art) cannot be separated from the process of its creation. Some art can, or at least, is.

Holly Allen September 1, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Thank you Jane, as pretty much the first high-profile piece I have written it is very encouraging to receive comments like this. I agree with you about ‘the materials of gardening’ making the whole process of making gardens so exciting – the risks can be exhilarating. Personally I like to see what I can get away with, then expand on it. Sometimes it can be spectacular, and sometimes it is a spectacular fail. It can be hard to balance in a professional setting. . .

william martin August 16, 2014 at 5:38 pm

This piece has given me hope. Brilliant. Thanks Holly Allen. And thanks Anne

annewareham August 16, 2014 at 6:58 pm

That is great, Billy. Good. XXX

Holly Allen September 1, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Thank you William, I appreciate your comment. I’m delighted it has given you some hope and motivation. And yes, thanks to Anne for facilitating!

June Sherlock August 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm

I enjoyed this piece by Holly very much.
Perhaps, though, mathematicians solve problems which are ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ and then use that to develop or created from them. A physicist I knew gasped with pleasure at seeing a page of, to me, meaningless figures and squiggles. He said it was beautiful:).
Art: science, in my view is a continuum, and is overlapping and interlocking.

Holly Allen September 1, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Thank you June, I think your comment is very interesting because it points towards what for me is a very simple truth. That a good idea expressed eloquently and efficiently can be a very beautiful thing indeed – even where the subject matter is perceived as dark and ugly. Is there a formula for splitting an atom? Maybe to a physicist, to see it expressed would be beautiful, in spite of what splitting it actually means? I’d be interested to know what the page your physicist was looking at could be translated to ‘mere mortal’ language – did he attempt to explain I wonder!?

Paul Steer August 15, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Yes! It’s a process of resolution – when crafting a poem, painting or garden there is an internal need to resolve – to balance – to create a harmony . Perhaps it is this internal to external struggle if resolved and communicated well – that connects with the viewer, and which Tristan eloquently describes as ‘ emotional resonance’.

Tristan Gregory August 15, 2014 at 6:31 pm

There is a school of thought that states that a good scientific theory should, once described, bear no outward signs that it is the product of any particular individual. In science this would make obvious sense, for the theory is a description of a natural state, a fact, and as a good theory must be testable by others there is no value in staining its purity with the ego of the theorist or experimenter.
Art is tested differently though, for its truth lies not in its description of the empirical truth but the emotional resonance. It is for this reason that I feel that the work of art, the garden in this context, must still transcend the gardener and their techniques if it is to be truly meaningful to the third party and successful as a work of art.

Voyage around my Radish patch. August 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm
Paradise postponed August 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: