For me, garden design isn’t just about plants, it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation. You try to move people with what you do. You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature. - Piet Oudolf
In the world of gardens, the creation of the herbaceous border is a horticultural style whereby a collection of massed plantings consists of perennial flowers for ornamental purposes. Designed in association with Arts and Craft architect Edwin Lutyens, the concept took root at the turn of the 20th century as promoted by Gertrude Jekyll, an English landscape architect and botanist who advocated for the natural garden as opposed to the contrived monotony of Victorian symmetrical gardens and continental landscape tastes. Their sensibility encapsulated the English ideal of getting back to nature, to the verdant green of Eden and a half-conscious yearning for a natural paradise. Gertrude Jekyll’s romantic, naturalistic style reflected the movement towards natural sciences and philosophy that had emerged in the 18th century.
Adopting the title Herbaceous Borders for this exhibition, the term offers a curatorial framework for the delicate and finely detailed work of five female artists who pay homage and re-interpret traditional craft processes often ousted by Modernist vanguardism.
The craft and the care in the use of paper cutting, hand stitching, knitting, traditional fresco and calligraphic skills have been seen for more than a century as practices outside of the Modernist patriarchal canon. Processes employed by the artists affirm a rhythmical, and, at times, ritualistic sense of time and care - as if the meaning in the work’s making is intimately linked to the artist’s sense of complete presence in the moment, reclaiming their time and rejecting means-end rationality. Time is at the kernel of each artist’s practice, while the works have strong affinities with female craft traditions and handiwork practices: paper-cutting, sewing and knitting are repetitive, meditative and labour intensive processes.
Working across a range of media, this group exhibition brings together five female artists within the two relatively intimate rooms of the gallery. While their references are varied and include national borders, imaginary worlds, cityscapes and humble footpath cracks, they employ a variety of different conceptual strategies. The artists and their works presented in Herbaceous Borders resonate a common sentiment: a heightened attention to the experience of time unfolding and of experiences around deceleration and slowness in the aesthetic field; a sensibility shared with other ‘slow movements’ - echoing conversations that have also been traversed in the Slow Food movement and in horticulture.
The notion of herbaceous borders is fundamentally and philosophically different to the classic, organised European garden. French and Italian style gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries had been laid out along strict borders and lines, designed to keep nature at bay with hedges to keep others out - a typical Foucauldian schema of power organisation. The description of Laertes’ garden in the Odyssey, for example, suggests that the neat order of a French garden with regularity and rectangularity finds its origins in the Latin.
Closer to home, well-loved Australian garden designer Edna Walling, of the early 20th century, used naturalness to soften boundaries and borders to create a unity between house and garden. Walling’s landscape design developed from the English style exemplified by Gertrude Jekyll and sought to blend the arts, unifying the garden with architecture as a continuous experience, as though the garden sprang from nature and not artifice.
In contemporary gardening concepts, we need to look no further than the influential Dutch plantsman and landscape designer Piet Oudolf who was responsible for the design of the High Line project in NYC (2006) and the Hauser & Wirth garden in Somerset (2013). Practicing a naturalistic approach to gardening, his recent immersive and meditative documentary Five Seasons (2018) talks of using bold drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses, chosen as much for their structure as their colour. Oudolf prioritises the seasonal life cycle of a plant over decorative considerations such as flower or colour.
The herbaceous borders of Jekyll to Walling; the creation of an atmosphere and sense of contemplation evident in Oudolf’s work; the respect for the temporal, and at times uncontrollable, dimension of a garden - all such processes exemplify deep parallels to the artists’ works in this exhibition. The herbaceous border in effect softens the lines in the landscape, blends the meeting points. So too, Herbaceous Borders draws together deep parallels between disciplines, contrary to the power organisations that such disciplines imply and thus blurs the lines between artistic genres and practices. With slowness as its imperative the collective exhibition hopes to reconcile the speed of contemporary life and its effect on how we consume, commodify and luxuriate the art object.
Slowing down in the face of an accelerated internet age is a rather political act. As Arden Reed has argued in his book Slow Art (University of California Press, 2017), capitalism and urbanisation have sped up the tempo of civilisation, and “Enlightenment secularisation [has] stripped away forms of devotional practice that were experienced in church, the church-like experience of art took on a new, consoling function as a way to step outside of the breakneck pace of life.” These five artists have articulated space for themselves against demands of contemporary society that suggests that all time is functional, measured and outcome based. Process-based work is not an outcome or product, but rather exists as the work in and of itself; the process or time is the work.
The artists in the exhibition share a commonality in the processes they employ, the content they articulate, the forms and structures of their work. The kindred features may best be described as a family resemblance, rather than any essential similarity. Their similar features seem to point to a common stance, in that they employ positions often from the outside, outside of the power structures of what local contemporary artistic practice has subtly defined.
Each artist has a meticulous, solitary studio practice informed by strict discipline and devotion to craft; entering a private world, an almost meditative state to create the work.
Witness the attention required in Emma van Leest’s lyrical paper cutting and the accuracy of weight and density of simple repetition of marks on the surface of Pei Pei He’s drawings, whose works remind us how dearly non-attentiveness to the present may cost us. And with such care and attentiveness in the making, we are rewarded by a resultant representational image - in the case of van Leest’s work, a wonderland of otherworldly landscapes, and He’s the empathy of shared urban existence.
In her artist statement from 2006 van Leest commented that she chose paper for its fragile, ephemeral qualities but also for its universality “as something so every day, that has as well its ability to transform into something beautiful, transcendental and exciting.” (Artist statement, 2006). Her subject matter weaves an imaginative world with nautical and botanical elements as well as the border-crossing activities of early Dutch explorers.
After studying drawing and painting in China, Pei Pei He worked as a photojournalist, which required a measured, careful observation of people that is still apparent in her work. She starts her process by taking photographic studies of crowds in the Melbourne CBD and then, at her studio, meticulously renders the images in oil paint on canvas, as well as with pencil on rice paper: respect for mark-making firmly rooted her Chinese heritage. Her disciplined studio practice plays with the notion of stillness and motion, capturing moments in time, freezing them in calligraphic strokes.
Michelle Hamer and Sarah Tomasetti respectively re-think the tradition of hand stitching and fresco techniques. With the structure of Hamer’s hand stitching of urban borderlands, or what she terms ‘drawing with thread’, the support or ground is simultaneously punctured and filled; the active perforation of the material plastic ground, often filled by a softer yarn, as if the violence of the puncture is now filled with the safety of organic plenitude. The activity itself is almost a synecdoche to the tension within the often political content these works depict, such as images from the US-Mexican and Israeli-Palestinian borders that Hamer uses as her source imagery. In other cycles of work, Hamer has used cyclone weather maps or details of footpath cracks to investigate further the notion of borders and mapping.
For Tomasetti, the traditional fresco techniques, usually reserved for plastered wall surfaces, have been transposed onto boards - detached from permanent walls using muslin to emphasise the fragility and subject matter. Images of the Tibetan Plateau, carefully layered, reveal a devotional impulse. The reverential process of historical fresco painting, such as those of Giotto and Fra Angelico, in the past, often required a pilgrimage. Tomasetti’s transposition of this technique onto a more portable surface reveals the irony of our times - whilst devotion to a spiritual realm is more than needed, a place for ritualistic presence has been robbed from us in a technocratic society. The place is now within the process.
Such care, devotion and attention for presence within the process of making is also found in the textile work of Dana Harris. Her work, always a response to the environment, is often urban - inspired by daily walks, minute fissures and cracks are noted and mapped, the process investigates and connects such spaces which are then committed to memory through the tensions within a knotted weaving technique. The tender scale of such constructions reveal landscapes, or mental maps, not only a cartography of space, but a differential map of feeling, attention and detail. Harris’s work recalls the Japanese art of kintsugi (golden repair), a philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Scars and damage are to be celebrated and indeed, admired.
All these artists exhibit a tenderness of intent; delicate, haptic movements that require application, attention, repetition; engaging the body in daily practice; poring over the work to create psychic landscapes. Their practices strike us as particularly feminine and rhizomic, removed from the patriarchal, hierarchical, logocentric notions embedded in the orthodoxies of contemporary art practice. The reclamation of both physical and psychological space through expanded craft practice takes it into contemporary territory. Despite an apparent fragility, and often considering the idea of cracks, the works display an inner strength.
The use of herbaceous borders as a horticultural practice was first conceived as a return to nature, a reaction against the logocentricism of classical, rational garden organisation. This exhibition embraces the notion of herbaceous borders as a collection of process oriented work and the lengthening of temporal attention. Ultimately, these artists form an exquisitely rendered border against the systematisation and orthodoxy of our contemporary world.
Kate Mizrahi, 2018.