Not the usual pretty photos of gardens and eulogising about planting combinations today. ‘Fraid not. Today, I’m striding out of my comfort zone and musing on art. Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is such a vast cathedral-like space that it cries out for something physically impressive as well as thought-provoking to fill it. Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’ living sculpture, ‘Empty Lot’, ticks both boxes.
Upon entry at ground level, the visitor is greeted by what appears to be a towering ship’s prow fashioned from scaffolding and wire mesh cages (click on left pic to see human for scale!). Lamp posts, like masts, atop it. Everything rigidly symmetrical and shipshape. From here it is impossible to know or guess what lies above. As you climb the stairs onto the mezzanine level, upon what now appears to be a geometric raft floating in space, a ‘garden’ is revealed. A long, diamond-shaped platform, made from planks of wood and bearing the weight of 240 ‘mini-gardens’ – immaculate wooden beds, approximately six feet long, filled with 23 tonnes of soil taken from 36 locations – various gardens and parks in and around London. Hampstead Heath, Hackney Marshes, Buckingham Palace, Peckham Rye, Regents Park, Lea Valley, Kew Gardens, Brockwell Park, Clapham Common, Holland Park, Spitalfields City Farm, to name a few. None of the beds are labelled, the soil heritage of each known only to the artist and his team.
Nothing has been planted in the soil and it remains untreated in any way. Seeds, bulbs, bugs, anything already in the earth when it was collected will be allowed to grow freely. Some of the gardens remain determinedly gritty and barren. Others flourish by comparison; bright seedlings already inches tall. One contains a cluster of tiny mushrooms. A few offer the smallest green dots of new life. Shoots of hope. The gardens are watered regularly and lit by the willowy lamps made from ‘found’ materials, cobbled together from things discarded by others. Each one unique. Each one resonating loudly the message from artist Cruzvillegas that “everything is useful and nothing is dead”. The lights themselves appear a lot like seedlings; skinny and ethereal, straining skywards. Beneath their stark glare, there is something of a prison camp feel about the whole scene. Perhaps a metaphor for our being held hostage by the land around us that we rely so heavily upon or perhaps, more profoundly, it is the beds and the vulnerable hope they embody that is being protected from us?
Even from up high on the viewing platform (closer access to the beds is forbidden), you can see how different each of the ‘gardens’ is. How varied the soils are, in texture and colour. How random it all appears. It made me ponder how some of this unassuming soil comes from ground worth thousands of pounds per square foot and yet the soil in the next bed hails from a public park in what is perceived to be a deprived area. Which is actually richer? Which is more nurturing? Surely that’s what is important. Have we, as city dwellers, lost touch with the earth so completely that we no longer value what lies beneath us? At a time when our open spaces are so precious and so under threat, this work appears as a melancholy reminder of what nourishes and sustains us and ultimately where we’re all heading. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust etc. Despite these mournful musings, I saw in this sculpture the power of nature, the hope, the possibility that something can grow from nothing. That hope really does spring, or sprout, eternal.
Empty Lot is on at Tate Modern until 20th March 2016, entry is free. I shall definitely be revisiting several times to see how the seedlings progress and how this changes the look and feel of the work. There’s a short film about the artist and his sculpture here.