Contemporary artists often return to the garden as a source of inspiration. Martin Parr photographed 80 German harvesters alongside still life shots of the produce they’d grown in his 2019 series Kleingärtner (Allotment Gardeners). Two years later, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg began her series, Pollinator Pathmaker (2021-present). It’s a project that consists of physical and virtual green spaces designed to appeal to insects rather than humans. Now, British photographer Siân Davey presents her approach to this time-honoured theme. Her ongoing series, The Garden (2023), is on display in the Soho Photography Quarter and invites passersby into a tranquil space of defiance, joy and interconnectedness.
Davey’s work explores the psychological landscapes within herself, her family and the wider community. The Devon-based creative was a psychotherapist for 15 years before beginning her work behind the camera in 2014. In an interview with Photoworks, she describes the impact this background has had on her practice. The artist states: “I cultivated a strong degree of receptivity, being able to sense and harness what is going on in both the subject and myself, in any moment. Psychotherapy is a profoundly intimate process, as is portrait photography – both are essentially a dance between subject and object.”
The Garden gives equal importance to the setting and the people who tend to and inhabit the space. The series began as suggestion from Davey’s son, Luke, who asked: “Why don’t we fill our back garden with wildflowers and bees, and the people we meet over the garden wall – we’ll invite them in to be photographed by you.” He described the patch of earth behind their home, which had been neglected for almost ten years. In 2020, the pair worked together to imbue it with new life. Locally sourced plants were an important consideration so they devoted time into researching seeds – such as mullein, meadowsweet and wild carrot – that were not only beautiful but worked in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem. They also filled the garden with their dreams, insights and visions so that they would grow too.
When the flowers bloomed, they invited members from the community to share the space. A profusion of bright wildflowers are the constant that ties these images together. Lush greenery appears flecked with red, blue, orange, pink and white. It’s a reminder that humans aren’t the only living presence here. When we see people, they are nestled within the setting. Some lie amongst the flowers or relax on scattered sofas and armchairs. We see one woman asleep on the ground. A blanket of petals overwhelm the composition so that she occupies only a small part of the scene. Elsewhere, there is an older man reclined on a chair. His eyes are shut too. Out of focus in the distance, a woman sits on a bench. Davey welcomes us into this tranquil world. She told Claire Armitstead from The Guardian that the project is: “a philosophical inquiry: the culmination of everything I’ve understood about being human. It’s really touching when people step into the space because it’s democratic and free from judgment, and we’re all in it together.”
Cultivated landscapes has been rooted in cultures throughout human history. Vitra Design Museum’s 2023 Garden Futures show explored their past, present and future with work from a wide variety of artists, architects and designers. Each artistic interpretation brings something new, building on our associations with the motif. For Davey, it’s not just about basking in beauty. It’s a space that can reflect our emotional states, whether we are caring for, wandering through and just viewing the garden.
Soho Photography Quarter, Siân Davey: The Garden | Until 29 November 2024
Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh
Siân Davey, The Garden (2020-2023) © Siân Davey