Friday, 8 July 2016
Getting Back To The Garden
As I mentioned in the previous post, the pictures in Boundary Elements are a tiny selection from a large hoard of hundreds of candidate photographs, mainly taken in my previous life as a wage-slave, wandering the confines of a university campus during my lunchtime hour of freedom. Fortunately, most of these older files were fully backed-up and survived the Great Backup Drive Disaster, and in the process of reviewing them I realised I had overlooked an even more massive, probably even better accumulation of work, the files loosely compacted into a bin labelled "The Garden".
I have described before my eternal losing struggle with the tidy-minded and the fixer-uppers. The campus that I knew in the 1980s and 1990s was a wonderfully rich mosaic of neglected corners, and of these the richest was the Valley Garden, a couple of acres of abandoned orchards, taxonomically-ordered terraced beds, hazardously delapidated greenhouses and cloches, with at its deep, dark heart a secret pond where great knots of frogs gathered every February for a breeding frenzy. Although I am slightly phobic about flowers and gardens – the municipal hanging basket and concrete planter embody everything I find repellent about modern life – I loved exploring this Edenic post-human spot, with its abundant wildlife and its little stream that regularly flooded after heavy rain, turning the valley bottom into a marsh. When my children were at the university Day Nursery, I would take them exploring here, too, and we would gather fat apples from the orchard and check on the progress of the frogspawn in the pond.
Most of the year, but especially in winter, I had the place to myself. I experienced intensely rhapsodic moments, standing in the frosted grass watching a sparrow-hawk circle in a clear blue sky, or stumbling on something rare and strange, like a cluster of earthstar fungi. After a long morning enduring the boredom of meetings, I could escape into my private hortus conclusus, and document the regular small changes that excited my eye. Broken panes of glass scribbled over by snails, abandoned botanical experiments, the astonishing table-sized leaves of gunnera manicata growing by the stream, the tell-tale traces left by invasive nocturnal thrill-seekers... Every day was a fresh page.
As well as the birth and pre-school years of my children, this time saw me make the transition from film to digital. In addition to that compost bin of files labelled "The Garden", I have an enormous stash of images on medium-format colour-negative film, most of which will never now be printed or scanned. Of the three oldest books I still make available on Blurb, Brilliant Corners is entirely derived from film, Pentagonal Pool is a transitional mix, and The Revenants is entirely digital (still my Greatest Hit, and made with the 5 megapixel Olympus C5050).
Pentagonal Pool is transitional in another sense, too. From about 1995 to 2007 I was preoccupied with the idea of presenting repetitive imagery of the same places or objects, showing variations over time. You can easily see how well this matched with repeatedly visiting a few interesting but unspectacular corners, and it felt like a significant nod in the direction of contemporary art's use of grids and multiples. That book is the last in which I present, side by side, very similar shots of the same location, in this case a five-sided weirpool just outside the Valley Garden. In several earlier hand-made "leporellos" (concertina-style books) I had assembled multiple shots of exactly the same location, generally a body of water, separated by periods as short as a second. It's fun to do, but challenging to look at, unless you are the sort of black-clad aesthete who truly enjoys conceptual art.
Eventually, however, someone in the university noticed this wasted space, and decided to re-develop it into a proper (and hazard-free) leisure resource for staff and students. The Gates of Eden were chained shut and, lamenting, I was expelled into the world, to look for a little touch of wabi sabi elsewhere. For a time, there were the allotments that occupied a corner squeezed between the ever-expanding campus, a temporary carpark on the site of some demolished dairy buildings, and the back gardens of some houses on the edge of the real world. Frustratingly, though, I could never enter this alternative Eden, but only gaze down into it over the fence each morning as I parked and made my way to my office. Then the university demolished the terraced houses that had accommodated the Day Nursery, and built two enormous new faculty buildings on the site that further increased the squeeze on the allotments. And then they they bought the actual allotments in anticipation of some new bold enterprise, possibly a multi-storey carpark, and ejected the hapless vegetable growers with their wonderful season-by-season improvisations made out of cast-offs, polythene sheet and barrier netting. A more paranoid man might have suspected a deliberate campaign of persecution.
At that point, the very long-term "garden" project was clearly and definitively over, and I turned my attention to the campus itself, and its walls and windows in particular: the books Curriculum and Elevation were the result. Good projects, both of them, but fraught with irony; I was feeling very much at odds with what was happening to higher education. Finally, having said my piece – take that, you philistines! – I realised there was nothing and nowhere left for me to go after thirty years, work-wise or photographically, and decided it was time to take early retirement.
Somehow, in these last few years, I had come to forget about the garden images, or perhaps I had become unable to regard them as any kind of "project". Maybe, like the memories of our children when they were very small, they were almost too precious, too inchoate, and too long-ago to be subjected to the risk of the inevitable distortion that recollection, retelling and restructuring would entail. But now, it seems, may be the right time. Having" rediscovered" them is like finding the key to a locked drawer and seeing within, almost as if for the first time, wonderful things, wonderful things. There has to be one good book in there, at least.