Art in a Garden: ephemeral vs permanent art

Ars longa, vita brevis

When Hippocrates wrote these lines, he was not referring to fine art but to the ‘art’ of medicine. In effect, he was saying that it takes a long time to acquire knowledge and to perfect skills — and we have only a short time to do that. (I’d add that the statement is true about gardening, and many other things, too.)
Over the years the phrase has acquired a different meaning: that art is what endures. But must it? Is ‘permanent’ art the best type of art for a garden?

A traditional type of garden art from Rousham, England.

The statue is either of Apollo, the sun god,  or Hadrian’s lover Antinous.

Last week I wrote about whether using art in a garden is a plus or a minus, and whether its presence adds to or detracts from the overall experience of being in a particular space. We can look at this question in many ways: why is an object effective in one setting and not in another? how do scale and location affect our responses? and what constitutes art in the first place? Is it only a matter of taste, determined by the eye of the beholder?

The aspect I want to look at today is the type of material used. The British artist Bruce Munro works with light, a non-traditional material that he employs in large installations. Light itself is crucial to our experience of gardens, and garden designers from centuries past have choreographed the movement through light and shade to enhance the garden experience. But Munro’s use of light employs new technology. And it illustrates a difference between permanent and impermanent materials. In the catalogue for his 2012 installation at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, Munro explains his point of view.

“I sometimes feel that art specifically made to last has a gravestone spirit about it, so I try to capture the spirit of life’s continual flux…”

This photo of Munro’s exhibition at Longwood Gardens
is from

Light is an unusual material, and one that Munro uses most effectively, as those fortunate enough to see one of his installations seem to agree. (I haven’t been lucky enough — yet — so I can judge only by photographs.) But almost any material can become art if it is used with purpose. Earth, for example.

Kim Wilkie’s amphitheatre at Great Fosters, a country hotel in Surrey.

Or a boulder in the woods.

This boulder was carved by Reinhard Reitzenstein in the woods at
Les Jardin du Précambrien in Val David, Quebec.

Sticks and dirt…

The Welsh artist Sally Matthews created this wonderful creature for Montreal’s Mosaiculture 2013.

even paint on the ground.

At Througham Court in England a painted line leads through a field
to a group of colourful flags.

Natural materials, the sort that come from and return to the earth, have a special affinity for garden art. Consider this installation by the American landscape architect W. Gary Smith, created for an exhibition called Art Goes Wild at Garden in the Woods, the headquarters of the New England Wildflower Society. Smith laid logs end to end to create a curving line that emphasizes the shape of the land, helping us to see something we might otherwise miss.

W. Gary Smith’s ‘Serpent’ at Garden in the Woods, Massachusetts
Compare the photo above, taken from Landscape Architecture Magazine, to one I took seven years later. Over the seasons, falling leaves accumulated and the colour of the bark faded so that the logs no longer stand out as clearly. They’ve begun to decompose. And as they rot, they illustrate — literally — the passage of time.

The same work, 7 years later.

At Glen Villa, I’ve also used trees to create art. Standing along a path through the fern woods is the trunk of a pine tree I painted the year after my father died. I call it a memory post and each time I pass it, I stop for a moment to think of him.

This memory post is full of symbols that recall aspects of my father’s life.

A few years ago, when the painted bark began to fall off, I had to decide whether to allow the post to deteriorate or to protect it in some way. The decision was easy. Like Gary Smith’s snaking ribbon of logs, I wanted this memory post to become an illustration of a natural process. To illustrate, in Bruce Munro’s words, life’s continual flux.

The heart of the pine is still solid but eventually
it too will rot.

The forest scene below is at the Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Maryland. Nothing has been added, nothing subtracted, yet to my eyes, those falling diagonals contrasting with the upright tree trunks create a composition as satisfying as any statue placed at the end of an allée. It’s art created by nature.

Does the photograph create the art or the scene itself?
Or is it art at all?

This forest scene suggests to me that art isn’t only what we add to a site, it is what we draw out of it. It’s what we see, and how we see it.  The materials we use influence our perceptions. And some materials work better than others…. depending on the setting.

I have many more things to say on this subject… so many that I’m contemplating a book on the topic. Writing here helps me shape my ideas, and your responses sharpen them. So speak up. Share your thoughts. I welcome them.