Community gardening, as a way of improving neighbourhoods and strengthening bonds between people, has never been more popular both in the UK and abroad, and an increasing number of artists are becoming involved, most commonly bringing their skills to bear on design and construction. But in the community gardening projects of Californian artist Fritz Haeg, art is at the core of the whole process, rather than an add-on.
Haeg’s series Edible Estates (2005-13) comprised 15 gardens planted in different cities across the world, from Baltimore to Budapest. Each garden saw Haeg work in collaboration with a local family or community group to produce an edible garden – a patch where every plant produces an element that can be eaten. In Brookwood House estate in Southwark, London, for example, plum, apple and bay trees came together with berry bushes, beds of herbs and vegetables, and calendula, marigolds and nasturtiums, all with edible flowers. “The art, for me, was in everything,” says Haeg. “It wasn’t just in the aesthetics of how a garden looked or in the relationships between people that were performed, and it wasn’t just in the abstract concept of an edible garden. It was all those things together – the entire task of creating the garden. People will see the project through a particular lens, depending if they are, say, a serious gardener or a conceptual artist. But I was looking at both ends of the spectrum and taking them equally seriously.”
The palatable nature of the plants was essential. “I wanted to take on the fundamental principles of how we’re living and how we’re engaging with the natural environment, life cycles, our immediate neighbours and our community,” continues Haeg. “And what made the most direct and most physical impact was that, as well as watching the garden grow, you could put the garden in your mouth. You could consume it, and there’s something very intimate about that, and very provocative, as it is ingesting our environment. Our consumption has become abstract, disconnected from the environment, but this project made a complete shift in people’s minds so that they realised that we do actually ingest our environment every day whenever we eat food. That captured the imagination of everyone, especially children.”
A similar shift is attempted by Nicole Dextras, a Vancouver-based artist whose work merges the disciplines of art, gardening and fashion. Instead of reminding us that we ingest our environment, Dextras reminds us that we wear it. She fabricates elaborate clothes from flowers, fruits, weeds and leaves, dressing models in her creations and then choreographing performances to engage the public.
Her Mobile Garden Dress – adorned with pots, formed from coconut husks, housing herbs and flowers (above) – was taken to a shopping centre, for example. “The fact that the dress itself was so fantastic meant people were casually drawn in, and that way we were able to get people into genuine conversations,” recalls Dextras. “The model would then ask passers-by about their clothes, asking where they came from, and then we’d look at the clothes tag and discuss the material and whether it was made in Guatemala, Honduras, Canada or wherever. I found that was a beautiful way to raise the subject of sustainable fashion and to remind people about the content of fabric, that it comes from a plant.” All of her works are biodegradable, meaning that, when exhibited as objects in exhibitions, they decompose dramatically in front of viewers’ eyes. A highly accomplished photographer as well as designer, Dextras also produces stylish photographs of models wearing her clothes – images, she says, that walk “a tightrope between glamour and critique.”
The way that nature is appropriated in fashion, interior design, public relations and other areas of commerce is a theme of Rachel Pimm’s work. Before undertaking her Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, the British artist (above) worked creating show homes at London’s Ideal Home Show. “I was asked to design these eco- friendly homes, with glass counter tops recycled from smashed car windows, or furniture recycled from rags,” she explains. “This environmentalism was being added on afterwards, as a PR exercise, and I wanted to examine in my work this ‘green’ methodology.”