‘Lost and regained, the garden as refuge thanks to visual art’

Are the people there for the garden – gardening, weeding and trimming, guarding and guiding growth and flourishing? Or, Theo Tegelaers suggests, could it be the other way around: ‘Is the garden there for the people?’ Because: ‘who is helping whom here? The garden is a haven for volunteers. It runs in the dozens. These are people who sometimes find it harder to keep going in the world outside. They take care of the garden; the garden offers them a retreat. That works both ways. Since last year, the garden has also been opened up by visual art, resulting in a new group of visitors. Hortus Haren botanical garden remains a place where you can get absorbed in nature, but it becomes increasingly a location for art, design and social debate as well.’

Haren has by far the biggest botanical garden of the Netherlands. It is also the oldest, with a history going back to the 17th century. Pharmacist Henricus Munting fetched the first plants and herbs from distant lands. The University of Groningen did ecological research there. Ever since Hortus Haren botanical garden fell into disuse in 1980, the garden was considered ‘a cost item’. Tegelaers: ‘The huge tropical greenhouses were impossible to heat up any longer. They were demolished, unfortunately. But with the help of former professors and other staff members, the gardens are revitalized. There is now much to discover about our own cultural landscape. Thanks in part to visual art.’

‘The art gives the garden a new future’

For Hortus Haren, that is an unfamiliar adventure. That is why TAAK was called in: a placement agency with experience in complex art assignments. The Mondriaan Fund contributes to the development and realization of the project, while TAAK functions as curator and coordinator of the Verloren en Hervonden (Lost and Regained) art programme. Theo Tegelaers is the spokesman. ‘It is now a question of making the societal function of the garden visible again. For the preservation of the botanical garden and the transition to a contemporary public, the grant from the Mondriaan Fund is of overriding importance. The art gives the garden a new future.’

Gabriel Lester, De Rimpeling, 2017. Foto: TAAK

‘De Rimpeling connects the old Hortus with the Hondsrug, cultural heritage with contemporary art.’

In 2017, Hortus Haren celebrated its 375th birthday and started the process of rejuvenation, with art in the leading role. Sculptor and filmmaker Gabriël Lester, originating from the far north himself, designed a concentric bridge, with curved walls that are partly open and partly closed, like a revolving door alternately opening and closing panoramic views of the garden. In the floor, round eyeholes offer a view of the water under the bridge. De Rimpeling (The Rippling), as the artwork is called, recalls the widening of ripples in the water.

‘It is a look-out in which you can play with the notions of inside and outside,’ Tegelaers explains, ‘a figure that literally bridges the botanical garden and its surrounding landscape. Various theme gardens are maintained here, and we have recently had the addition of the new Hondsrugtuin (Hondsrug garden) by landscape architect Jan Maas, connecting with the Northern Dutch landscape. The beginning of the Hondsrug (a ridge of sand located in the provinces of Drenthe and Groningen) borders on the Hortus, at the border of Groningen and Drenthe. De Rimpeling connects the old Hortus with the Hondsrug, cultural heritage with contemporary art.’

It is one of the permanent artworks that will grow together with the garden. Lurking elsewhere is the Hortus Hermitage sculpture that Sjaak Langenberg & Rosé de Beer made in cooperation with Refunc: a hermit’s dwelling in a converted food silo. Things from the demolished greenhouse find a new use here; antique nameplates of plants and trees adorn the wall. It is a fully equipped accommodation, with bed, desk, and its own little kitchen. A skylight above the bed offers a view of the stars: ‘In the Hortus it still gets pitch-dark.’

Tegelaers: ‘Philosophers and writers have already inaugurated the guest accommodation. Whoever wants to can temporarily retreat there as a hermit; a recluse. At nightfall, the visitors and volunteers leave, and the hermitage is free of all commotion. During the day, you mainly live outside and participate in the garden’s maintenance. The reciprocity is completely reflected in this: the visitor contributes to the garden; the garden gives back space for peace and contemplation.’