Country: The gardener as exhibitionist

Tony Heywood's latest creation really is a work of art - which is why it's in a gallery.

NO SOONER have the show gardens of the Chelsea Flower Show disappeared from south-west London than a different kind of garden has sprouted, this time in a gallery in Whitechapel, in London's East End. Mulch is described as an installation; not something most of us would try to copy in our own backyards, it aims to explore what a garden really is.

My first reaction was, if this is a garden, where are the plants? There is certainly lawn, which is an odd sight as you look in from outside. Three large glass tanks, suitable for fish, have been set down on the lawn; they are surrounded by volcanic pebble, giving an oriental effect. Set into the lawn near the door, for anyone visiting the exhibition to walk on, is a flat glass tank or press, painted on the surface, like the other tanks and frames on the walls.

All these glass shapes have been filled with a mixture of organic and inorganic objects: compost with seeds in, ferns, orchids, two halves of a banana that will turn to mould, feathers. A rabbit's head signifies the wildness of a garden, and wigs represent human growth. As the exhibition continues seeds will put out roots and shoots and plants will push against the glass sides. When they are too big for the large tanks they will be moved to the glass press and people will walk on them and compress them.

All this is designed by Tony Heywood to explore his belief that creating a garden is a process, not something instantaneous - despite what television shows might have us believe. He feels that the idea that a garden is little more than exterior wallpaper is a travesty: a garden is not an object, but an experience, something out of the control of the person who created it.

Heywood believes most forms of art have become too passive, and this exhibition is his attempt to show that an aesthetic experience can also involve participation. But he is clearly interested in providing a hands- on experience as much as he is in talking about his art. When he is not involved in the gallery world, Tony Heywood is also head gardener for the Hyde Park Estate. Ask him whether he is artist or gardener first, and he finds it difficult to separate the two.

Mulch is an extreme example of what Heywood has been attempting since 1984, when he took over his present duties. He has no responsibility for Hyde Park itself but cares for the squares and roof gardens of a triangle of land to the north, owned by the Church Commissioners. Some parts of the estate are more conservative than others: the residents of Hyde Park Square turned down snail-shaped sculptures to be hung in their trees. Heywood admits that there are murmurings that he spends too much time being creative and not enough cutting the grass!

The glass press he is using in his exhibition has given rise to another controversial idea; he would like to see the container used to keep the ashes of a loved one, which could be sprinkled among stones, mosses and other plant material; personal possessions could be put in, too. This combines the ideas of life, death and regeneration that Tony Heywood feels are so vital to any garden, even one in a gallery.

Mulch is at the Fordham Gallery, 20 Fordham Street, London E1 from today until 25 June. Opening hours: noon-7pm Monday-Friday, 11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday

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