In his book Looking at the Overlooked Norman Bryson describes the strange impossibility of the scenes depicted in Dutch still life painting. Vases teeming with exotic flowers would be painted in lavish detail despite the fact that the flowers themselves could never have existed together in that state. Coming from different continents and time zones they would flower at different times of the year and their representation together in full bloom is a perverse distortion of nature. The flowers represent both a temporal and spatial collapsing of distinctions and difference. The pictures instead celebrate a new found knowledge and power within the world, they are the product of empire. They represent a kind of virtual tourism, a sense of being, in a way, in many different places at the same time.
The gardens of Belsay Castle in Northumberland mimic in miniature the adventures abroad of their designer, Sir Charles Monck. They contain a wealth of plants plundered from around the world and planted there according to Picturesque principles so that the landscape appear as a series of vignettes, a collapsed geography of other times and other places. The owner quarried the stone for his eccentric neo-classical house from its own grounds and sculpted the holes left in the earth into scaled down ravines and miniatures caverns.
Trees planted along the perimeter increase the sense of vertiginous excess. Existing structures such as Belsay Castle itself and various outbuildings are incorporated as picturesque ruins within the tableaux. Japanese Cedars, Douglas Fir and Palms ring the edge of this Northumberland hillside. Magnolia Kobus, Cornus Kousa, Parootia Persica, Chusan Palm, Rhododendrum Fortunei and rare Orchids survive in the strange micro-climate created by the ravines and deep crevices. The garden is geographically perverse and incorrect, a shrunken world where anything and everything can exist alongside each other. The house too is historically illiterate; a strange half memory of Greek temples and Roman ruins, reassembled with wilful disregard for authenticity of time or place. The earth around it has been sculpted and moulded to form a more extreme, more beautiful, more exotic version of reality, a dreamlike space created at the intersection of trade, commerce, wealth and imagination.
Sir Charles Monck's creation is another strange perversity, an entirely unnatural phenomena built from natural materials. The garden is pure artifice and intensely immersive.
Disneyland's It's A Small World represents a strange update of these ideas. A few years ago I visited Disneyland in Florida. Mostly, I was disappointed (yes, I had expectations). It was more tawdry, less seamless than I had hoped. It had none of the sweet toothed addictiveness of the cartoons, their mix of the saccharine and the magical. Except for It's a Small World. Here, as you drift in a drift in a small fibreglass boat past animatronic aborigines, waving Hula girls, tartan trees and Mittel European landscapes, inky blackness between them, the effect is oddly mesmerising, an icky but seamlessly picturesque experience.
Someone like Humphrey Repton or Sir Charles Monck might be oddly at home here. You could imagine them, bobbing around happily in their boat, like the comically displaced historical figures in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. They could admire the way the boundaries dissolve and the space has no edges. Each fragment of the world blends into another so that there are no frontiers. Conflict and difference have been smoothed away like the gentle humps of their artificial landscapes. No careful planting to the edges, no exit signs or delivery doors or views of the visitor’s car park. Just space drifting into infinity, the ultimate pleasure garden.
David Greene too has for a long time explored an idea of the garden as a kind of anti-architecture. A limitless space invisibly wired for our pleasure. His log plug is an uncanny updating of the the Dutch still lives of Ambrosius Boschaert and others, a bucolic image that is in fact a kind of collapsed geography, a symbol of mastery over space and time. This virtual space of social and technological connection speculated on by Greene and others in the '60's has in many ways come true the through the awesome geography collapsing abilities of digital technology. A different kind of garden, an electronic one that, like Belsay, defies authentic experience, mixing it with extreme artifice. A physical and virtual experience at one and the same time.