In the catalogue essay for Janet Laurence’s 2010 exhibition What can a garden be?, Ingrid Periz offers a few possible answers to the question that Laurence poses. “Any purposeful arrangement of natural objects” is one, or “human artefacts imbued with purpose”, or “a site demanding a response… requiring a constancy of care”. To distinguish a garden from a wilderness, a farm or a city seems to require a fine balance between nature – in particular, the parts of nature that go beyond what’s necessary for simple human survival – and nurture.
Taking our lead from Laurence and Periz, we might ask: what is grass? Perhaps it sounds like a stupid question, or a question better left to the gardeners (that is, if we could manage to settle the question of what a garden is). But let’s ask it anyway: what is grass? In a forest it’s a clearing; on a farm it’s a field; in a city it’s a park; in Yorkshire it’s a moor… But in the suburbs, grass means turf, and turf means one thing: ownership. To plant a patch of turf goes beyond the relatively simple act of planting a flag. It shows that you have cultivated the land, and the act of nurture performed on nature is culturally understood as the definition of ownership.
If turf means ownership then Siân McIntyre has claimed her very own 138m2 plot right in the middle of Sydney’s Paddington, a suburb where the average price for a unit of this size is around half a million dollars. Luckily the turf installation in Exile’s Lament, McIntyre’s exhibition at Kudos Gallery, is not for sale. At the opening of the exhibition, people are invited to take their shoes off, to sit on the grass. Throughout the duration of the exhibition McIntyre tends to her turf, watering it daily and inviting visitors in for picnics.
McIntyre’s turf might be compared to Walter de Maria’s The New York Earth Room, which occupies its own half a million dollars worth of real estate space with 280,000 pounds of soil. For the past two decades the Earth Room has been maintained by the same keeper, Bill Dilworth. Dilworth waters and rakes the earth. He scrubs the mould from the walls. He claims to eat the mushrooms that occasionally grow there. I wonder whether Ingrid Periz would describe the Earth Room as a garden.
The other component to Exile’s Lament is three video works, originally performed for an ABC special The Restless Years in 1969, consisting of women singing convict songs. The songs, like the imported grass underfoot, speak of a longing for a distant homeland – they are the exile’s lament of the exhibition’s title. The longing to return home translates into the longing to replicate the environment of home, to turn wildernesses into gardens and grasslands into turf. But fifty years after these songs were performed for The Restless Years, and two hundred years after they were first sung, the word exile is applied to more people than ever, from political exiles to those exiled to the suburbs by increasing house prices. In some way, McIntyre’s turf patch seems to offer a refuge for all exiles. It’s cool and welcoming in the heat. It’s a garden of the best kind. It’s a patch of turf in the middle of the city, and you’re invited to take your shoes off and enjoy it.
Siân McIntyre: Exile's Lament
At Kudos Gallery from October 30 – November 3