In our attempts to understand and explain the ins and outs of arslocii, we fell into a perfectly clear example during one weekend in June. It was one of those annual events in which people open their gardens to gawkers like us, for a small sum. This kind of thing echoes the class-based tradition of visiting large estates and stately homes in the United Kingdom, snooping while contributing to the upkeep of the digs of a long line of dukes and duchesses now on the skids. It isn’t quite the same here in the States, having no royalty, but there is a palpable sense of have-nots paying for the privilege of sniffing at the haves.
One garden in particular smelled of new money – an out-of-place McMansion sitting on a ski-slope-like bank on the west side of the Hudson River. The view, we admit, was breathtaking, but on closer examination, it was all wrong and not even attractive enough for the money ill-spent. What had been done was a wholesale removal of a swath of forested growth, as wide as the property’s borders and all the way down from the hilltop manse to the water’s edge. We understand the desire to capture a view, but this was more like stuffing and mounting it. The fact is, there were opportunities aplenty to play peek-a-boo with the river, to tease and suggest by selectively removing or pruning trees. But, no, the owners (and that’s what they were – not guardian-dwellers, not loving cohabitants with the land, but simply owners) decided to just drop their drawers, so to speak, to make their vista a widescreen experience. So, now, rather than a naturalistic attempt at enticing with glimpses, there is a broad lawn tumbling down to the river (the thought of cutting the grass without ending up in the water is frightening, not to mention the erosion this causes), and it ends up resembling those channels cut into mountaintops to erect power lines, or a vertically challenging 16th hole on a golf course. Aside from the scalping, dotted about the steep slope are little islands of plantings, so out of scale and incidental-looking that you almost don’t notice them. They look more like footholds for descending/ascending the river bank than considered gardens. Well, we wouldn’t want any competition with the view, right? There is no sense of place in this scenario, since there is nothing interacting with the water view. Instead there is the shock, a feeling as if a flasher has his trench coat parted — and we all know how disappointing that can be. So, yes, these folks are rich enough to denude the land but they really have given nothing back to it, let alone done something in partnership with it.
In contrast, there was another garden on this touring circuit with a less-than-ideal setting, but which was made into something special. A cluster of farm-industrial buildings of a strange Tudor design were situated right up against railroad tracks. We were told that this had been a cold-storage apple repository convenient to shipping – the land once part of a vast apple orchard production farm. To quote the owner and creator of the new incarnation of usage (as a costume factory) and gardens, “I am now eight years on from the weedy field of rubble I started out with. Sometimes I feel my intentions are starting to show, sometimes not … It’s at all times a workshop, a long dialogue with ‘Place,’ rather than the ‘design-and-install’ approach. Emphasis is of foliage, texture and contrast. Sculpture and plants are used in a theatrical context.” One of the strengths of this endeavor is the subduing of a large unwieldy space by creating rooms and transitions between them, each unique, each embellished with sculpture – the natural elements interplaying with the fabricated. In other words, there is a give with the take, a mutuality and not a dominance. And there is the wonderment of the garden not taking itself oh so seriously. It is a one-off site, and most people would not find the potential for beauty and magic in such a place. Enter the costume designer with a sense of style and whimsy to make it “sew” and you have a cohesive respite, a blending of fantasy and reality, a labor of creativity and craft with respect and a resulting air of joy. Placeness can be found here.
And also shadows. Placeness, as we’ve shown in previous arslocii installments – and what is, in fact, at the very center of the arslocii definition – is much to do with duality and counterpoint. On our website (and you’ll pardon our quoting ourselves) we, in trying to wrap our minds around the arslocii concept, talk about “a special pairing of the manmade with nature, or sometimes even manmade with manmade; the effect being a symbiosis in which neither one stands out or alone, nor would be as meaningful, beautiful or inevitable without the other. It’s an interdependence of aesthetics that goes beyond, thankfully, human dominance over nature or setting, because that has never had much grace.” The pairings and contrapuntalisms – big/small, hard/soft, open/contained, inside/outside, close/distant – doled out in the proper amounts and with just the right tilt of the head are what create placeness, and what, in turn, can mix that placeness DNA with that of art. Add to that list another pair: light/dark. It is here where the two gardens, the subjects of this piece, show their true colors. In the first, there is no accessible shade or sheltered spot – it is all sun-bleached and, though lengthy, without depth. It is an overexposed photo – everything is lighted, and lighted the same way. And, thus, there are no revelations, no discovery – though green, and with a river, it is as much a desert as the Gobi.
But the second garden – now, there, they understood that to see the light you need to have dark, and that the dark is only appealing (or nonthreatening) when one can see light. In this garden, one walks almost immediately from a light-drenched parking lot to the inviting shade offered by covered pathways and pergolas and way stations, then out again into an unprotected field adorned with small-ish sculptures … and then back again into the dappled shade of a woods – there to run into a straw man, a scarecrow, a figure that could be sinister but is rendered merely special by its location (there is no field of crops for it to keep birds from), by its lighting (only heavily filtered light, as opposed to the unremitting sun-soaked existence of most scarecrows) and by its backdrop: more light, and perhaps safety, just beyond. Back and forth, in and out, right here and up ahead.
And then, just farther along one of the winding paths, an allee of colorful parasols that comment wonderfully on the duality: in the most direct sun, they cast tiny, mushroomy pools of shade along the trail, creating a dimensionality out of very little – not just periodic protuberances to dot a landscape, as in the first garden, but ethereal definers that provide senses: sense of location, sense of style, sense of humor, sense of intelligence … sense of place and placeness. Sense and sensual, but not (like the first garden) overly sensible. Artful, playful, resonant, basic, primitive, natural … arslocii.