Friday, November 28, 2008

Kitsch and Pop Culture in the Garden

Manohla Dargis' review of Baz Luhrmann's 'Australia' in the 11/26 issue of The New York Times has got me thinking.

In her discussion of the director's style, she contrasted his work with "art world jesters like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who have appropriated kitsch as a (more or less) legitimate postmodern strategy."

All of the artists mentioned by Ms. Dargis have achieved mainstream success yet, when the same postmodern aesthetic is applied to residential landscape design it is considered a tacky crime against nature. Here, in the northeast, where I work, much of the collective American garden memory is imbued in our colonial cultural orientation. The most common landscape design references are the European models of the previous centuries. Of course there are exceptions, but they are just that.

The idea of a postmodernism's free association and appropriation of ideas/images/icons doesn’t seem to sit well with when it comes to our own backyards. As landscape designers we appropriate ideas and vignettes and combine them all of the time--we just don’t do it with everyday elements of garden kitsch. Even mainstream advertising has embraced the most enduring of the garden’s pop culture icons. Travelocity has successfully used the garden gnome as an authority on world travel—although that concept was used before them in the film Amélie. That a garden gnome is an authority on the exploring the natural wonders of the world is surely, for us, a landscape design paradox.

Now I’m not proposing that every garden has a wishing well, a donkey planter and gnome, but I find it fascinating that we are willing to accept these images in other forms but not in our own. Is it because we are so very serious? Maybe it’s time to lighten up a bit. Maybe our own backyards should help us smile.

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