View of Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Cornwall, U.K. Photo: Karl Davies

Bridging the Nature/Culture Divide

Thinking the Sculpture Garden: Art, Plant, Landscape, edited by Penny Florence (Routledge, $36.)

What exactly is a sculpture garden in the 21st century? We are accustomed to sculptures embellishing the landscapes of stately homes or extending the museum’s display space into its grounds. But there are a handful of unorthodox sculpture gardens created by visionaries that embody a more philosophical outlook. Thinking the Sculpture Garden: Art, Plant, Landscape offers a radical rethink of how we might interact harmoniously with plants and art in an age of globalization, climate change, and urbanization. Edited and conceived by Penny Florence, Emerita Professor at Slade School of Fine Art, University of London, this gem of a book brings together intellectuals, academics, artists, and landscape architects to explore the role of the sculpture garden and consider alternative models that avoid the usual oppositional thinking around nature versus culture.

Florence uses the little-known, 22-acre Tremenheere Sculpture Garden in remote Cornwall as a departure point for the book. Founded by passionate gardener and medical practitioner Neil Armstrong and his wife, Jane Martin, Tremenheere presents a revolutionary model in which artworks, plants, and landscape are given equal importance. Internationally renowned artists are represented alongside local artists without hierarchical distinction, the predominant criterion being the fit of a particular work within the setting, and in Armstrong’s vision. The works at Tremenheere include Richard Long’s only living installation, a line of wild grass directing the eye over a scenic sweep; a spectacular sensory experience by James Turrell involving a camera obscura in a subterranean water tank; and Penny Saunders’s Restless Temple (2015), a swaying Greek monument to human fragility, made of cedar skin.

One of the book’s delights (in addition to introducing readers to Tremenheere) is the abundance of allusions that prompt meanderings into othering, bioethics, plant science, and new materialism. Florence deftly balances ecology and descriptions of artworks with theoretical discussions, referencing feminist scholars Donna Haraway and Hélène Cixous, novelist Clarice Lispector and philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, to name but a few. Psychotherapist and academic Gay Watson investigates the convergence of European and “Far Eastern” philosophies at Tremenheere, where ancient and contemporary ideas and aesthetics coexist. Two poetic works donated by Mono-Ha school artist Kishio Suga reinforce the sense of the sculpture garden as a spiritual journey. Thinking the Sculpture Garden opens and closes with a thought-provoking analysis of Tremenheere, which Florence suggests is a hybrid artwork in itself.

The book’s fascinating middle section moves beyond Tremenheere to look at other examples of sculptural display that eschew traditional power games with the landscape. Garden historian John Dixon Hunt traces the history of art in gardens, demonstrating how the liberation of sculpture from museums and parks has allowed a more nuanced dialogue between the work and its context. Architectural phenomenologist David Leatherbarrow considers the history and layout of the unconventional Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, which was designed with window walls, airy walkways, and “outdoor rooms” to create a rhythmical and varied passage between sculptural “events.” Writer and Director of the New Arcadian Press Patrick Eyres surveys Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture garden in Scotland, Little Sparta, where the artist celebrated his zeal for the classical. At Little Sparta, Finlay realized a contemplative space in which his subtle poetic inscriptions on stone forms such as tree-plaques and tree-column bases focus attention on features of the natural surroundings.

Artist and landscape architect Bernard Lassus describes how he uses steel sculptures to mediate between manmade and natural forms. In his Jardin Monde (2017) installation on a balcony of the Centre Pompidou, for instance, colorful steel cutouts of trees, forests, and a grotto engage with the view of Paris beyond. Fellow landscape architect Georges Descombes explains how his design for a section of The Swiss Way, realized between 1987 and 1991, refuted the official narrative of that historical path as something solid and permanent; by cleaning boulders of millenarian slags and installing fragile wooden and grass stairs in the landscape, he and his collaborators emphasized the transience of nature.

Sculpture gardens such Tremenheere are in a continual state of becoming, implying a dynamic process in which both art and plants are forever changing and evolving, like humanity. Despite the wide range of topics richly explored in this book, the contributors share a common respect and humility toward nature, roundly rejecting the idea that humans are superior or different. The sculpture garden, as Florence argues, exemplifies an egalitarian way to think about all forms of life. “Taking plant life into serious consideration impacts how we experience what it is to be human, and how we treat life forms that we do not consider to be human…it is therefore unethical to assume we can do what we like with them,” she says. Thinking the Sculpture Garden suggests there is profound wisdom in Tremenheere’s approach. “To experience various life forms as having even the potential of equality with us is to change our sense of who we are,” notes Florence, “and crucially, what art is.”