London Jazz News OCTOBER 20, 2011 - by Geoffrey Winston


The Serpentine Gallery's Garden Marathon brought together a refreshingly diverse spectrum of participants including artists, scientists, architects and landscape architects, writers, film-makers, musicians, philosophers, and social commentators in a cornucopia of diverse presentations, prompted by Peter Zumthor's remarkable temporary garden pavilion in the gallery's grounds. I attended the second day, hot on the heels of witnessing Andre Vida's inaugural live jazz saxophone improvisations in Anri Sala's current exhibition - the marathon concept was definitely in the air!

Taking on the dual roles of the event's curator and MC, Hans Ulrich Obrist drew parallels between natural gardens and the 'gardens of information', an inescapable facet of contemporary life, and referred to 'polyphonies of nature', borrowing a descriptor from the musical vocabulary.

The tightly timed programme of short presentations and panel discussions gave no room for digression and, thankfully, no interventions from the floor of the packed geodesic in which the event was hosted. In this quick round-up we try to capture the flavours of this rich, fast-moving feast, which used the idea of the garden as its point of departure.

Marcus du Sautoy offered vital insights in to the mathematical basis of historic gardens, citing Versailles where mathematics was utilised to conjure impressions of infinity. Brian Eno later took issue, indirectly, citing his own dislike of that particular site. Du Sautoy contrasted the Baroque and the Romantic which carried through to present day Pixar where he had observed animators working alongside mathematicians using fractals to create spectacular illusions; he involved the audience in identifying key numerical sequences, and epitomised their eternal mystery in the never ending prime number sequence.

John Brockman's cavalier, yet grounded, personality brought together the disparate ideas of Mark Pagel, who discussed the concept of cities as gardens of innovation, Jennifer Jacquet, who considered the roles shame and honour in shaping social order, and musician/artist Brian Eno who looked at the broader implications of the shifts in compositional procedures in the 1960s.

Pagel described how cities over the millennia have attracted entrepreneurs and innovators and made the claim that urban hubs such as London survived through being more efficient in the relationship between infrastructure and population than their provincial counterparts. Jacquet concentrated on adherence to social norms, society's need for a god 'who is watching us', and her own project making totem poles in which people and corporations are shamed by their relative size and positions in these constructions.

Brian Eno described his own discoveries, in the '60s, of the compositional methodologies which Riley, Cage and Reich developed to harness the powers of chance and natural processes, in contrast to conventionally rigid compositional techniques. These innovative paradigms, he argued, continue to offer potential in shaping responses in manifold artistic, cultural and social arenas. The garden metaphor was extended as he explained how well-selected musical seeds were carefully planted to realise the dynamics of certain musical strategies. The 'gardening approach' led to 'generative music', which has become a mainstay of contemporary music culture. The two approaches - 'top down' and 'bottom up' were contrasted in the practices of architect and gardener. Working with the complex and unpredictable process of nature to create true complexity in an entirely different way, Eno suggested, was the way to lose the ideas of 'intelligent design', which were dependent on an outlook which could not accept that complexity was the result of continuous natural evolution. He went on to cheekily suggest that art galleries are predisposed to create monocultures out of their artists, no doubt ruffling a few feathers, and declared his decidedly mixed feelings about public art. The ensuing four-way discussion touched on how 'local rules' helped cities to shape and regenerate themselves.

Stefano Boeri, architect, planner and former editor of Abitare and Domus made a case for 'doubts making good politics' and extended the natural theme in discussing sustainable aspects of visionary urban planning, a thread also taken up by landscape architect, Catherine Mosbach.

Curator Pablo Leon de la Barra and film-artist Phillippe Parreno each articulated alarming propositions - de la Barra describing plans to bury the Tate and Guggenheim under lava, and Parreno, in discussion with collaborating landscape architect, Bas Smets, showed how he has initiated whole-scale changes in landscapes in the service of his latest film work.

Guiseppe Penone's rich interactions with trees and landscape - 'I think a tree [is] a perfect sculpture' -represented a humility and a humanity.

Pablo Bronstein was more modest in his ironic approaches to outdoor installations and dance performances incorporating neo-classical elements to make political points about the ownership of spaces purporting to be in the public domain, a theme also picked up by Richard Sennett who made a moving comparison between Zumthor's tranquil, transcendent 'hortus conclusus' and Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, the scene of ongoing protests against developers who negotiate extraordinary planning rights by appearing to create public space within their sites' boundaries.

Peter Murray-Rust picked up the baton, railing against the 'closed gardens' of the internet as part of 'Wired' editor David Rowan's proposition that 'the walled garden will never compete with open fields'. In support of this, Emer Coleman explained how she was in charge of releasing all public sector data into the public domain on behalf of the GLA saying that it is 'important that we don't have a walled garden of data... and let a thousand flowers bloom'. I wondered where this particular thesis left Zumthor's benignly enclosed garden space, the inspiration for the whole event?

There were many other notable contributions, too many to describe, all raising questions and creating a picture of creative vitality and a deep concern for the directions in which cultural conflicts and processes inevitably shape our world, and the ways that natural analogies yield clues to help germinate positive solutions in seemingly intractable situations.

This was a refreshing and imaginatively programmed whirlwind of thoughts and ideas, giving a multitude of cues for cross-fertilisation across the disciplinary divides.