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Andrew Clifford on Dugal McKinnon's Popular Archeology

Giovanni Tiso on Tao Wells' The Beneficiary's Office

Heather Galbraith on Kim Paton's Free Store

Richard Meros on Bronwyn Holloway Smith's Pioneer City 

Martin Pattrick on Colin Hodson's The Market Testament

Hannah Zwartz on Suburban Floral Association's Shopfront

Emma Willis on Mark Harvey's Productive Bodies

Mark Amery on Dance Art Club and radio

Cathy Aronson on Julian Priest's Free of Charge 

Sally Blundell on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2013

Kerryn Pollock on Projected Fields

Reuben Friend and others on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2015

 

"All gardens are temporary; some are more temporary than others."

ESSAY

THE WELCOMING COMMITTEE

HANNAH ZWARTZ WRITES ON THE FRONT GARDEN AND THE SUBURBAN FLORAL ASSOCIATION'S SHOPFRONT, A TEMPORARY ARTWORK IN A PUBLIC SQUARE IN AUCKLAND'S NEWMARKET.


 “It is unchristian to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature which it has been our good fortune to create or secure… The beauty obtained by throwing front grounds together is of that excellent quality which enriches all who take part in the exchange, and makes no man poorer.”

Victorian American garden writer Frank J. Scott, quoted in Michael Pollan’s Second Nature.

The Front Garden

If our houses represent ourselves, front gardens are the faces we show society. Human faces have infinite variety — spotty or lined, caked in makeup, expressive, mask-like or hidden from view by veil of the niqab. Likewise, front gardens express personality - primly swept or raggedy and wild, newly constructed or gradually deconstructing, lushly planted or utilitarian concrete, greenly minimalist and impersonal, or crammed with miniature windmills and gnomes.

I’ve noticed that the more tidy, clipped and open to the street a front garden is, the more likely the front windows will have lace curtains drawn. You can tell which occupants read the most home improvement magazines or watch garden makeover shows. The higher the area socio-economically, the less likely a house will be visible from the street. And the more colourful flowers are planted, the more likely you are to meet the occupant hanging round the letterbox for a chat.

Sometimes you can spot the spread of highly localised trends. One gardener gets a particularly beautiful tree or shrub (in my neighbourhood, a red-flowered waratah) and neighbours up and down the street follow suit admiringly, either buying one in imitation or more directly, through asking for a cutting — or taking one over the fence. Trade in cuttings is one of the more social aspects of gardening, which can otherwise often be a solitary pastime. Someone admires a plant in your garden, you propagate it to share, and so plants move up and down the street. Other plants, like buddleia or sycamore, come uninvited and their presence speaks of a lack of vigilant weed removal.

Fashions in front gardens come and go — think '70s golden conifers, '80s standard iceberg roses with cottagey froth, or '90s pebbles, grasses and yucca. But the plants themselves, once they get their roots down, can sometimes hang around a little longer than last season’s handbags. Front gardens can be read forensically, as living archaeology. You can pick the era, if not the exact year, when a garden was last given a makeover. You can guess when people felt settled enough to plant large trees (still not yet, in many state housing areas).

All gardens, private or public, embody a tension between culture and nature, wild and tame. They give an illusion of human dominance over the plant world (or not, sometimes, if the gardener has given up trying). Front gardens are a public display of individual personality, but also a shared, social space. Not usually for sitting around in (that’s done in the private backyard), but for chatting over the fence as you bring in the groceries or take out the rubbish. While Polynesian, Greek or Italian front gardens often include vegetables, fruit trees or sitting areas (even if it’s just the front steps), Pakeha front gardens tend to be for show and display. Trophy plants are there, rare shrubs or roses, with the utilitarian vegetables and clotheslines around the back.

Front gardens, like traffic islands, are an in-between land. They’re not the street and not the house, not private and not public; designed to be seen from the street or footpath, yet buffering the house from public view. They’re like a private park you’re allowed to look at, but not enter without a reasonable excuse for knocking on the front door. Unchristian it may be to fence in your garden — but where is the line drawn between sharing your beautiful garden and flaunting your good fortune? In urban environments, or in many parts of the developing world, this luxury doesn’t exist — every inch of space is filled with livestock, washing, parking, food plants or living areas. Suburban sprawl gets a bad rap sometimes, but perhaps this empty, transitional space of the front garden, is something you don’t appreciate until it’s not there.

 

 

A Third Nature

Many people, especially non-gardeners, are under the illusion that gardens are 'natural'. In fact, only the totally weedy ones are natural. Most are as artificial as the houses they surround, the difference being that the materials from which they’re made have a life of their own. Build a house and entropy starts immediately – paint peels, leaks develop, materials deteriorate, curtains fade. Plant a garden, and it starts instead to morph into something differently shaped. There’s always something new happening in a garden. Weeds enter, but plants also grow and change with the years and with the seasons. Gardens stage small events all the time as different plants grow, bloom and die.

Michael Pollan explores this at length in his book Second Nature. The idea of wilderness is idealised, he argues, especially by city dwellers, as something untouchable and pristine - '100% Pure'. Gardeners themselves deal with the reality of constant interactions with nature. They know all about her ugly undersides. Yet in this interaction there is much to be learned about how to coexist with other living creatures. The garden, argues Pollan, is the coalface where nature and culture meet, and the two cannot be seen as totally separate or opposite, but intricately interconnected.

“Suburban florists go about their every day, working towards the big event, looking forward to the time where blooms congregate en masse, transforming suburban site into exhibition space," write Suburban Floral Association.

The Suburban Floral Asssociation (aka artists Monique Redmond and Tanya Eccleston) also explore the social side of gardening in their work Shopfront. In particular they look  at the suburban front garden, which they describe as a 'welcoming committee' as you roll up a driveway, with a constantly changing panorama across the seasons.

 

The contrast between a leafy front garden and uber-urban Newmarket Square couldn’t be stronger. The main entrance to shiny new Newmarket Railway Station forms one side of the square, the other three enclosed by rows of shops. They’re brand-new, but mostly empty of anything but raw concrete and dust. Narrow alleyways in two corners lead to Newmarket’s main drags, Broadway and Remuera Rd. "32 Specialty Shops", proclaims the real estate signage, but in reality there are three superettes selling fags, phone cards and Kronic joints; three nail bars; two hair salons; three small family-run cafés and a shop with racks of Asian-imported garments.

It’s mainly populated with teens from the nearby colleges — texting, swearing, spitting, sitting in each other’s laps, snogging, shrieking, smoking. This is their space, with little rushes of busyness twice a day as retail workers hurry across in high heels to catch their trains home.

Above the Square, apartments rise. It could be great urban design — the much-touted mix of living, cafes and shops – but it’s barren and ugly, done on the cheap, windows too small and ceilings too low. Residents here aren’t allowed any climbing plants and tree roots would interfere with services to the carpark below. Instead, rising from grey concrete are a grove of weird stainless-steel fake trees, their glass umbrella coverings etched with fake leaves.

In this totally concrete jungle I’m reminded somehow of Angkor Wat. It's perhaps its polar opposite. At Angkor, tropical trees have seeded in the highpoints of the ancient temples, sending down snaking roots, slowly destroying the once proud city. The jungle has invaded the city. Here, there’s not a shred of greenery but the buildings seem even more temporary and misguidedly placed.

 

This barren retail environment is more interesting to work in, say the SFA, than a boutique character-filled street. Each day the artists improvise with their collection of plants and benches, like life-size lego pieces to create a social space that interrupts the traffic of people and play. The arrangements of plants and objects become spaces for pause and conversation as much as they become in part, obstacles to a direct route across the Square. If Michael Pollan’s gardens are Second Nature, this artwork provides a Third Nature, one step again removed from wilderness.

Inside Shopfront there is a video of a changing array of hibiscus blooms playing on a projection stand. Filmed in real time, the flowers nod, leaves gently waving now and then in the breeze: uneventful, but at the same time hypnotically mesmerising. It recreates perfectly, in the concrete shell of a shop, the headspace of sitting on your top step with a cuppa, mind relaxed, looking at the garden.

And there are other events — over the months leading up to Shopfront, the SFA struck and potted up hundreds of cuttings for ‘Friday Night Takeaways’. During Shopfront, passersby could come and choose cuttings to take home wrapped up in newsprint, like a parcel of fish 'n' chips. The trestle table, its display and installation is reminiscent of a Cactus or Dahlia Society show and, no matter what the quality of the plants or cuttings people are touched to be given something to take home. Likewise people are invited to bring in flowers or foliage from their own garden, which are arranged in vases within the shop space (a Flower Arranging workshop was also part of the Shopfront programme). Jill from Gisborne, recently moved to the apartment complex and missing a garden, brings in a twig of Natal flame bush for us to identify in the gardening encyclopaedias on hand.

At night, 'Driveby Shootings', 600 sequential images of hydrangea blooms, shot from a car are projected onto the shop window.  “Our driveby photographs were collated to create a shared experience of something common though largely unappreciated — somewhat like another’s front garden,” says Monique Redmond.

 

Across Remuera Road, I go for a beer. Inside the front entrance of Mac’s Bar is a trough of soil where ivy has been planted to climb up a trellis. But it’s not thriving, and some designer has brought in plastic ivy, intertwined with the real, to give the illusion of lushness. Does anyone else even notice? And what need is this greenery filling? Outside on Nuffield St, amongst the shops selling homewares, designer maternity wear and thousand-dollar handbags, large terracotta planters have been filled with trendy decorative lettuces. I wonder how long they will last before succumbing to bus fumes. I wonder if anyone would even think of eating them?

 

The Fleeting Moment

 “A bouquet of cut flowers is itself an occasion, whether they are picked, bought, given or received; they are small exchanges, celebratory markers of other happening.”  - Monique Redmond.

All gardens are temporary; some are more temporary than others. My first ever fulltime job, aged nineteen, was as an ‘office plant lady’. Watering can tucked over elbow I came to know elevators, foyers and boardrooms all over town. Even the toughest plants, such as ‘mother-in-law’s tongues’, needed regular replacement; air conditioning and fluorescent lights were making them sick. I left with the conviction that I would never, ever work in an office, and a dawning understanding of how difficult it can be to keep container plants alive in the concrete jungle.

Even in the sheltered ground of suburban front gardens, life can be fickle. The urban environment may be more extreme but it shows the same truths about gardens — they cannot exist without a gardener, a shaper and caregiver. Even with the best intentions and care, many plants still die. Only the fittest survive, and even those will eventually die and turn to compost.

A flowering plant, like a bunch of flowers, signifies vanitas, the fleeting moment, the beauty, the shortness and sweetness of life. Flowering is ephemeral, but also cyclic; flowers die but hopefully return next year after a cycle of sleep, dormancy and growth.

 

The challenge of creating a garden from potted plants is one I’m familiar with. Sitting on the benches in Newmarket, drinking in the atmosphere of Shopfront, I was also wrestling with my own technical and aesthetic challenge of constructing a sustainable show garden (surely an oxymoron) for Kapiti’s Home and Garden Show. The trick, for me, is to create the illusion of a lush, benevolent paradise within the technical limitations of what can be transported and what can withstand the elements. Black plastic bags need to be covered and disguised to make the plants look natural and at home.

In a suburban front garden, the ephemeral and temporary nature of a garden is camouflaged one step further. In Shopfront, by contrast, the temporary and changing quality of the event is out front and plain for all to see. The difference between this and a garden show is that there is no illusion here — the potted trees are what they are, mobile and ready for planting out.

Interactive artwork, like making a garden, carries risks. People may not interact, may not ‘get it’, ideas may not ‘strike’ or find fertile ground. Plants, like ideas, can have a life of their own. They move in time, if not in space, and the garden changes over the seasons, decades and centuries. The gardener supports and creates, but is never in control.

 

 

Hannah Zwartz is a garden writer, educator and gardener. She writes a weekly organic gardening column for The Dominion Post and works as a gardening consultant for communities for the Kapiti Coast District Council.