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The historical garden is, in many ways, a living museum. When first created, such gardens were usually the private preserves of the wealthy and aristocratic, whereas today they are public and open to anyone who cares to pay the admission fee, much like any other cultural display. It is somewhat ironic that the general public, originally excluded from these gardens, now embraces them as part of its own cultural heritage. A living, growing diorama, the historical garden provides an opportunity to imagine life in another time, and to consider the sometimes complementary and sometimes uneasy relationships between the natural world and the human desire to shape it in a particular way.
Constant vigilance, maintenance and restoration by a host of professional designers, gardeners and volunteers help to maintain the illusion of the perfect garden and provide a focus for the cultural pride of many visitors. However, instead of romanticizing heritage gardens as magnificent, enduring displays of power and beauty, I am drawn to images which reveal the fragile balance between nature and the requirements of human design in the gardens, underscoring the fact that that they are in essence evolving, ever-changing environments.
The French term terrain vague is used by architects and urban planners to describe forgotten spaces which are left behind as a result of post-industrial urbanization. Interestingly, the term embodies two contrasting viewpoints: the first looks at these spaces negatively as representing disorder and disintegration; the second highlights their positive potential as free spaces in an urban environment that is becoming increasingly specialized. The ideas encompassed in terrain vague serve as a conceptual model for my work.
What interests me as an artist is being able to create photographically this sense of “free” space, using as a starting point, subject matter from forgotten or other marginalized aspects of the built environment. I do this by searching for environments that are in transition, under construction or demolition, or built to be temporary. I have most recently been drawn to garden trade show environments while they are undergoing construction and demolition. I attempt to strip away obvious references to function and purpose and, instead, emphasize each sceneŐs sculptural and display characteristics. In this way, these spaces are freed from their initial and sometimes negative contexts (disorder, abandonment, overt commercialism, tackiness), and instead suggest a kind of alternate order created through the photograph.
The “Restoration” photographic project was initially inspired in part by episodes of the BBC program “Restoration” which I viewed on the Internet early in 2008. The series awards funds to the winners of landscape restoration projects which compete against each other on the program. The fact that such a series commanded a wide audience in Britain made me realize how profoundly landscape design — and the desire to perpetuate it in its historic form — could contribute to the making of a cultural identity.
When starting this project, I understood that this cultural identity is primarily based in a pre-existing catalogue of visual history, and if I were going to make informed choices as a visual artist, I would need to do some research. This abundance of visual information has made my job as a photographic artist very challenging. For example, what makes my conceptual photograph of the Harewood House gardens different than that of a commercial photograph? By studying what others before me have created through idealized lenses, I have been able to refine my own point of view: finding instances of vulnerability behind the celebrated and durable conceptions of these gardens.
This on-going research can be found here and will be updated weekly.
All content © 2009 Lisa Stinner-Kun
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