Friday, October 4, 2013

Lauren Fensterstock: Artist, Garden Historian

This week is the opening of the Portland Museum of Art's Biennial.  Lauren Fensterstock, an incredible artist, friend, and fellow garden history lover, has a stunning piece that will be the first thing you see upon entering the exhibit. Lauren’s work has always stunned visitors, such as her recent exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, that involved 3 rooms of garden history embodied by immaculately conceived and crafted installations. An 18th century English garden with pond, an American lawn,  and a Japanese “kiku” garden with Chrysanthemums. Labor intensive and dramatic, her pieces satisfy the viewer with a “more IS more” viewpoint. Her piece, Ha-Ha, is tongue in cheek nod to modernism while actually manifesting a European landscape feature from the 17th century. This gorgeous and powerful piece made me dive into the history of the Ha-Ha.
The concept of the ha-ha is of French origin, and is a ditch made in the land, usually with a retaining wall structure on one side and a sloping side on the other. The advantage of this feature is that it kept animals (cows, sheep, horses) out of the gardens close to the house. The ditch is too trepidacious for them to jump, yet, from the house, one can’t see the ditch at all; one sees only a seamless expanse of estate ahead. This was so clever, that when locals would approach to see how the animals were contained, they would exclaim Ha-Ha! or Ah-Ah! An early example of this feature was in France at 
Château de Meudon, circa 1700. By 1786 when Thomas Jefferson went to Stowe House in England, he was astonished that “it was all enclosed by ha-ha”, obviously being familiar with the term and feature. They are still found on grand country estates and still act as a way to keep animals out while not having a fence.

In Britain, the ha-ha is a feature of the landscape gardens laid out by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent and was an essential component of the "swept" views of protégée Capability Brown. Capability Brown was a 17th century landscape architect who was "England's greatest gardener." He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure. The new rage he introduced was a much more naturalist approach with expansive lawn up to the house, and vistas with lakes or clumps of trees, that was a new "gardenless" approach to landscaping. The ha-ha was an essential feature as this left an unobstructed view of the land.  Thank you to Lauren who brought this ingenious concept from1700's landscaping to our attention while using it as the perfect venue to highlight her exquisite work.  Her curled and formed black paper beauties cover the inside of this ditch, and, as ditches do, it has a bit of standing water in the bottom to reflect the sides. She also said the piece refers to the idea that modernism is dead and so her big black modernist box has grass growing on it! Ha-Ha! Come to the Portland Museum of Art and see it for your self!

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