'Long Boat, Narrow Boat, Short-flying Boat' – so reads the cast iron plaque on the back wall of the Victoria Miro gallery in East London. Created by the artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, the inscription is an ironic reflection on man's idea of progress and a watery nod to the canal in the gallery's back yard. It's also a slice of Finlay's polemical garden Little Sparta located in the Pentland Hills, southern Scotland.
Doug Aitken, Tal R and Maria Nepomuceno – and we are standing outside in the garden for a spot of fresh air and a breather after climbing the vertiginous stairs that scale three floors.
It's a treat to visit a gallery that has a garden, and such a beautiful one at that. A unique, landscaped space on a restored stretch of the Regent's Canal at Wenlocks Basin it provides the backdrop for a revolving programme of events and exhibition pieces, but is also worthy of view in its own right.
Set at the back of the 8,000-square-foot former furniture gallery that is now occupied by Victoria Miro and the Parasol Unit, the garden is a world away from the shove and scramble of nearby City Road and its resident Macdonalds on the corner of Wharf Road. A huge birch tree hangs over the pond, water lilies drift on the surface, spiky foliage whispers of water iris that bloomed over summer. The tree is a magnificent specimen, its trunk available for inspection at the water's edge, its canopy currently invigilating Tal R's Science Fiction show on the third floor through the huge picture window. Shimmering leaves and dark rainbows of pigment and hare skin glue.
Ian Hamilton Finlay's show Definitions opened in Spring this year, two nautical works were placed in the garden: Homage to Villa d'Este (1975) – a fountain spewing aircraft carrier referencing the elaborate foundation in the Renaissance gardens of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli – and Evolution of the Boat (1995), the cast iron plaque mentioned above. Homage to Villa d'Este was placed on the pond when local water fowl were nesting on the banks of the canal; one intrepid moorhen attempted to nest on top of it, a true meeting of nature and culture that would have made Finlay proud. Not sure if the moorhen hatched any chicks while on board but hopefully they didn't get confused about which service they were in – the air force or the navy...
Other works of note that have graced the garden include Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama, a work dating back to 1966 when Kusama first participated in the 33rd Venice Biennale. Hundreds of mirrored spheres were let loose on the water in what the artist called a 'kinetic carpet'; just one of several reincarnations of the piece that have been unveiled since its first reveal at the biennale where Kusama attempted to sell off each ball for the equivalent of $2. The bienalle organisers put an end to her enterprise, allowing the artist the opportunity to critique the mechanisation and commodification of the art market at the time through her work. I didn't see Narcissus Garden when it was here, so I'll have to be content with my imagination, in which the late autumn sun has turned the spheres golden, and each is worth a small fortune.
The current outdoor exhibit is by the Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno. Entitled The Force, it spills over the decked terrace and a wooden rowing boat, a rambunctious sprawl of brightly coloured woven ropes, baubles, beads and ceramic forms. Each of the materials used is meant to represent the four elements in nature – water, fire, earth and air – and together to achieve a delicate, rhythmic equilibrium.
I'm not sure how I feel about the installation per se. It is meant to balance feminine forms and aggressiveness as it appears to drag along a boat found in its path and apparently references Yemanjá, a divinity worshipped by the Afro-Brazilian Candomlé religion, known as the Queen of the Sea. I am more swayed by the fact that the rope used requires brute force to sew by hand (a sadistic streak uncovered?) but in the end maybe I have just visited too many soft play areas recently and can't draw a line between the two. Sylvester is looking longingly at the balls and I am thinking about taking a siesta in a hammock and kind of wishing one of Doug Aitken's smashed mirror installations was swimming in the pond like a wayward MagiCam in search of a displaced moorhen...
The lasting conclusion is, more galleries should have gardens. Visit this one if you have a chance.