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Garden Marathon: Grow your own art movement

This weekend's Garden Marathon sounds exhausting, but the only thing it will stretch is your imagination, says Victoria Summerley

Thursday 13 October 2011 00:00 BST

There's a Garden Marathon going on this weekend. Don't worry – it doesn't involve 26 hours of double digging, or a strenuous session of sweeping up autumn leaves. It's being held at the Serpentine Gallery – the sixth in the Marathon series of ambitious two-day events that take place in London during Frieze Art Fair.

The 2011 Marathon is inspired by this year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, which is designed by Peter Zumthor, and features a garden by prairie planting pioneer Piet Oudolf at its heart. The event will involve contributions from lots of disciplines, not just horticulture or landscape design.

There will be representatives from the world of gardening of course – Rosie Atkins, the former curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, will outline "The History of Garden Design in 20 Minutes", and garden designer and author Dan Pearson will be talking about "A Garden for a Thousand Years". Architect Charles Jencks, whose own Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack, near Dumfries, is inspired by science and mathematics, will lecture on "The Universe in the Landscape".

Dr Patrick Eyres, editor of the New Arcadian Journal, and an expert in the field of landscape and garden studies, will be talking about Little Sparta, the garden created by the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose permanent installation, dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales, can be seen in the Serpentine Gallery grounds.

There will also be presentations and talks by contributors from other fields – the musician Brian Eno and the artist Jake Chapman, for example, the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, the film director Sophie Fiennes and the science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss.

The central theme, however, will be the garden, just as the garden by Piet Oudolf is not just a decorative adjunct to the Serpentine Pavilion, but its raison d'être. Writing about his design for the pavilion, Swiss architect Zumthor said: "A garden is the most intimate landscape ensemble I know of. A garden requires care and protection and so we encircle it, we defend it, we give it shelter."

The result is a modern version of the hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, which since around 1400 has played a dual role as both a symbol and a practical solution in Western culture.

In Christian iconography, the hortus conclusus represents the inviolate purity of the Virgin Mary, but in gardening terms it represents a sheltered retreat, where fruits can ripen and flowers can bloom protected from winds.

For hundreds of years, it has been the template for the perfect garden and its traditional elements – the fountain, the rosebush, the division of the courtyard into four quadrants – are still popular in garden designs today.

It seems appropriate, then, that the concept of the garden – which carries so much historic, symbolic and sociological baggage – should be the subject of a multidisciplinary event; an event that shows how important the garden is in art.

The Garden Marathon is curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions and programmes, who has a passionate interest in the interdependent relationship between gardens and other art forms.

He explains: "The garden is a subject that connects many different disciplines. It is a space, a metaphor and a concept that finds echoes in many forms: from art, literature, poetry and music to architecture, landscape design, botany, technology and science.

"In the way in which we understand our relationships to life, care, thought or space, somewhere we find a garden. We find gardens, and particularly hortus conclusus in Renaissance painting.

"We find them in architecture, as spaces of rest. Sometimes, gardens exist as analogies for paradise on Earth. We find gardening, moreover, in the etymology of words such as 'culture', and as both realities and metaphors in the way in which we address conflict, environmental struggles, issues of extinction, biodiversity and conservation."

"Looking back at a changing world, into an age of growing anxiety and exponential technological innovation, I notice the ways in which our thinking about the garden has, over the past ten years, become more political, more permeated with tensions between containment, limited growth and development, and between order and disorder."

There are many positive examples of derelict space being repurposed as gardens. Elizabeth Diller, the New York architect, will address this in her presentation, citing the High Line, a disused railway line which has been transformed into a landscaped walkway through downtown Manhattan.

And Fritz Haeg, another architect with a multidisciplinary approach, will talk about "How a Garden Can Change Your Life", using examples from his Edible Estates projects, which asked domestic gardeners to give up the sacrosanct American front lawn and plant vegetables instead.

Obrist added: "This Marathon reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges's fascinating garden in modern literature, in his 1941 short story The Garden of Forking Paths. The plot is situated during World War I and is made complex with different layers of narration. It is the story itself that is a labyrinth, and every story in it can take place in all possible ways in parallel spheres of time.

"A labyrinth-garden can exist not only in space, Borges tells us, but also in time. It is this experimentation with time and the garden that we set out to explore with the Garden Marathon."

The Garden Marathon, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (08444 711 000; 15 October 12 noon-10 pm, 16 October 11 am-9pm; £25/£20 (two day), £15/£10 (one day)

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