Commercial cut flowers, wagons, buckets
Commissioned by Bloomberg Space, London, 2007
The Land of Cockaigne was a medieval utopia where peasants no longer toiled for survival or filled the coffers of the feudal lords, but were unreservedly lavished with fantastical plenitude. As with most oral traditions descriptions of Cockaigne vary in detail, with such wonders as cheeses or buttered larks falling from the sky and roasted pigs wandering about with carving knives at the ready in their backs. In general, though, living conditions were comfortable, the weather forever clement, the architecture edible, the wine free flowing and sex readily available, while its inhabitants also benefited from a fountain of youth and the possibility of earning while they slept. In short, the myth of Cockaigne expressed a desire for abundant luxury in place of the drudgery and horror of medieval reality.
At first, then, Heather and Ivan Morison’s The Land of Cockaigne might appear to be just such a deluge of enjoyable stimuli. With its profusion of colour, blending of smells and bracing chill of the unheated gallery, with the doors unseasonably left open, the installation seems to convey a sensualist’s gesture of largesse. In addition to the immersive experience of wandering between the rows of trolleys to appreciate the underlying layers of buckets, stalks and flower heads, the viewing platform proffers a more removed, optical encounter, a vantage point from which to take in the painterly dazzle of the uppermost layer of blooms. Rather like the Enlightenment impulse to tame the chaos of the medieval universe in charts, maps and other representations of instrumentalised space, the platform affords us a view of the installation as gridded blocks of colour, organised by the trolleys out of what might otherwise be a riot of the senses.
In a previous work by the Morisons, I lost her near Fantasy Island. Life has not been the same. (2006), huge swathes of flowers were arranged as if they had tumbled from an articulated lorry ranged across the road, jack-knifed with half its tyres deflated. Whereas The Land of Cockaigne recalls the painterly grids of Paul Klee, the truck in Fantasy Island conjures the blank rectilinear masses of Minimalism: how impish, then, that the machinery of haulage and the pinnacle of macho 20th-century art should rupture and spew forth such decorative and supposedly feminine contents. Sited in a public causeway in Bristol, the tableau appeared to relate the story of a subtle accident and the subsequent graceful derangement of the lorry’s cargo, which was followed, at five o’clock when the surrounding offices started to close up, by the flurry of workers and passers-by gathering polite posies or greedy armfuls of flowers at the end of the working day, effectively drawing a collective epilogue from anonymous incident.
Whereas the site of Fantasy Island was well away from the rationalising space of the gallery, encouraging fantastical projections from those that encountered it, the installation at Bloomberg SPACE allows for no such credulity. Although the trolleys represent real-world paraphernalia to corroborate a possible back-story, no one is likely to believe this is anything other than an artwork. It may be the three-dimensional equivalent of a still life or a portrait of an industry, but, just as we no longer shriek in cinemas if a train appears to steam towards us, so we are unlikely to believe that a real Dutch flower auction has been transported into the gallery. In contrast to Fantasy Island, The Land of Cockaigne is less a straightforward fiction and more an investigation into the dynamics set in motion when the real world is simulated in the gallery and the visitor invited to interact. Part of the intrigue lies in our hesitancy, or otherwise, to overcome the do-not-touch tradition of art to claim our free flowers.
Far from a social democracy based on solidarity and the common cause, the medieval notion of Cockaigne was an isolationist’s proposition, where the individual was unconditionally rewarded with something for nothing – at best a model that rouses suspicion these days. Consequently, the title The Land of Cockaigne signals a double edge to what might otherwise be perceived as a light, bright pastoral piece of relational art. A gallery full of flowers may on the one hand be a spectacular display, and their free distribution to the general public an exercise in munificence, but there are a number of submerged barbs that prevent the piece from slipping down quite so easily. Firstly, there is the thorny issue of intensive horticulture, where the artificial stimulation of nature raises all manner of ecological and ethical issues. Secondly, there is the act of giving away the flowers at the end of the exhibition, which, if we take recent episodes at Primark and Ikea as precursors, might more readily end in a tawdry display of greed than universal bonhomie. With regards to the first environmental issue, The Land of Cockaigne might be read in contradictory ways. You may decide that the artists have simply been irresponsible in importing some 150,000 flowers, as this simply perpetuates an industry that not only contributes to global warming but also advances the oppression of the natural world by human desire through technology. Or, on the other hand, you might figure that the Morisons are practising political homeopathy, confronting us with eye-opening evidence of cut-flower hot housing in the hope that we will boycott this particularly rapacious seam of commerce in the future. Even in the context of the Morison’s work at their allotment or arboretum or with rose cultivators of Ecuador, though, it doesn’t quite become clear which of these is their true motivation.
In the lineage of participatory artworks The Land of Cockaigne performs a similar jester’s two-step. Rather than the often patronising processes of socialisation and pedagogical militancy we might expect from relational works, such as enforced discussion or consciousness raising, the participation inevitably spurred here will be the display of acquisitiveness – hardly a model for living harmoniously together in the everyday, as is often claimed for these sorts of artworks. Just as in 18th-century Naples, when the themes of Cockaigne were adopted for festivals and feast days and, on a signal from the king, large edible arches were dismantled and devoured by its citizens and watched by privileged members of the court above, the platform at Bloomberg SPACE might provide an uncomfortable moral high ground from which to view the unfolding spectacle.
Besides a potentially dodgy display of human foibles, the free circulation of flowers also points up an interesting economic phenomenon. The act of giving, contrary to its apparent selflessness, in fact perpetuates a cycle of exchange that is comparable to that of the marketplace, as every gift is inevitably reciprocated in some way. The return gift may be of equal or equivalent value, in the form of favours, the promise of a future gift, displays of gratitude or an abstract sense of obligation; or it could exceed the preceding gift in value and set up an escalating model. Rather than making redundant Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which stealthily marries the individual’s self-interest with the good of the whole community at some hidden, innate level, the public drama and ritualism surrounding gift giving make it desirably visible. In fact if a free anonymous donation were made it would signal the donor’s refusal to enter into a reciprocal relationship of exchange, which, as the mythology of Cockaigne demonstrates, does not enhance solidarity. Far from maintaining anonymity, though, the Morisons anticipate a different return from their generosity: esteem. So, as you help yourself to the flowers, perhaps with a mind to arrange a generous spray in a vase at home or offer a bunch to a friend or lover, think not only of the immediate visual pleasure or satisfaction of future favours you will gain, but ponder the cunning self-interrogative mechanisms set up by the Morisons – because, of course, you owe it to them.
Sally O’Reilly, The Land of Cockaigne, exh. text, Bloomberg Space, 2008
Photos: Wig Worland and Peter Abrahams