Radical gardening might sound like an odd topic to discuss in the context of art. Are we talking about artists who garden, or gardening as art? Either way, landscape and gardening are ancient aesthetic pursuits but also central to American art, dating back to the Hudson River School and Frederick Law Olmsted, or more recent projects like Robert Smithson’s Floating Island, a kind of garden on a barge that was sketched on paper in 1970 and finally realized in floating form in 2005.
Other contemporary touchstones include Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982), a two-acre field of wheat planted on a landfill in Battery Park City, and Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1978), a wilderness re-created on the corner of West Houston and La Guardia, as well as Mel Chin and Rufus Chaney’s Revival Field (1991–93), which used plants to absorb toxic metals from a landfill in Minnesota.
Alongside ’60s and ’70s garden art, however, arose guerrilla gardening—that is, gardening on land to which you don’t own the legal rights. In 1973, Liz Christy and the Green Guerillas took over a vacant lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston, where the BMW Guggenheim Lab was last summer. And Adam Purple’s circular Garden of Eden, divided into yin and yang at its center, flourished on the Lower East Side until it was razed by the city in 1986.
The past decade has seen an uptick in garden art with Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates, which revive wartime victory gardens planted in yards and public parks, and local mad-scientist-artist Natalie Jeremijenko, who has proposed growing vegetables in bags slung over apartment balconies, micro-landscapes designed to fit “no parking” spaces, and dispersing seeds with hula hoops. Rebecca Bray and Britta Riley have created hydroponic “Window Farms,” and British artist Nils Norman installed a “Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center” in a 2005 Queens Museum show devoted to gardening.
But the art-gardening impulse seems to be rapidly merging with the activist one. It started in the alternative pedagogical sphere in places like Mildred’s Lane, an experimental think tank retreat run by artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion in rural Pennsylvania, which has a session this summer titled “Town & Country II” that explores the new urban-garden movement. In New York, Trade School—an education-for-barter initiative developed by artists Louise Ma, Rich Watts, and Caroline Woolard—had classes on how to become a farmer and urban foraging, while the Public School, another alternative-education initiative, has posted gardening proposals.
Gardening also thrives in the New Museum’s bookstore, where a display features George McKay’s primer Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden (2011), which describes the garden as “one of the extreme spaces in the contestation of the cityscape, precisely because of its uncompromising greenness.” McKay covers the waterfront—gardens tended by suffragettes, prisoners of war, and feminists; peace gardens; hippie and punk gardens; a “Pansy Project” for gardening against homophobia—and cites earlier books like Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City & the World (1999) and Loisaida: NYC Community Gardens (2006).
Out in the streets, there’s a revival of seed bombing in New York, which flourished in the bankrupt ’70s and involves people—one artist describes them as “anarchist city planners”—throwing tennis balls coated with seeds (Liz Christy called them “seed grenades”) into vacant lots and hard-to-access urban sites. Some bombers use clay and compost balls, a technique developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese gardener, microbiologist, and philosopher who borrowed from the ancient practice of tsuchi dango, or “earth dumpling.”
But the pivotal element in New York’s art-gardening boom might be the Occupy movement. Because if gardening sounds like the domain of the rich—you need space for a garden, after all—Occupy opened up conversations around the commons (that is, shared resources), food justice, sustainability, and corporate control of seed populations. It also served as a reminder, per McKay’s “contestation of the cityscape,” that there are plenty of vacant lots in the city to be occupied.
A recent weekend of workshops organized by the New York Community Gardening Coalition in conjunction with Occupy groups, titled “Occupy the Land: Unconference” and located in community gardens throughout the city, provided skill-sharing and instruction on everything from growing and composting to the “Garden as Commons” and the “History of Garden Struggles in NYC.” Artist Antonio Serna organized several sessions, including one with 596 Acres, which helps people procure vacant public land for community use.
In an informal Unconference presentation, a member of 596 Acres described the group’s work as an “art project”—which isn’t a stretch, when you think of recent social-practice art initiatives that attempt to connect communities and result in gatherings and teach-ins like the ones during the Unconference. The website for 596 Acres also cites Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates as an inspiration. For the ’70s project, the artist purchased small unclaimed bits of land in New York, documented them, and paid the taxes (for a while).
Like many recent art-gardening projects, the Unconference was refreshingly practical and untheoretical—or leaning more toward praxis than theory. But theorizing, one of contemporary art’s signature obsessions, isn’t far removed. An Unconference session devoted to artists (mostly showing their work in gardens) came with an epigram from Michel Foucault’s Of Other Spaces (1967): “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.” Displayed near McKay’s activist tome in the New Museum’s bookstore are writings by philosophers like Henri Lefebvre, whose Situationist-approved “La Proclamation de la Commune” (1965) celebrated intermediary spaces in cities: spaces of transition, “surroundings,” “thresholds,” and “passages”—just the kind of liminal nooks and crannies you imagine guerrilla gardeners and seed bombers occupying.
If gardening is still radical among artists, though, it’s because it has been ignored for the most part by institutions—and why I’m both enthusiastic and reluctant to mention it here. Writing about gardening practices among artists opens up space for considering them as art, but it can also serve as the death knell. (Next up: BMW Guggenheim does guerrilla gardening and “Seed Bombing in the Expanded Field,” the dissertation.) But if cooking, education, urban planning, and various communal “encounters” have taken their place as acts of art in recent decades, there’s no question that the creative interventions of gardeners belong there, too.