Through a Glass Darkly
Alien-insect hybrid saints, haloed in Blakean light, set within a frieze of golds and incandescent blues; of antennae and hands. It sits, this stained-glass greenhouse–perhaps six feet tall and ten at its length; no bigger than the grave of a full-grown man–below 23 stories of Brutalist tower near Hyde Park in West London. Passing by are the people who live in these sought-after blocks, or in multi-million-pound homes, or those who use its shortcuts, or work nearby, whether that’s in the posh shops selling gold-leaf chocolate, or in the back rooms of Iraqi cafes. It is an intertidal zone: former prime ministers and their uber-wealthy cronies brush shoulders on the street with refugees who landed just around the bend.
Such brief, wild visions occasionally infiltrate even these splashy corners of London.
The greenhouse is, indeed, a greenhouse. It is more functionally and formally a sculpture. Titled Sacré blur, the piece is one of self-inflicted iconoclasm: it is made from cast-off seventeenth and eighteenth century stained glass collected from the rubbish bins of English and European churches over the course of years. Similarly, this work’s creators, Tony Heywood and Alison Condie, have their own connection to the church: for decades they have been groundskeepers to this diocese of the Church of England, an institution which owns much of the property both sacred and secular in this area of the Hyde Park estate. And here, currently sited on church property, is a new way to worship in this time of visionary fluidity; of, often, absurdity; of definite uncertainty. This Anthropocene epoch. No–more useful, perhaps, the edit proposed by scholar Donna Haraway: this Cthulucene epoch.
Heywood & Condie are horticultural artists and not new to such things, working with the unpredictable beauty and madness of life itself. Their work has been lauded by galleries and showcased as artists in residence at the Royal Horticultural Society, of famously posh Chelsea Flower Show fame. Yet Heywood & Condie only dabble in that world. Their horticultural gods are primitive, chthonic, not those of pretty flowers but of Swamp Thing – a less-than-reassuring narrative that we are, at absolute best, one step ahead in keeping the lichens and the seaweed from strangling us in our sleep. And Sacré blur is no different.
The piece began life in response to the work of the Sacred Trust–a British institution devoted to shamanic training–and was built to house the psychedelic plants of Oxford Botanic Garden. Oxford is, according to Heywood, the only place in the UK licensed to grow and display psychedelic plants such as ayahuasca and peyote. The greenhouse was meant to be that collection’s display, but cold feet regarding security (university students plus psychedelics?) ixnayed the project before installation. The artists soldiered on, and the greenhouse was built and displayed in several venues around southern England before winding up here, at the foot of this tower.
Tony Heywood and Alison Condie are known for their horticultural installations, inspired by–and at one time a side-gig to–their work as groundskeepers. Today, the reverse is true, with employees to see to the many acres of London they garden and care for, the art takes precedence in their lives. The job came to Tony when he first moved to London from Liverpool in 1981, to drum in an ‘also-ran’ punk band. Tony still has an air of punk’s playfulness: when I first met him, he walked into the room for a workshop, late, in faux-fur coat over pink shirt, with oversized oval spectacles and rings to match–on the ‘Cockney gangster’ side of flamboyant. The art never took hold until he and Alison Condie began working together–on art, on the business, and on a family (their daughter is now at University). But when it did, their day job became training for their horticultural installation work, transforming gardening into a semi-pagan exaltation to the ‘natural’ world.
That work has ranged from room-sized installations like abstract Zen gardens (Urbo Edo) to massive, immersive and psychedelic fungal gardens built under London’s streets (The Majesty) to the possibly insane Space Ritual – a 55-foot-diameter installation of ‘living and laminated plants’, with Tony performing bizarre rituals inside. (Its title refers to the British space-rock band Hawkwind, with which Tony shared the stage on more than one occasion in younger, hedonistic days.) And then there are calmer, more abstract recent works that take the Royal Horticultural Society’s “official” colour schemes for British flowers and turn them into mesmerizing videos of pouring paint, performed and flowing in the order in which the flowers bloom through the calendar. Beautiful–indeed, sexy–yet accessible.
Nothing is as English as a garden. The nation–the world, at one point–has been organized by their borders; their themes of subtly subduing the natural world, bending it to human whimsy: an enclosure movement extended into the mindset. The English garden’s picturesque helped draw a line between humans and nature the repercussions of which we still feel today. Heywood & Condie play with the ideas and themes of the garden, making them acceptable across class and cultural lines, yet their work is arguably some of the most rebellious of recent years for the same reason: their gardens are wild, insatiable, chthonic beasts; they swallow ideas and anthracite with equal aplomb, converting each into yet more bulbous fantasies. Like Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures, Heywood & Condie allow their work to take up space in a rapturous affront to defy those borders. To swallow them.
I walked to the greenhouse in the daylight. As the sun lowered, lights came on inside the glass. Each frame, and there are several on each face of the building, is like a traditional ecclesiastical stained-glass window. A saintly figure or scene, drenched in color and shouting holiness. But while many of the figures appear ‘”normal”–two or three shards of largely intact midsection or legs pieced together into a motley but human body–something is always off. There is, for example, an orb flipped upside down and framed by repurposed shards to become an alien-duck-creature saint. There are grasshoppers and rabbits, squirrels and lions. Or a face with massive square shards placed as huge insect eyes; tall pieces added as antennae.
Inside Sacré blur it becomes increasingly obvious that, as many thinkers will insist today, there is no such thing as nature. That the insistence of our separation–that there are such things as individual objects and thoughts separate from all the others–is an iconoclasm, and not the good kind. Inside the greenhouse are not flowers or vegetables or even lichen, but mirrors. We are there, confronting ourselves. We must both worship and damn ourselves at its altar. It is noir and it is terror. It is also funny and ridiculous. There have been disco lights and drumming and absurdity in that greenhouse.
There has been, at times, dancing.
The way we worship at Sacré blur is to recognize the aliens within ourselves. We look into its mirrors and see that God has made us in his image, and his image is strange, amoebic and oozing. It is of assemblage rather than definition. We worship here because it is towered over by modernity, and yet it supersedes–like the lichen we see from the corner of our eyes, creeping ever closer.
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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Justin Hopper
Justin Hopper is an American writer living and working in the UK. His first book, The Old Weird Albion, a journey through an English landscape, its memories and myths, is available from Penned in the Margins. Learn more at www.justin-hopper.com.