We are all gardeners. The question is: what are we tending? There is much ruckus surrounding this question these days. Not about getting our hands dirty, though water certainly is shifting our expectations of growth and backyard cultivation here in California. The focus, rather, is to which garden we belong and what we mean by growth. The artist collective Exquisite Gardeners is a dynamic launching pad for these questions.
Spontaneously birthed in 2009 by artist Joe Bruebaker during a show at Donna Seager Gallery, Exquisite Gardeners is a loose collective of artists, friends, and makers. Since that time, the group has installed one show a year—a garden—in a diversity of spaces, from art museums to ranches. Borrowing from the stream of consciousness game Exquisite Corpse, the gardeners have sown the seeds of impromptu installation with found or repurposed materials for the past five years. This past summer, they installed “A Visible Transparency Project” at The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco.
It is absolutely right to call the artists gardeners. They are simply tending to different soil. Installations take shape and the process develops, usually over the course of a week as new ideas are unearthed from the old.
A garden is a place for us to watch (and cultivate) the most fundamental processes of life. The cycles are fully remarkable: photosynthesis, water, the life cycle, bio-remediation, our body’s nutritional needs, aesthetics, olfactory and culinary exploration, and much more. Before our very eyes and with trowel in hand, we observe the transference of information, in genetic code, of energy consumption. We witness biomass transfer from one state to another, and afterwards we eat it. Recycling the process to begin again within our own bodies.
This continuous process, a signal flow of life, information, and change, describes the process that generates a creative idea in the same way that it describes a seed, a seedling, a garden, or an ecosystem. I do not mean as metaphor either, though the genesis of a plant, a seed’s first explosion, will forever exist mysteriously and metaphorically like the big bang. What I mean is that light and the movement of water and the nutrients it carries are a catalyst. This is information! It is life—the instructions to act. The result is growth: a flower, a grass, a vegetable, or a tree.
When people gather together and exchange ideas, language, and creation, a signal flow is, in effect, similar to that which takes place in a garden. Either via new neural pathways, or new axons and connection, a microscopic journey carries an idea to its next phase. In other words, culture functions much the same as an ecological system. We each play our part tending the growth.
Together, the Exquisite Gardeners tend to their particular landscape. In a collaborative and improvisational process, ideas “grow.” Under the right circumstances, when properly nourished, an idea becomes an installation, or a life-long pursuit. The difference is really just a matter of specific needs. An idea needs creative support, feedback, criticism, and eventually the specific raw materials: like metal, wood, or clay to build a sculpture. As those needs are met, the idea blossoms, literally—inspiration and will are manifestations of that stage of growth. Collaboration catalyzes and expands on that growth.
I have always been keen on fungi as a perfect expression of a particular place and time. For example, chanterelle and morel mushrooms, two delicious California favorites, fruit at different times of year under somewhat different conditions. Chanterelles are a winter fungi, growing only after the first sufficient rain, often on hillsides, and near oaks. The morel is a spring mushroom that flourishes in disturbed ground, sometimes even in a landscaped environment. More than being simply a product of circumstances, the mushrooms are a unique expression of time and place. And at some moment in time, the mushrooms decompose and return to the earth, cycling to become something else.
Here is the interesting thing: all of life is like this, each object, each story, each person, every landscape. We are ecosystems; tending to needs, sharing information, and growing. Exquisite Gardeners is emblematic of this process. The group is an organism, responding not just with a final product in mind, but a fluid process of accumulation and exchange. As the gardeners collaborate in conversation and creation, the resulting catalyst, like the nutrients carried in a stream or ray of sunlight, becomes something new.
California is currently grappling with a drought that is transforming the way gardeners plant. As we adapt to our changing ecosystem, we’re finding new ways to sustain it—new soil inoculators, early colonizing plants, or new approaches to the very old. Rethinking growth patterns and ecological systems means rethinking the interaction between the parts and the time scale during which cycle and change happen. Milpa, for example, is a largely ignored method of planting squash, beans, and corn together practiced by the Mayans that maintained soil nutrients without rotation for hundreds of years. Managing systems like this one requires a profound understanding of the crops on a micro and macro scale. Mycorrhizal fungus—another type of fungus that grows on plant roots—plays an important role in the growth of more than 90 percent of the world’s plants by increasing moisture-absorbing surface area.
The nuances of an ecosystem are profoundly complex. When we tend to our gardens, we stand on the very brink of life—confronted with the expression of a process we may not fully comprehend but can observe in its totality. Exquisite Gardeners embodies a collaborative process that produces a material transformation akin to the force that surges forth to push a little sprout once and for all into the light of day. Art is growth.
For more information about recent and previous collaborative Exquisite Gardeners installations visit www.exquisitegardenproject.com.