This month York Art Gallery revealed the first installation created especially for its brand new Artists’ Garden, part of a two acre space behind the gallery recently opened to the public.
The artwork launching this exciting new venture is Foundation Myths, created by Charles Holland of the art, architecture and design practice Ordinary Architecture, and it draws on the rich history of the site and its many different uses over the centuries. These include an orchard, a 19th century exhibition hall and barracks for Canadian servicemen during the Second World War – it was also the location of a Civil War skirmish. That’s even before taking into account that the garden is situated within the elegant ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. So, there was plenty to inspire Holland when he was thinking about his proposal.
“I was interested in the idea of the remains of buildings,” says Holland. “And also in the myth that the origins of classical architecture are in nature – columns are said to have been inspired by trees. So I thought that tree trunks might be redolent of buildings that had been there before, a kind of echo from the past.” The resulting piece is a series of bright yellow ceramic tree trunks which have been placed in parallel rows and are subtly yet eloquently reminiscent of a number of previous incarnations of the site. Materially they also make reference to the gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art.
“They are arranged to look quite realistic but unnatural,” says Holland. “It is a combination of the natural and the man-made, bringing those two elements together. The idea is that it refers to a number of things but is not specific – I wanted it to be ambiguous. It could be seen as the remains of an orchard that might have been there when the Abbey was standing or the beginnings of a structure. You can read certain historical allusions in it but it allows for creative interpretation by the viewer. I wanted to find a line where the piece was not trying to illustrate history but that resonates with it.”
It is precisely this historical resonance that appealed to York Art Gallery curator Laura Turner. “It cleverly intertwines the many threads of history which run through the gardens,” she says. “We really loved Charles’ proposal because it made this fantastic link between St Mary’s Abbey and architecture, so we thought it was perfect for the first commission. We are really thrilled with the finished product and we want people to start enjoying the space. It is a really beautiful hidden part of York and a new area for residents and visitors to the city to explore – and it’s all free.”
Foundation Myths will remain in the Artists Garden for the rest of this year and into next spring. And there are already plans in place for a series of commissions to follow. “We want to focus on temporary artwork, sometimes site-specific but that might not always be the case, that reanimates the space and draws people into the garden,” says Turner.
For Holland creating the initial installation has been a bit of a dream commission. “It is a really lovely space to work in because it’s so rich in its history,” he says. “And the city itself is so incredibly interesting architecturally and historically. It’s been great to be able to create something for the gallery garden that relates to all that.”
Foundation Myths is at York Gallery until Spring 2017. www.yorkartgallery.org.uk