The ordered chaos of the Fitzroy Park Allotments on the edge of Hampstead Heath has lately been peacefully invaded by the flapping of ring necked parakeets, the splatter of tomatoes, the ceremonial planting of a rare berry and the peaceful meditations which make up some of a series of installations and site specific artworks in a show entitled Closer To The Veg. So different is this exhibition curated by Olga Mackenzie and Sasha Galitzine that it has drawn the curious from all parts of London to see the 15 artists whose artworks span thirty of the plot-holders allotments.
Mackenzie and Galitzine have a knack for bringing art to unusual places; the previous show from this curating duo, Playroom, was put on in a disused house on Greek Street. The idea is to entice those who believe art shows are for the art world or who wouldn’t bother coming to a regular gallery show with the exuberant, the crazy, the thought provoking and the magnificent. Their space is all embracing and wonderfully irreverent of art world norm. Mid tour of the allotments with Sasha and Olga we come across Mick Rand, whose book Close To The Veg inspired the title of the show, whose plot secret is, he says to ‘look after the ground’ rather than the plants. Take note aspiring plot-holders, his was a fecund paradise of edible delicacies. Many carrots and almost no stick stick were needed to bring the shows strings together according to Sasha. Mick who acted as go between with curators and plot-holders to begin with was endlessly positive. Resting on his spade mid dig, with a bucket of Naples yellow potatoes by his feet he declares ‘we need art as much as we need vegetables.’
Of the eighty-six allotments thirty holders have taken part and though a touch bemused at the wacky machinations of this gathering, they have clearly been drawn into the swing of things. Conversations with the plot holders revealed serious pride for their allotments, which stand (on the lower part of the hill) on land given by Kenwood House in the 1920s and land purchased under a compulsory land grab on the upper side in the 60’s. This is one of the most intrinsically British rights of passage for urban garden lovers across the land.
The communal setting of Fitzroy Park is all embracing and couldn’t be more in tune with the theme of the show. The pieces are vastly different, from the quiet flap of Hermione Spriggs’ parakeets standing sentry against invading hunter-gatherers (e.g. me, more on this later) and the peaceful camp of Dmitri Galiztine’s In a Survival Situation to a series of paintings executed in rapid fire and inspired by the plot they stand upon and a shed filled with long handled brushes who wish they were still trees. According to legend and the London Borough of Camden, the waiting list for an allotment here is on average around 40 years such is its popularity. John Donne famously said ‘no man is an island’ but lesser known is what came next: ‘every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.’ This is all the more relevant in these Brexit filled times and most pertinent to this very inclusive show. The idea of being closer to the ground (and so the veg) will anchor us to stability and to what will always be there, the waiting list for Fitzroy Park proving this very fact. These island-like allotments form a whole that projects a powerful sense of oneness and rightness into the clods of Galitzine Mackenzie’s Closer To The Veg.
With this in mind Pavel Braila’s spectacular performance piece saw his use of traditional tools from Britain and Ireland to hack through large sheets of blank paper, literally and very physically getting closer to the ground. Retrieving the earth and normality from beneath the metaphor of the endless and all encompassing media blur obfuscating it.
An allotment is a truly lovely thing on a hazy July evening in Hampstead with Pimms in hand, but even this art lover was almost overcome by temptation to pick and eat one of the delights being grown, something I’m quite sure is frowned upon in allotment code of conduct. Luckily for me and for the other veg lovers who attended the opening, Little Yellow Door’s Jamie Hazeel of recent emoji menu fame provided some truly excellent veg. Artful arrangement made it beautiful as well as utterly delicious, one guest I heard cry in raptures ‘of course I would be a vegetarian if I could eat like this the whole time.’ In emoji terms, all the fruit followed by the hands clapping and heart eyes smiley face, bravo Jamie.
Jonathan Macree’s The Knowledge of Good and Evil brought viewers the chance to slam the work, not with negativity but with fruit a la medieval stocks, sending performer and onlookers back to childhood fair grounds and delighted attempts at knocking coconuts from their shies. His piece formed the central work for Pick Me I’m Juicy, a speed-dating event that saw five minutes with each person followed by a throwing of fruit to celebrate your new link with someone. The event was partly a joke in conception but its relevance appealed to Macree: ‘The idea of speed dating is basically anti allotment’ in this ‘slow and beaucolic setting’ speed-dating must become less speedy to imitate its surroundings. I must say this speed-dating doubter rather agreed as it turned out as ‘speed-friending’ with fruit. Much more civilized and way more fun.
It was a publishing friend of Mick Rand’s who told him, ‘write me a book about allotments and we’ll clean up, it’ll be like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch’. ‘We didn’t clean up’ said Mick with an amused grin, but I can certainly see what the friend was driving at, the slow and measured pace of this space is an attractive prospect. Though not an obvious setting for an exhibition it is entirely fitting for these series of works, which have grown up entwined wit allotment ideas and philosophy. In people terms, Bill and Charlie who Mick describes as old school ‘working class allotment stock’ in comparison to the work that stands on their plot: Jonathan Trayte’s ‘Monument’. First impressions were guarded, they would have ‘preferred the Venus de Milo.’ Of late however, they have been heard asking how long they can keep the artwork around. Mick sums it up perfectly ‘the juxtaposition is really fantastic, art amidst cabbages and spuds, everyone is invited to make what they will with that’.
Artists involved in Closer To The Veg: Matt Ager, Pavel Braila, Bompas & Parr, Ben Cain, Sol Calero, Lucy Evetts, Dmitri Galitzine, Alexander Glass, Pil & Galia Kollectiv, Zoe Marden, Jonathan McCree, Andrew Mealor, Paloma Proudfoot, Hermione Spriggs and Jonathan Trayte
Written by Beatrice Hasell-McCosh (www.beatricehasellmccosh.com) for Arteviste.com