Chelsea Fringe 2014
by Rhiannon James
Credit:Gorm Ashurst As above,so below
If you’ve not sampled the delights of the Chelsea Fringe before, you should know what you’re taking on. The Fringe, which runs until June 8th in cities across the UK, not to mention Vienna, Ljubljana and Turin is the Chelsea Flower Show’s wild adopted sister (they’re not blood relations). While the elder Chelsea is sensible, well turned out and highly organised, the younger roams the streets, full of new, and sometimes crazy, ideas and rarely refuses a party.
Where the wild things are
It’s entirely appropriate then that a theme of the Fringe this year is weeds. While Chelsea Flower Show specimens are pampered and primped for even the most naturalistic of gardens, the Fringe’s installations celebrate those renegade plants that live beyond a gardener’s control; that can flourish in a crack in the pavement or a crumbling wall.
Daniel Lobb’s As above, so below installation at Siobhan Davies Studios in south London is an elegant system of copper rills and containers suspended from wires and planted with urban colonisers such as ivy-leaved toadflax and hart’s tongue fern. Exploiting the natural assets of its environment – dancers’ sweat and tears – the installation is a self-supporting ecosystem with its own water cycle – a dehumidifier condenses the moisture in the air so that it flows down the rills to the containers, with the excess trickling into a bowl where it can evaporate again into the atmosphere. “I saw the piece as an interior landscape, once it’s established and growing it can be just left to get on with it. That was my thought about landscape, something that is, whether we’re there or not,” explains Daniel. “For that reason, I chose plants that colonise buildings and structures, things that just turn up, wind-sown seed.” Playing on ideas of nature versus nurture, Daniel has juxtaposed the installation with a staircase vegetable plot, with onions, carrots and courgettes growing from tiny plastic cones, which is wholly dependent on the care of passers-by. “This piece is definitely a garden in that it requires constant watering, pricking out and planting up. There’s already been greenfly coming in,” explains Daniel. “It explores the idea of the control that we have in a garden setting, choosing what’s going to live and what’s going to die.”
Rosetta Sarah Elkin’s Tiny Taxonomy, currently on display in Belgrave Square in west London, also puts wild plants on a pedestal. Twenty-five cylindrical containers are used to display at eye level the intricate beauty of smaller weeds, such as Scotch moss, purple sheep’s burr, alpine bearberry and ashy cranesbill, collected from Highgate Cemetery and planted as miniature landscapes. “I selected 25 habitats in and around the grounds, to highlight the spontaneous plants and first succession so unique to the site,” says Rosetta. This close-up perspective reveals the ingenious strategies many of these early colonisers have developed to survive – hugging the ground and growing in tightly-packed clusters to trap warmth and moisture and protect against damage from the elements and other threats.
Over on the other side of the city meanwhile, Where The Wild Things Grow at Oxford House in Bethnal Green shows just how adaptable and intrepid weeds can be, thriving in even the most inhospitable urban landscapes. Photographer Paul Debois has captured figs flourishing in the redundant cranes at Battersea Power Station, herb robert scrambling through a car grill and Achillea millefolium seemingly drilling its way through tarmac. Artist and photographer Lynn Keddie has produced paintings inspired by the images and commentary is provided by Alys Fowler.
Return of the Triffids?
The potential for plants to go one step further and take over the world was explored by Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, at The Night of the Triffids event in central London last week. If your childhood was scarred by nightmares of giant carnivorous plants looming up at your windows, relax, apparently it’s impossible. Deeper in our psyches though is a sickly fascination with what happens after the meteor shower and hungry pitcher plants have put paid to most of humanity. “I’ve coined a new phrase, the hortipocalypse, where nature takes over and civilization sinks back into the green,” said Marek. It’s a theme that surfaces everywhere from nineteenth century engravings to films such as I Am Legend, numerous sci-fi novels and a whole genre of digital art depicting ruined cities. As Marek pointed out though, the opposite, and more likely, scenario is the one we should really be worried about – the destruction of nature. “Plants are our life support system,” he explained. “Plants have transformed planets, they don’t just live here passively, they have created the world we live in.”
Horticultural installation artists Heywood & Condie have their own apocalyptic vision expressed in their installation 3…2..1, on show for the Chelsea Fringe as part of the Bar for the Future exhibition at the Belmacz gallery in Mayfair. At an undisclosed time, a model of the Dag Hammarskjold tower in New York, which overlooks the headquarters of the United Nations, will explode, showering plant seeds into the ground below to grow amidst the ruins.
Re-constructing Garden, in the parade ground of the Chelsea College of Arts, presents a more harmonious relationship between architecture and nature. A re-imagining of the Urasenke Konnichian in Kyoto, one of Japan’s most historic tea gardens, by Interior and Spatial Design students and tutors, it exactly replicates the dimensions of the original, but the buildings are made from hundreds of last year’s discarded Christmas trees. “A lot of these teahouses in Japan were constructed with available local materials, and many of them vary in the way they’re constructed, even from one facade to another, because they just used what they had. So we thought about what natural materials we could find in London and when we were writing the brief it was Christmas,” explains Shibboleth Shechter, lecturer on the BA Interior and Spatial Design course. What couldn’t be built has been drawn with pebbles, string and spray paint, so visitors, as much as possible, can enjoy the journey within the garden. “In Japanese gardens the route from place to place is as important as getting to the place itself,” Shibboleth says.
Edible gardening may be an established feature of the Fringe but this year’s events take inspiration from those just starting to grow their own food. Not content with contributing to a silver-gilt medal-winning garden at Chelsea Flower Show this year, Walsall College in the West Midlands also created Student Digs, an allotment garden meets a student bedroom, for the Fringe. There were plenty of quirky small-space growing ideas far beyond the usual indigenous fungi and bacteria. As well as the obligatory traffic cone and banana plant, there were beans growing out of McDonald’s and Costa coffee cups, cress flourishing in a sponge and an old keyboard, coriander in the tea bag box and various salad leaves in filing trays and a shopping basket. “It has made many people smile, make lots of jokes about a ‘flower bed’ and some students reminisce about banana trees. It was lovely listening to them share their stories about these trees in their countries and how they miss just walking out and picking fruit straight from the plants,” says Gail Houghton, who works at the college and created the garden with student volunteers. The edible plants came from the college’s vegetable garden, part of the NUS Student Eats project which aims to support student-led growing sites and was responsible for a garden in the RHS Discovery area at Chelsea this year.
Deen City Farm in Wimbledon meanwhile, will be taking inspiration from a childhood classic – the cress head at its Wandle Valley Girls event next week. With the help of the local community, staff at the farm will be creating giant head-shaped papier mâché pots and planting them with a variety of vegetables. For something sweeter, there’s Operation Deep Freeze, an ice cream van with a difference. This pedal-powered gelato making machine with a design inspired by icebergs has been travelling to schools and community gardens in the Greenwich and Deptford areas of London collecting produce and recipe ideas for fantastical ice cream flavours. The creators, arts and environment project Avant-Gardening and artist Lisa Cheung, are offering free experimental ice cream workshops – Ice Cream Mundaes as part of the Fringe.
Scents of Summer
If your summer is going to be more sunny Battersea than Biarritz, you can still take a mini-break in the French countryside at St Pancras International. Tucked into a little room on the Grand Terrace is a Gallic-inspired garden complete with a wild flower meadow blooming beneath vines and an olive tree and a gravelled patio filled with the scents of lemons, lavender, star jasmine and rosemary. “The idea was a garden inspired by the station, obviously trains go to France each day, and so we followed that ‘train of thought’ and created a garden in Provence,” says Wendy Bowen from Clifton Nurseries who created the space. If there’s no time for a trip, you can still get away from it all during a City lunch break amidst the calming fragrance of plants. In their Scents-U-All Love garden in Exchange Square near Liverpool Street station, designer Roger Cooper and Curt Brown of Green TruC Studio have combined chairs and containers to position mint, lemon balm, sage, rosemary and lavender at head height to deliver a dose of tranquillity straight to office workers’ noses. For a weekend retreat, try Haven at Crystal Palace Food Market, where there will be mini yoga and meditation sessions in a tiny tent made of lavender-scented calico.
To find out more about the Chelsea Fringe, visit www.chelseafringe.com
As above, so below, in association with Cityscapes, is at Siobhan Davies Studios, SE1 until 21st September. On 17th June there will be a free exhibition tour with Daniel Lobb, www.siobhandavies.comTiny Taxonomy is at Belgrave Square, SW1 until 31st May, www.grosvenorlondon.com/our-customers/gardens/belgrave-square-gardenWhere The Wild Things Grow is at Oxford House, E2 until 9th June, www.ohwildlings.wordpress.com, www.oxfordhouse.org.ukBar for the Future is at the Belmacz gallery, W1 until 12th July, www.belmacz.com/galleryRe-constructing Garden is at the Chelsea College of Arts, SW1 until 2nd June, www.baisd.wordpress.comWandle Valley Girls is at Deen City Farm, SW19 from 2nd to 8th June, www.growinggardensproject.blogspot.co.ukOperation Deep Freeze is at The Bridge in East Greenwich Pleasaunce, SE10 on 2nd June at 4pm, places must be booked in advance, www.operationdeepfreeze.comA Garden in Provence is at St. Pancras International, N1 until 31st May, www.stpancras.com, www.clifton.co.ukScents-U-All Love is at Exchange Square, EC2 until 28th June, www.broadgate.co.uk/chelseafringeHaven is at Crystal Palace Food Market, SE19 on 7th June, www.sarahnewtongardendesign.com/haven