Garden Archaeology

By Kodwo Eshun, 21 January 2004

garden archaelogyWhile major dance festivals like Tribal Gathering collapsed in the summer of 1998, intimate 2000-capacity events like The Big Chill's 3-day Enchanted Garden thrived, suggesting a widespread boredom with the traditional 90s format of clubs in tents. Breaking with the anonymous rural location norm, organisers Pete and Katrina Lawrence moved their instant-village set-up into The Larmer Tree Gardens near Salisbury - an ornate topography of wilderness and order designed by the estate owner, archaeologist and anthropologist General Pitt Rivers back in 1880. Peacocks step along hedged pathways which lead you to the Nepalese house, the Roman Temple and the Pleasure House, antiques from the General's colonial jaunts sited through the Garden's bowers, crannies and cul-de-sacs.

In late 90s clubland, there are more projections and VJs than ever before but it all leaves curator Alice Sharp unimpressed. She recoils from the prospect of another Bond and Star Wars loop-blitz 'unrelated' to the space, locking you into familiar responses. Sharp wants the Visual Art Exploration to integrate you and extend space while eliciting your curiosity through an experience you didn't know you wanted. Throughout January and February, she brought 8 artists (Gary Hume, Matt Mitchell, Thomas Gray, Rachel Inman, Michelle Griffiths, Tina McCallan, Maria Yiasoumi and Mark Bell) out to Larner Tree Gardens to choose a specific site, then worked with them to realise their events.

Daylight belonged to great DJs like Dego McFarlane, generating an acoustic space of solar feeling away from the deadline world. Later, lit by leaflights designed by Mark Bell, the Garden became a night-time exhibition, unknown and undreamt. That girl and that guy sprawling on the grass next to you turn out to be artists listening to your responses. Highlights included Michelle Griffiths' Re-entry: After Avalon, where the artist became a living Pre-Raphaelite astronaut painting. At the top of a carved staircase you looked down 20 feet to an artificial pond where Griffiths, the woman who fell to water, lay submerged, lit in green and slowly masticating next to the protruding corner of her sunken spaceship. At the far edge of the pond, above a waterfall, Thomas Gray's Once Upon a Time projected montages of dancers and chapter headings like 'ELECTRICITY' onto the screen of shrubbery, perceptually flip-flopping between 2D image and 3D foliage.

Before you turned into the Golden Glade, you could hear the hum and drone of bees from Tina McCallan's video Natural High. Sitting in a deck chair, you watched the tinted blue screen vibrating as if shot from the bee's point of view. McCallan, oblivious to everything, inhales the pollen, gorging herself on the carnations in a Guernsey greenhouse.

Round the corner and you were enclosed in a tunnel of laurel trees. Maria Yiasoumi's lasers projected lines of light cut up as you moved through them, dissolving the biomass of branches into a dazzling lattice that zoomed to vanishing point. By transferring technology from the dancefloor to the outdoors, the Visual Arts Exploration updates the garden's Victorian tradition of summer theatre. It generates a new continuum of what multimedia club Raya call atmospheric engineering.

Kodwo Eshun: Xkodwoeshun AT yahoo.comX