Archive for June, 2012

We are in Northumberland for a couple of weeks, escaping the worst heat of the Delhi summer. A few days ago we revisited the rather pompously titled The Alnwick Garden, a  site created by the Duchess of Northumberland in part of the grounds of the ancient Alnwick Castle.

It is a garden I try – and fail – to love. The Duchess took a brave decision to use contemporary designs and designers to make this new site, rather than creating something classical and safe. She argued at the outset in 2001 that “No gardens of this scale and ambition have been undertaken in Britain during this century. And no gardens will have quite such a magical effect on those who visit them.”  The Garden’s website now trumpets its “Must See” features, including the Poison Garden, the Tree House (apparently one of the world’s largest), the Serpent Garden with its hidden water features, and the Grand Cascade.

Grand Cascade

The garden is well – and expensively – done, much of the planting is lovely, and it is undoubtedly popular and increasingly well-known. Yet for me it has no sense of place or character. Instead it feels rather like a theme park, a collection of roller coaster garden experiences all stuck together in one big shiny venue, giving you lots of bangs for your buck, as they say, but no atmosphere or associations or quiet moments of reflection. It is a garden without a soul.

The rest of the castle grounds are utterly different. They are the characteristic distillation of the English countryside for which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is renowned. Created in the 1760s, the grounds are a fine example of his work, not perfectly preserved, but still a beautiful mix of trees, grass, water and English sky, setting off the castle building and providing a magnificent sense of permanence and serenity. The contrast with the gaudy business and sparkle of The Alnwick Garden just over the fence is delicious. The grounds offer a perfect spot to picnic, enjoy the fine views, and just to relax and ponder for a little while.

Brown Pastures

Yet, as far as I can see, the publicity for The Alnwick Garden makes no mention of the attractions of the castle grounds, despite them being assessed as of Grade I (exceptional) significance and having been designed by one of the most influential men ever to come from Northumberland (Brown was born and raised in nearby Kirkharle, and was no doubt much influenced by the lush, open countryside of his home county). When I asked at The Garden ticket booth whether my entrance fee allowed me to visit the Capability Brown landscape as well, I was met by a puzzled look, and had to explain what I meant – and then was wrongly told that it did not.

Maybe the contrast between the two garden styles is just too great to attract the same visitors. My nine-year-old daughter loves The Garden’s interactive water features, its dumper trucks and wobbly rope bridges. When I took her to the back window of the upscale gift shop, to peer at the Brownian landscape just visible behind the row of tills, she looked genuinely puzzled and said  to me: But, mum, it’s just grass and trees…

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Every year Paris stages Monumenta, a temporary installation by a single artist in the vast iron and glass spaces of its Grand Palais.

I remember describing last year’s work, produced by the British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor: “The whole thing is vast, magical and utterly bonkers. I can’t quite find words to explain the experience. You enter inside the ‘balloon’ first of all, and everything is red and hot and echoey and womb-like, with shadows of the ironwork structure of the building playing on the surface far above you. Then you get to wander round, still in the enormous Beaux-Arts hall of the building, but now outside the sculpture. It’s like seeing the workings – now you understand that it’s a multi-sphered purple shape nestling under the dome, but you also have the new experience of seeing the huge, organic shape filling that vast space, like an alien life form gradually permeating everywhere in the void. I can’t imagine the genius of the man to imagine and then create something quite so preposterous, or so perfect. Poor Daniel Buren, who I think has been commissioned to do Monumenta 2012.”

Now a recent return visit to Paris has allowed me to see Monumenta 2012. This year’s artist is indeed Frenchman Daniel Buren, perhaps best known for his fun, controversial black and white columns in the cour d’honneur of the Palais Royal in Paris.

His installation, called “Excentrique(s), Travail In Situ”, is a mass of raised, coloured, transparent disks. With their narrow supports, they reminded me of umbrellas and – in the way the light shines through them to create pools and patterns of colour – of contemporary stained glass. Buren himself has compared the structures to trees in a forest, especially appropriate among the green ironwork of the space.

My favourite elements of the installation lay above and below the disks: 45 metres up in the roof, Buren had added a checkerboard of blue panels to the central glass dome, allowing for a dramatic interplay between the colours of the disks and the glass of the roof above.

Then, on the floor in the centre of the hall, lie a number of circular mirrors, which on approach create sudden striking reflections and contrasts (although something of a risk for anyone in a skirt…).

There is a certain defensiveness I think about the scale of this year’s installation. Buren has claimed that monumentality is a quality as much as a particular size, while an appreciative critic has argued that, at three metres high, the relative smallness of the Excentrique(s) allows the monumentality of the Grand Palais itself to shine through. But for me, having seen 2011’s purple balloons, I found Buren’s transparent disks rather domestic and almost timid: they lacked the extraordinary spatial confidence that Kapoor (and before him, Richard Serra) had demonstrated. They may be thoughtful and pretty, but they lack the sense of marvel that is Monumenta at its best.

Monumenta 2012 continues at the Grand Palais until 21 June.

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