Saturday, 29 May 2010

Hyperreality in SW3

The Chelsea Flower Show which closes today is many things - a market, a showcase, a networking opportunity, an entertainment.  
For me the most interesting facet of the whole enterprise, though, is the extraordinary way in which the show gardens are devoured by visitors, television viewers, other designers, garden magazine writers and photographers.  The competition for the coveted top prize is intense, the downcast mien of those designers achieving silver-gilt rather than gold palpable.  Every detail of the design is scrutinised, eviscerated and displayed to the interested public - the plantings dissected and praised or dismissed out of hand.  Only perfection will do for a Chelsea garden, and hyperreal perfection at that.
These gardens are fascinating because they are amazingly controlled simulacra of gardens - they cannot exist in the real world, and can only exist at Chelsea for the briefest of times because, having been constructed with something as unruly as living plants, the illusion of perfection is utterly unsustainable.  Within a few days the plants will change proportion, exceed their allotted space or start to shed leaves and petals as the natural processes of growth and senescence, held in perfect balance at the point of judging, begin to unravel the image presented.  A show garden is nature at two removes - if a garden is a synthetic version of an idealised 'nature', the show garden is a further distillation of that garden - the 'authentic fake' of Umberto Eco ('Travels in Hyperreality') or 'reality by proxy'.
Only something arranged so perfectly that it could not possibly exist in nature, or even a normal garden, is good enough to satisfy our media-driven need to experience the idealised world we are sold under the conceptual term 'garden'.  The 'garden' (as opposed to the garden) always looks immaculate, is the setting for impossibly glamorous parties, never needs maintaining, contains plants looking at their best and is a powerful symbol of human dominance over nature, time and decay.  The 'garden' is outside reality - until the third week of May when, after up to 18 months of planning, it is created in several versions in the centre of London and displayed, in the manner of a saintly relic, for the populace to wonder at. 
And it is a wonder - plants that would, in nature, flower at very different times are artificially held back or advanced to be shown in peak condition next to each other, purely because they look good together - one of the show garden plant lists even had snowdrops this year (although I didn't spot them on the ground - presumably a total inversion of the growing cycle is still a little beyond our capacity).  Stonework is made to look ancient, moss is grown to insert into gaps in brickwork, brown leaves are individually cut from plants, a leaky canal lock spurts water.  The big lie, and one that we willingly swallow, is that these gardens somehow show us what we can achieve in our own plots - we can hold on to the fact that the 'garden' is a possibility for ourselves because we have seen it done, the alchemy has been performed in front of our eyes.  Smoke and mirrors (both to be seen this week, incidentally).
It is Disneyland, Las Vegas, the horticultural equivalent of Dubai - a non-place where our every garden craving can be met, where the consumerist dream is realised, made flesh.  Why do the cameras lovingly dwell on the bees which hover over the flowers in the show gardens?  Because the bees validate the claim to authenticity - the 'garden' is proved to exist, because nature has visited, unbidden.
The photograph shows one of the more pleasing plantings from a show garden this year.  An artfully arranged combination of colour and form, well-balanced in terms of mass and texture, this also happens to be one of the more achievable combinations - the woolly verbascum is rather advanced for the time of year, and the euphorbia (E. mellifera) will grow in a couple of years to swamp the space, but of course the whole thing will have been dismantled by now (7pm on the final Saturday), so that problem will never arise.  The effect lives on in a thousand hastily grabbed photos, such as mine, and the images that will accompany the post-mortem articles in the gardening press.


  1. This is one of the most thoughtful posts or articles I have read on Chelsea. I found the whole experience of visiting Chelsea for the first time quite surreal, it is as you say like a horticultural disneyland

  2. Powerful stuff Paul - this article should go places. I wasn't there this year but you have described it in such a way that I can envisage the set up with ease and am not wholly upset by my missing it... hope all is well with you and yours. e

  3. Thanks for your appreciative comments, both. There was no value judgement being made in this posting, Emma - although I do have concerns about aspects of show-gardens as an enterprise. I was more interested to explore the cultural significance of the phenomenon, and what it means for those of us who hope to make our living in the field! Hope you are both well and coping with a return to reality! Px

  4. very well written Paul. I've never made it to Chelsea...weeding duties in the garden keep me too busy at this time of year...but i believe the 'authentic fake' must be fascinating...

  5. I agree Paul, this is exceptionally well written, as always. My feeling after a very fleeting visit to Chelsea this year was that with the budgets these projects get there should be no excuse for them not to be out of this world. They have the money to source the best plants, contractors and materials. What I do find weird is that there is a competition...the gardens should be showcases - I don't get the competition aspect. For those in the know with regards to how the RHS judge, some build just to win medals as they know exactly what the judges are looking for.

    What i do love about show gardens is the interest showed by the public in our profession..even if the clients must come back to Earth with a thud when they realise they do not quite have the budget for steel rooms and glass fronted swimming pools!

  6. Hi Mel - thanks for taking time out of your busiest time to comment! Glad you like the post. I agree with you on the competition - especialy as it often sets very different gardens against each other. Very best of luck with your build - everything crossed for a big success for you! x