Can a garden be a work of conceptual art?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Do avant gardeners deserve recognition? The flower-show season is a chance for Victoria Summerley to find out

If the great gardens of the UK – Sissinghurst, Stourhead, Stowe and so on – can be regarded as the horticultural equivalents of British art history, then the conceptual gardens on show at the Royal Horticultural Society's Hampton Court Palace Flower Show are the YBAs – the Tracey Emins and the Damien Hirsts.

Hampton Court is the only mainstream flower show to champion conceptual gardens. It has been doing so since 2005, but the idea is still a controversial one. The simplest definition I can come up with is a garden that seeks to portray an idea, rather than provide a landscape design solution.

The term "conceptual garden" is attributed to Tim Richardson, author of Avant Gardeners, and a member of a relatively new genus in gardening – the landscape critic.

A growing number of people, including Richardson, believe that gardens should be subjected to the same critical scrutiny as any other form. There are inherent problems with the evaluation of conceptual gardens, however, both philosophical and horticultural.

As Matthew Wilson, the former curator of the RHS gardens at Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr, said to me: "I think the conceptual garden category is the best thing the RHS has initiated at their shows for years; but how would the judges at Chelsea respond to an upside-down garden? You'd never get away with it."

The garden he means is Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, designed by Anoushka Feiler. It features a circular steel structure, from which pots of plants hang upside down, above a semicircle planted with blue agapanthus. The structure is reflected in a mirrored ball, which adds to the sense of topsy-turviness. It won a silver-gilt medal, rather than a gold, which may reflect the judges' uneasiness about the upside-down bit.

The Best Conceptual Garden award went to Dan Lobb's Landscape Obscured, which at a casual glance doesn't consist of a garden at all, but a group of metal periscopes around a tilted rectangle of turf. My personal favourite was Picturesque, designed by Melissa Jolly as a gallery in which real plants were used to recreate famous artworks such as Monet's Water Lilies and a Rousseau jungle garden.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the "Damien Hirst" in the centre of the gallery. Three tillandsia, or air plants, were hung in a glass case, looking like some weird skeleton.

Picturesque, which I loved, won a gold medal, as did CoppaFeel! I think I would go as far as to say I hated this garden. It was beautifully executed, it was sponsored by a very worthy cause (CoppaFeel! is a breast-cancer awareness charity) and it was created by Hugo Bugg, who is an award-winning young designer. But it just made me cringe.

This idea that a conceptual garden can inspire emotions was also a theme in Enduring Freedom? by Nete Hojlund and Corinne Sharp. This took the form of an Afghan dirt road, and was designed to illustrate the rising number of military casualties as a result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). An explosion, followed by clouds of smoke, went off every 20 minutes. That an ordinary dirt road, meticulously recreated with stones, sand and grasses, could possess such a sense of menace was a very powerful idea.

It's this, I think, that makes conceptual gardens so exciting, in the way that modern art is exciting and challenging. I'm a keen gardener, and although I've admired many conventional gardens, they have never inspired me to feel outraged, or emotionally stirred, or made me laugh out loud.

Can gardens be art? Perhaps we should turn that question round and ask why should gardens not be art? If we are capable of making an aesthetic judgement about conceptual gardens – one based on taste and emotion – I think we are getting very close to defining them as such. But we have to get over the idea that everything in the garden is "Lovely!"

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?