PARADISE REVEALED: ANIMATION OF SPACE
"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," laments Joni Mitchell in the chorus to Big Yellow Taxi. At first glance, the group exhibition 'Paradise Revealed: re-animation of place' seems to confirm a similar opposition between nature and the built environment. Comprised of site-specific works, it is split between an Edenic garden overlooking the sea and a multi-storey car park in the centre of Dover. Text accompanying the show refers to the dialogue between rural and urban space, and the interaction of nature and architecture. The venues themselves, however, are riddled with ambiguities that push beyond these time-worn dichotomies, leaving the artists to forge new modes of working with our contemporary landscape.
The Charlton Shopping Centre car park is owned by Targetfollow, a property development company that frequently hosts art exhibitions in the business parks and office buildings it manages. Curator Christine Gist's partnership with the company brings the art world into conversation with the kind of commercial entity that impacts the built environment. Artists have worked beyond the gallery context for decades now, but are perpetually in need of new strategies for doing so. This may not be the most romantic option, but it reflects our increasingly privatised landscape.
A few kilometres east of Dover's town centre, beyond the range of lorry smoke and ferry port grit, lays Pines Garden. It is an English garden with a New Age twist, boasting a lake, labyrinth, café and an arresting statue of Winston Churchill. The land was "saved from developers" in the 1970s – ironic, considering the proprietor of its sister site. While this groomed landscape does not quite fulfil its role as the 'natural' half of the exhibition, it would be foolish to dismiss its potential as a compelling venue. It is precisely because the garden exists somewhere between nature and design that it provides fascinating, if equivocal, fodder for many of the issues addressed by 'Paradise Revealed'.
These spaces are springboards for grappling with the slipperiness of notions like landscape, the public realm and private property within the context of art practice. Much of the work in the exhibition sticks to mining accepted binaries like 'nature and architecture', but some pieces advance upon the unknown territory unearthed when such conceptual symmetries are dissolved. Take, for instance, Turkish artist Ebru Özseçen's biological intervention at Pines Garden. She grafted white floribunda roses onto red roses already growing at the site. This procedure involves tethering the stem of the new flower to the stem or roots of an existing one. What starts as a crude suture becomes congenital, as the existing plant takes on the new one. Özseçen calls her hybrid species "the most artificial real flower". Rather than taking categories of 'nature' and 'construction' for granted, Özseçen's genetic tinkering exposes their fluidity, and perhaps, their irrelevance.
Several artists picked up on the unique assembly of styles and ideologies comprising Pines Garden. Gary Perkins' work singles out its incongruously imposing statue of Winston Churchill by Oscar Nemon. Video taken with a thermal imaging camera shows Perkins heating the bronze figure to body temperature. Acting as the Dr Frankenstein of public statuary, the artist playfully addresses the notion of re-animation in the exhibition's title. This work simultaneously expresses a reverence for public monument and condemns it as a dead tradition. While Perkins asserts activity as a valid format for public art, his stance on the subject is delightfully inconclusive.
The interventions in 'Paradise Revealed' range from the subtler dimensions of public experience (like temperature) to unmistakable intrusions. As a particularly versatile space, the car park accommodates both extremes. Additionally, the artists seemed most comfortable criss-crossing nature with architecture at this site. In a rather subtle move, Özseçen spiked an exposed drainage pipe with rose water. Robert Jarvis's understated sound piece of a nightingale trying to attract a mate melds into the concrete edifice. On the other hand, the car park serves as a dramatic host to Norbert Francis Attard's grandiose grass-covered ramp, regally bridging levels five and six of the structure. While Pines Garden elicited some interesting responses to its specific kind of pastoral fantasy, the car park welcomes wide-ranging experiment and promises rich potential as a project space.
Because the artworks in 'Paradise Revealed' exist in places trafficked by the public, it is difficult to view this show without some consideration of Dover's recent regeneration efforts. Gist is cautious on the subject of the role for contemporary art practice in such projects. The use of the term 're-animation' in the title is a pointed alternative to 'regeneration', and the show's press release makes clear that "it is not a vehicle to change the socio-economic issues of the area". 'Paradise Revealed' nevertheless marks an important step for Dover, which lacks spaces for contemporary art. This brings added exigency to the exhibition's investigation of artistic engagement with place.
'Paradise Revealed' alludes to a whole legacy of thought concerning landscape, from gardening as one of the earliest forms of land art, to the drive for a retrieval of nature that has existed at least since the Romantic era. This sentiment is captured by the Joni Mitchell song mentioned earlier and evident in Pines Garden, both realised in the 1970s. Together, the exhibition's two sites illustrate the current split in contemporary art between Big Yellow Taxi-style nostalgia and an embrace of the built environment that engages in cautious cooperation with the commercial engines behind it.
This show is charged with the dual task of moving in on new territory both geographically (upon an ancient seaport in the process of regeneration) and conceptually (towards updated notions of landscape). From Gist's powerful selection of sites to Özseçen's quiet botanical riddle, 'Paradise Revealed' surveys the challenges facing artists seeking to engage with their environment, whether it is public, private, constructed, organic, or somewhere in between. Where the artists acknowledge this 'in between', that is, the ambiguity that truly animates this kind of practice, 'Paradise Revealed' is most successful. Pines Garden, St Margaret's Bay and Charlton Shopping Centre, Dover