TREESPOTTING is both a document of our suburban Auckland springtime, and a testimony to our shared love of growing things out front.
OK, Which way Mon?
Let's start off by going down here, up and around and then turning right onto Martin? (Where's that big pink rhododendron? Is it off Asquith or is it Martin?)
The following pages chronicle an event of sorts: a drive-by shooting and an expedition - a treespotting outing, undertaken over many weeks, that documents an ongoing conversation between two artists seeking out the flowering of trees in and around our local suburban streets.
Monique Redmond is an artist and teacher living in Mt Albert, New Zealand. This particular suburban context, its sites, architecture, planting and gardens are a source for works that both draw upon together and document the lived spaces of her everyday.
Tanya Eccleston is an artist, writer and teacher now living in Avondale, New Zealand. Her own interests as an artist are in working with social contexts, and with making installations both within and outside the gallery. She has recently immigrated to Auckland from Glasgow, Scotland, where rhododendrons grow wild in the hills and no one would dream of planting one in their front garden.
The trees we pass on our daily circuits maintain a year-round appearance; they are on permanent display. Once a year they bloom, and the suburban garden becomes a stage, the site where blooming events occur… Flowers signify an event of sorts. A bouquet of cut flowers is itself an occasion, whether the flowers are picked, bought, given or received; they are small exchanges, celebratory markers of other happenings. The simplicity of an arranged bouquet is in a single utterance, a spectacularly exquisite act… The experiential nature of a bunch of flowers, a flowering tree, a blossoming garden captures a gesture of time, of time spent and time short-lived. Monique Redmond, Flower Theory, Apartment Gallery, Melbourne, 2008
I think front gardens are like installations - changing, growing installations of plants, lawn, low fences and trees arranged in relation to the built structures of the house, fence and pathways - but it's an exhibition space too. It's an exhibition space that doesn't always accommodate the passage of people, but always allows the prospect of a gaze in or across it - from either vantage point; behind the lace curtain peeking out, or from the sidewalk, passing by. It's the pathway that guides you through to the front door, but it's the planting and the front fence that frames our gaze from the street.
There's a mix of classes and ethnicities in these streets we are cruising, but mostly we are looking for these beauties in the gardens of the middle class, aren't we?
While caught in a state of distraction not caused by 'habit' of familiarity but by the ever-present process of panoptic visuality, our suburban passers-bys can only glance fleetingly at their front garden 'works of art'. Walter Benjamin
Streaming together as they do when you're driving past - home fronts and their trees undulating up and down (like your hand surfing the air out the backseat window on long journeys with your parents) - it's like a perpetual horizon line of a long, low landscape.
Seen in a series, a sequence of shots like you put together Mon - the speed of the passing is paced by the frame of the photograph, but also the frame of the house and its borders and edges. Suddenly a flash of rapid-fire shots (click-click-click, click-click) captures a moment's seasonal glory true to its passing - its passing by in time and in motion. Later, seen side by side by side, or marshalled together in the edifice of the closed grid as you do, your images of these flowering streets are given ground and pause.
The front yard in Mt Albert (and around her mountain and plains) is a front garden. Not so many boats and cars and fridges lying about in these soft green spaces. In these 'leafy' streets, the front of the house is not only a buffer zone between the public thoroughfare of the street and the private and domestic realm of the home, it's a space where people express themselves, isn't it?
Some of these trees we spot are old. Really old. This says to me that beauty has always been important to these home dwellers - pre-war, post-war and into the fifties and sixties. It also says lots about the social status of these folk - they grew things for the soul as well as for the belly, but they grew these front gardens to SHOW others their refinement, their good taste (or lack of it!).
Subsistence wasn't just about fruit trees and a vegetable patch out the back, it was about creating a visual, sensual beauty not only for yourself, but to show others that you valued the 'higher' things - culture, taste, beauty, grace and the finer things in life. The newcomer pakeha brought sensibilities shaped in Europe, but this soil and climate, this light gave form and species new ground.
Didn't your grandfather have an orchard Mon?
New Zealand is so blue and green, so verdant bright that it can do hibiscus and lolly-pink azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias in such a way as not to be embarrassing or out of place. That much colour in so much abundance would seem outrageous in an English suburb where the skies are powdery blue or pearly grey. Here in the wide blue-screen backdrop of
an early spring sky, each vivid bloom and branch is rendered unreal - flattened by the frame of the lens, the swiftness of the glance and sharp bright light of day, blurred by the velocity of the moving car, the shifting, swinging perspective of the street-to-street seeking of another tree.
HOT PINK, DEEP PURPLE, DARK MAROON, FUCHSIA, SHELL PINK, SOFT CREAM,
PALE MAUVE, YELLOW, WHITE
A camellia or magnolia has a sweet and serene beauty in the soft light of the northern hemisphere - here they are unselfconscious - almost BRAZEN in their very brilliance and profusion. So many flowers on a single front yard specimen tree definitely make a SHOW.
Colour is important to you Mon, would you say?
Maybe people paint their houses in shades of blue and grey and white like they were carefully creating a sky-like backdrop, or set, with which to plant against, lean and grow against. From the car, it looks like everyone has thought carefully about what trees to plant in their front gardens 'cause they take up their space so EMPHATICALLY. These homeowners, one after another, after another, use their plants and planting to express, to EXHIBIT, something of themselves and their taste to themselves and to us, don't they?Aesthetically her art revels in the tension between the straggly, shaggy nature of organic growth and the order we place on it. Say it with Flowers, Dominion Post, 21-10-2005, Mark Amery.
AMASS, BLOCK, ORGANISE, COMPOSE, MARSHAL, ARRANGE, GRID, STACK, SEQUENCE, ASSEMBLE, COLLATE, SERIES, SET
Whizzing by as we do, taking shots, stealing glances, the pleasure of discovering a blossom-heavy tree is real. Thing is, every time we see something lovely in another's front garden in these streets 'round here, I can see someone's unabashed love of colour clear as day. Everyone seems to be involved in creating a kind of down-home garden of Eden - a space beyond function, reason and common sense - an imaginary space made palpable and bright.
Interesting isn't it that the various diverse forms and shapes in which trees grow are called their habits. Pohutukawas have a spreading, base-branching habit while many camellias have a tight, bunching and balling 'habit': a habit of growing in a similar way to each other as if the species 'got used to' growing a certain way. Rhododendrons (the big, conical, heart-shaped, hot-pink-blossomed variety) seem to have a habit of accommodating power lines and street lamps, and competing with others such as conifers, by changing their shape to suit. Magnolias spread wide their blossoms upturned and sun loving. Rhododendrons are so very upright and dense, lollipop bright and balloon wide: almost comical.
Seen one after another in these photographs of yours, Mon, their diverse 'habits' are made collective and shared not only across species, but in plantings along streets. A sweep of observable landscape, made whole through your sequential capture, is one without people. A deserted street or an unoccupied garden creates an open visual passage across and through the vista of not-so-fenced-in planting: trees reach, spill, stretch and swing their lovely arms up-wide into view, animating these empty streets with movement.
Can you tell me, Mon, why you choose to photograph this place in the way that you do?I'm interested in the notion of documentary as a record of place. For me it's about the experience of transit: across space, through time, recording changes of form, both social and physical in an everyday suburban context. The photographing of these local streets provides me with an ongoing document of the space between image and experience. The images form a deadpan citation of sites that have located themselves in the peripheral of my everyday. They are random snapshots taken from one of many repeated rides through the same roads at different times on different days, but seen in relation, they form a representation of my life and a portrait of this place.
Uh oh, where now? Left or right? WHOOPS! Wrong way, but look at the colour of that magnolia there! Got it Mon? (click-click-click, click-click) Counsel, Lloyd, Thomas, Seaview, right down Martin (click-click-click, click-click), Verona, Chatham, Parkdale 'cross Fontenoy, Monaghan, Grant (click-click-click, click-click) … back again, one more time, and another, see it? YES!
CONTAIN, FRAME, FIX, ORDER, HOLD, DISPLAY, SHOW
Gardening expressed an individual's creative vision and created a personal space. It broadened the roles of women in household and community, and ultimately facilitated their roles as cultural colonisers along with men. A garden both incorporated and symbolised the complex process of becoming a New Zealander and even in part defined what that could mean. Katherine Raine, Domesticating the Land: Colonial Women's Gardening, edited by Bronwyn Dalley and Bronwyn Labrum, Auckland, 2000
Do you see these flowering trees as gendered, Mon?
Are we looking at big blousy girls or are they, as you have said before when talking about the trees on Allendale, un-gendered personages? What makes these trees so anthropomorphic? Is it their scale, form and singularity - their aloneness on the stage of the domestic house front?
Low-waisted, broad-beamed, big-skirted, fat-as-a-house camellia really is almost as fat as the house - from the road, in the car, whizzing by that is. Mount Royal Avenue's princess in red and green stands there in the middle of the lawn looking for love.
It occurs to me later after our drive-by, walking along Sarsfield Street then up Sentinel - these newly renovated front gardens are remarkably homogenous. Consistently austere, white and green only; manly neat and maintenance light. There is no leaf litter from a box hedge back-planted with gardenias and standard Icebergs. Mass, horizontal, low, staged planting tells no tales from passing. These front gardens are formal, presentational spaces for the architecture that lies behind. A kind of textured visual foreground that gives ground and threshold to the fortress of home. Secure, stable spaces where no one can hide - or dream.
Here on Sentinel, magnolias are still in :), but rhododendrons (TOO PINK) are out :(. Blousy, gushing, messy (emotional?) trees are OUT. Cool, white restraint is the (strict) order of the day. Sigh. Those gardenias are so far back from the street, I'll never get a whiff of that heavenly scent.
Over New North, down Woodward, round and down Jerram back up Jersey home?
Let's do Allendale again? The cranberry pink's gone, but the rhodys will be budding up along that stretch between Douglas and Mt Albert Road. Ok, which way? Where's that big white rhody again? Duart or La Veta?
Treespotting - Monique Redmond & Tanya Eccleston