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22 May, 2009

Pretty in plasticine

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Conceptual art or horticultural horseplay? James May’s Paradise in Plasticine is pulling in the crowds at Chelsea, but critics say it detracts from the show’s real purpose

The people passing through James May’s plasticine patch at Chelsea Flower Show seem to love it. “People at this show take gardening a bit too seriously,” says one amused visitor, perusing the garden in jeans and T-shirt. “This is poking fun at it all.” The plant enthusiasts in the pavilion are less keen: “Chelsea should be about the plants,” says one. “I don’t mind if they do this kind of thing occasionally, but it does detract attention.”

As I stand in the gently shifting crowd, peering at May’s childlike garden of putty, it strikes me as a mixture of Marc Quinn’s floral art and Jeff Koons, helped along by a talent for model-making worthy of Jake and Dinos Chapman.

May’s garden is one giant clay model. Its bright artificiality presents a real challenge to the conservative Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), plonked down as it is in the middle of their Royal Hospital showground. Two and a half tonnes of plasticine, in all 24 colours, has been moulded into a twist on the English cottage garden. An apple tree experiencing all four seasons simultaneously dominates the lawn; clay koi sun themselves in the stream, and the walls are covered in rainbow-hued roses. 

While it makes visitors smile, there’s confusion as to whether it should be seen as a piece of conceptual art or as a genuine show garden. The BBC’s James Wong is clear: “If I were a designer and I’d had my garden judged against it, I’d be a bit annoyed. But if you see it as a big colourful outdoor sculpture, it’s amazing.”

Chelsea has not traditionally showcased avant-garde, conceptual garden design. Companies shelling out more than £100,000 to sponsor a garden in the show tend to want a perfect English vision in return for their cash, not something arty and experimental. As a result, the RHS confines the more fanciful gardens to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July. But even there the strangeness of the entries can provoke the sort of public outcry usually reserved for the Turner prize shortlist. So what’s making that same public queue to see May’s masterpiece?

Firstly, the garden has a sense of humour. “It’s whimsical,” says the garden’s attendant. “People are smiling. Look at them.” It’s true, smiling people are pointing and discussing the mechanics of modelling an entire garden – including cauliflowers, flowerpots and a whole grapevine – entirely from plasticine. “Chelsea pensioners made all the poppies,” points out one visitor, who is visibly touched. Onlookers are further impressed by the amount of time and labour that went into its creation.

If only Quinn and the Chapman Brothers could find this kind of audience, I think. “But in the end, is it silly or is it any good?” I wonder out loud. “Both!” jeans and T-shirt man says, happy to rest in that ambivalence – just as any conceptual garden visitor should.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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