Perhaps it was because I had travelled so far, just to walk alone in these gardens. Something felt unreal. Walking through Stowe felt like wandering the dreamscape of an 18th century gentleman, dizzy on Spenser, mythology and war. A little too interested in his ‘path of vice’. A little too pleased with his conceit that the ‘Temple of Modern Virtue’ should be a ruin.
The bizarre arrangements of temples, follies and monuments created constellations whose meanings I suspected invoked colonial power, misogyny and neoclassical enthusiasm, but whose codes I did not know.
The effect was heightened by the rather over-freighted installation, Demons Land: A Poem Come True, which played with the garden’s references to Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The artwork was presented within its own fictional frame, supposedly curated by a contemporary woman, Ola, who finds the work of ‘The Collector’ in her grandmother’s attic in Tasmania, and pieces together his tale of a failed utopia that is at once pre-history, prediction and an updated response to Spenser’s poem. There was a film of Ola in the Parlour Rooms, and here and elsewhere lurid paintings and curious lumpy figures splattered with blood interrupted the golden stone and lush green. There was a soundscape in the grotto, of echoing voices.
The many-layered narrative of failed utopias is intended to resonate not only with Spenser’s poetry, but with his genocidal writings about Ireland and, in parallel, the power bases that a garden like Stowe represents. This siting implicitly references 18th century imperialism, the military might and patriotic aggression that is celebrated in Stowe’s inscriptions to nation and its heroes. It could also evoke the violence of enclosure, the enormous private wealth that shrugged off three villages to make a deer park.
In the Parlour Rooms, there were more explicit references to narratives of seduction and sexual violence, including the scandal of the Vicar Conway Rand, who pursued a woman he spied on a swing in Stowe gardens and cornered her in ‘Dido’s Cave’, a small stone building with an arched opening, then sited at the top of an amphitheatre. Gilbert West’s 1732 poem, Stowe, The Gardens of the Right Honourable Richard Lord Viscount Cobham, Address’d to Mr. Pope ironically presents Rand as a modern day Aeneas in pursuit of Dido. ‘Dido’s Cave’ was henceforth termed ‘the Randibus’ since there’s nothing so funny as sexual assault. That this may not have been an isolated event is suggested by the former presence of a ‘pleasuring sofa’ in Stowe’s ‘Temple of Venus’, looking up (at that time) to paintings which John Wesley later condemned as ‘lewd’.
In fact, though the emotional undercurrent is evident, it feels impossible to grasp the florid complexity of the installation’s overlapping narratives, narratives within narratives… red knights and bloody bodices, submerging torrents and rioting crowds. Nevertheless, it heightens the hallucinatory effect of the landscape, the overload of emblems and symbols amid its eerie green spaces.
What do the non-humans make of all this, I wonder? The gardens are largely unpopulated this afternoon, a weekday, and rather a grey one. The weather is muggy, but it rains lightly at intervals. I can hear the wind rushing in the trees and sometimes water, or raindrops pattering the lake. A blackbird in a tree next to the hermitage sings at length. There are swans on the lake, and a flock of Canada geese on the banks of the river, in the Elysian fields. I see a squirrel on the grass, and a hawk curves across the sky above the monument to Cobham, not looking down, or not looking down at it.
It is lonely, and almost sinister walking through this ornamented park. A theme park is only money-focused and banal, in comparison to the Grotto’s madness – a dim, rocky cavern at the top of a waterfall, inhabited by statues, more installation bodies, an old mirror, poetry and a pretend heron. The heads of the worthies, only one woman (Elizabeth I), put me in my place. I know there was a painted, theatrical ship positioned on this lake. Looking out across the water lilies towards the pavilions on the opposite shore, and the archway beyond, it seems indeed a stage, one with backstage areas as treacherous and unexpected as the unconscious itself.
Demons Land: A Poem Come True, is a collaborative art project inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, involving writer, Simon Palfrey; painter, Tom de Freston; film by Mark Jones; sound design by Luke Lewis; and performance by Stephanie Greer. It is supported by Torch and AHRC, and by Stowe Gardens team of volunteers. It runs to July 16th, 2017.