I paid my annual trip to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire last week. As a laboratory for contemporary garden and landscape design for nearly 30 years, and still full of weird and whacky ideas, Chaumont fits the idea of the Silly Season perfectly.
The theme this year was Biomimicry – and don’t worry I had to think what that meant as well. But actually it’s a really interesting concept because as the organisers say “Understanding and imitating living systems and, in particular, natural ecosystems is one of the keys to our future.”
Biomimicry sees Nature much more than just a resource or a constraint but a source of inspiration for human progress : “Whether you look at the silk of spiders, the organisation of termite mounds or the tendrils of the Virginia creeper or burdock, there are a thousand opportunities to take a leaf out of nature’s book and apply its techniques to the garden” and beyond.
Now that all sounds very serious and worthy so what’s it got to do with the Silly Season? I think that will become clear when we look at some of this year’s temporary gardens but ask yourself first where do dinosaurs lay their eggs and what would it be like to sit inside a lemon squeezer ?
The images in this post are either my own or from the festival website unless otherwise acknowledged. There are a couple of earlier posts about the history of Chaumont and earlier garden festivals. which will give some context to this one.
First up is a sofa in a greenhouse. But no ordinary sofa – instead a sofa shaped like a collection of barrel cacti. And no ordinary greenhouse either but one full of … you guessed it… barrel cacti.
It sounds and looks rather surreal. The fashion designer, Maurizio Galante, modelled the seating on the domed shapes of Echinocactus and Ferocactus. It looks like a weirdly assorted collection of bean bags. He then used a a single stretchy fabric cover printed somehow to give a realistic three-dimensional effect. It is intended to make sitting on cactus spines “playful and ironic”. Almost the only way of telling the real from the fabricated, from a distance at least, is the slight difference in colour. And if that sounds weird Galante has also designed a soft marble chair.
Next along was the Chameleon Garden. At first glance it’s difficult to see why it was called that. Some fairly mundane ground level planting around some plastic panels looked to have nothing to do with chameleons… until that we started to walk around. The large panels were mirrors, and the smaller coloured ones were we thought initially merely just that – coloured plastic panels that altered the way the plants were seen when looking through. But in fact it was much more sophisticated. The colouring varied as we moved. It helps to know that the garden was designed jointly by a landscape designer and a magician – I kid you not – and was based on the same chemical/oprical principles as found in a fish’s scales, a squid’s skin or reptiles eyes
These use Iridophores or “pigment cells from the family of chromatophores that are found in many species of fish, reptiles and cephalopods.” They help reflect the colours of their environment and can trigger sudden modifications in the appearance of some animals. So by using mirrors and these translucent coloured filters the designers have tried to transform the way visitors see the plants. But as they say “whatever its colour, a chameleon is always a chameleon… It is only in the view of others that it changes. The same applies to this garden. The plants remain just plants. The mirrors are merely reflecting surfaces. It’s up to you to discover whether it is your view that transforms the garden, or the garden that transforms your view.”
Based on the same principle as a Claude glass or a viewfinder on your camera this garden was again, full of very ordinary planting but the idea was to make the visitor walk around before arriving at the equivalent of a bird hide and then to look through a tube which restricted vision and made the eye concentrate on a small patch almost out of context.
To make matters more interesting there were mirrors attached to some of the plants while some of the tubes had distorting lenses, enlarging lenses, or even kaleidoscope at the end.
As the designers said “Today we know how to analyse, photograph and dissect. But do we really know how to observe?”
A colourful, although not very garden-like garden was inspired by the Australian Satin Bower Bird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus).
See if you can work out how and what that means? or cheat by checking the designers webpage.
Each garden comes with an explanatory label and sometimes, [actually quite often] , I read them and metaphorically scratch my head wondering what on earth the designers are on about. It’s a kind of philosophical gardening jargon that makes very little sense to me. One such label was on this garden.
The Anemone Fountain Garden is actually intriguing with water dripping gently from the tree, floating rings of capillary matting where grasses and small moisture loving plants are slowly taking over. The photo above is from the Chaumont website and shows what it was like much earlier in the year. Now as you can see on the left, it is much greener, but I still didn’t feel any connection with the theoretical rationale…
“98% of the Jardin de la fontaine anémone blends perfectly into the natural environment, showing no signs of existence outside of it. This fragility of a life hanging on only 2% invites meditation. The tentacles of plants are woven together much like a Persian rug, and intertwine and draw the visitor in, towards the water of the fountain. The layout of this garden resembles monastery gardens.
When visitors enter this section, they will feel as though they are in a sort of vivarium, not because they feel entrapped, but because they are confronted with a fragile reality which encourages reflection about the way we lead our lives, and how our lives could change in ten minutes if we make the wrong move. This scenario encourages harmonious balance. The walk through the garden is in harmony with its spirit, whereby everything plays on the tips of the tentacles.”
Sound is an often overlooked feature of many gardens. The rustling of leaves in the wind, the sound of birds or insects but in the next garden the point was reinforced with a series of giant speaking tubes and ear trumpets which either broadcast natural sounds, or which could be used to speak to others in different parts of the garden.
“There are two principles that all living beings seem to have in common: connection and communication. The need to exchange materials and information can be found in social organisation as well as in every biological cell.”
And while this centrepiece of a garden might look a bit bizarre it actually has a practical purpose and has potential to help solve water shortages in very arid areas. Check out the rationale on the designers webpage.
I’m sure by now you’re thinking…well there’s some serious stuff going on in the thinking behind all of these slightly strange looking gardens… so although they might look a bit odd its not really silly season stuff… so how about this?
As I explained in an earlier post about the history of Chaumont one of the earliest landscape interventions was in the narrow steep sided valley that runs between the Chateau and the festival grounds proper, and then down to the Loire. Paths and viewing platforms were built along sides of the valley and a reservoir was created at the top, allowing the recreation of a stream. At the same time a network of pipes was laid along the stream-side to allow the creation of artificial mists. This not only provided much amusement but offered a micro-climate for the plants on the banks. It became the Vallon des Brumes – the Valley of Mists.
This year Alexis Tricoire an artist and garden designer has installed a series of “creatures” and “plants” along the Vallon des Brume in what he hopes is “a magical forest” and a thought-provoking tribute to the flora and fauna of the Amazon basin. They are also amusing to say the least, even if not to everyone’s taste.
The installation is called A Rebrousse-Poil which is one of those phrases that has no one single translation. It can mean anything from “the wrong way” or “on the bad side” to “backwards” or “turning back” but if you break it down it has even more possibilities. Brousse on its own can be a bush or a brush or even the outback while Poil on its own is hair or an animals coat or fur, bristle or a host of other things when used in different contexts. Here though I suspect it’s intended to be a combination of several of those meanings all at once.
Tricoire is a great recycler who also creates installations that showcase biodiversity. One way he works is to transform industrial scrap into art. In the Vallon des Brumes he used brushes and bristles – second-hand or rejects – domestic and industrial – to create imaginary organisms that resemble flowers, creepers, fungi, snakes, and trees. Go back and look carefully at the exotic birds at the top of this post, or indeed at any of the other pieces and you’ll see what I mean.
These have been assembled along a 100 metre length of the stream “to create a dialogue between real life and an illusion” over seven different sections populated by 25 different “creations”. It maybe “an unnatural union” but its “experimental focus … will intrigue DIY-lovers who’ll want to know how to do it themselves, and lovers of botany, who “will enjoy admiring the symbiosis between two foreign objects, the living natural component and the artificial element.” I think the intention is to leave the pieces in place for more than just this year so that they will slowly become more integrated into the environment as plants begin to colonise them.
Its also interesting that Tricoire worked on this with Patrick Blanc who is the inventor of the modern living wall, and who was closely involved with the creation of the Vallon des Brumes.
Finally to bring us back to earth ….Before I show you some of this years temporary gardens let’s look at a couple of recent new permanent gardens which are contemporary takes on traditional features. The first is by Bernard Lassus, at 91, the grand old man of French landscape architects and designers.
In 2019 he created Le Jardin des Hypotheses – the garden of hypotheses – which extended a garden he had designed the previous year. Based on a traditional open air theatre he used laser cut metal sheets to create not so much the stage but what could represent sets and scenery.
There are two “stages” one at either end of a large open space. Cut out trees stand around, with metal flowers held in by real box faux railings. All painted in bold colours. It should be used to stage something equally quirky!
Another contemporary take on the classics is by Eva Jospin. Jospin normally works with cardboard [if that sounds a bit crazy its worth googling to see some of her monumental pieces which include a forest] but for Chaumont she switched to moulded cement to construct a folly/grotto in the chateau’s parkland. It stands, as it would had it been constructed in the 18thc just off the circuit drive/walk as a stopping off place to rest or divert the visitor, and also provides a good eye-catcher. Since its installation 3 years ago it has really become blended in, almost to the point of invisibility, which just shows how easy it is for garden buildings made of less solid materials to vanish without trace.
Chaumont’s director Chantal Colleu-Dumond said : She has conjured up a mysterious world inside her cave, a world of extraordinary refinement, adorned with red stones and lightly tinted shells, gossamer-fine garlands falling from the sky, gilded inlays and meticulous bas-reliefs”
and finally, just in case you thought I’d forgotten about the dinosaurs and lemon squeezer…
This is a newish part of the permanent garden and based on the idea of a volcano. If you climb the steps to peer into the crater you’ll see a clutch of dinosaurs eggs waiting to hatch out in the warmth.
And finally if thats not silly enough here’s the lemon squeezer… grown in yew and complete with a wooden bench inside.
For more information on Chaumont check out their website which features all this years new gardens as well as the permanent planting and an archive of previous years