Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In the belly of a sunken porcelain cargo ship...

In July, on our short trip to Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden, I visited Trädgårdsföreningen, the Garden Society of Gothenburg. Just a stone's throw from the city centre, these are one of the best preserved 19th century gardens in Sweden, and seem always be full of appreciating citizens and visitors, exploring the well-preserved Palmhouse from 1878 and rambling around the many themed gardens.

Since a couple years had passed since my previous visit, I found some new additions to this well-loved park. One of them was a 'grotto' designed by art director Nina Thalinson and architect Gert Wingårdh called The Sunken Garden. Nina and Gert had been inspired both by classical English sunken gardens and the Swedish East Indiaman Götheborg, that sank in 1745 only 900 meters from its home harbour in Gothenburg while approaching it after a 30-month trip to China.

Constructed like a stylized ship, visitors walk into this garden like into a cave, shaded by a vegetative laser-cut steel roof hang on steel beams and surrounded by dark-coloured concrete walls. An abundant, romantic planting in green, white, pink and burgundy tones - always a safe and stylish combination -  flows over the walls, offering a soft contrast to the no-nonsense, industrial materials. Everything was, as expected, well-designed, modern and even trendy.  But what I especially liked, was a 12-meter long waterfall wall that ran along one of the sides. Like a giant mosaic, this wall was covered with delicately painted blue and white Chinese porcelain fragments, excavated and rescued from the sunken remains of the original ship after spending over 250 years in the cold waters of the Nordic sea.

Looking at all these porcelain pieces, once exclusive and elaborately painted dishes made by Chinese artisans and then carried across the seas by Swedish merchants, immediately tickled my imagination. They made me think about the skilled hands painting them, knowing nothing of the countries where the results of their work would be sent; about the long and dangerous voyage through the seas; and about the people who waited for the ship with its precious cargo for 30 months, only to see it sink in front of their eyes. How maddeningly disappointing it must have been, even if no lives were lost. Gazing at those glistening blue and white pieces, once again covered with water, made the sunken garden feel like a great memento for all the work and effort - however commercial in its original nature - that went wasted. At the same time, it felt stragely comforting, reminding me that luckily, the little disappointments of my fast, modern life seldom are at the same scale. Which I think is not a bad achievement for any garden, and especially not for a small, imaginative one.


James Golden said...

This kind of "memorial" garden has a strong appeal to me, perhaps because the cemetery in my town was my first experience of "garden" and seems to have permanently given me a penchant for melancholy places.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Melancholy places do catch my imagination, I enjoy the stories they tell, or make me create. Here, I really loved studying the tiny fragments painted with botanical motives, so fragile and old, against the modern surroundings. A beautiful little place to visit.