Questions of beauty, mystery, order and chaos abound in Australian artist Bill Henson’s garden. As well as being an internationally renowned photographer, Bill is also a passionate gardener. His home and photography studio are embraced by a lush and layered wilderness. It’s hard to know where the garden begins and ends, and that’s the way Bill likes it.
Bill Henson was a surprise. I had been told he had a good garden, but I had no idea of the depth of his obsession. I presumed art had a controlling hand over Bill’s heart, but I was wrong. He’s a very serious garden maker, garden lover and garden thinker. ‘Gardens, books and art are the three fixed points with which I move the world. They’re the trifecta.’
Bill’s garden is an entire universe. It’s an incredibly atmospheric space, imbued with a sense of mystery and beauty only he could create. Walls are invisible, movement in neighbouring buildings can be heard but not seen, and the sky is framed by a tumble of tree canopies. Pepper trees (Schinus molle), Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis), figs, cypress trees and cordylines wriggle and shove, elbowing their way towards the light. Layers of underplanting fill the space, dripping down walls and climbing up tree trunks.
This garden is a wild and beautiful expression of Bill’s creative process – making, meandering and questioning. ‘Gardening is finding a form outside your body through which to articulate things which ultimately you don’t fully understand.’
‘You find out what things are about through trying to make them, create them. That’s how I am with my photographs. I’m never quite sure what it’s going to look like. You apply yourself intellectually, but it’s the process of trying to make the picture, or the garden, that leads you to understanding what it’s about.’
Bill is not just a gardener of the mind – he is as physical as he is cerebral. In 2006, he bought the mechanic’s workshop and carpark that was next to his warehouse home. He excavated the carpark and ordered sixty tonnes of Coldstream stone, which he used to build the tall, dry-stone retaining walls that are now almost completely hidden by foliage. ‘It took me a couple of weeks,’ he says, very casually. ‘Fitting rocks together is exciting. I could do it all day.’
The walls frame a sea of gravel that runs the length of the space. It’s the void to the garden’s mass, the order to nature’s exuberance. Bill rakes the gravel every morning. ‘In a way, the gravel is the known world. And then you climb up into the rocks and you find the wildness. For me, that tug between human control and nature constantly reclaiming the landscape is what I like. I’ve never found pure wilderness very interesting. Walking through Tasmania or the South Island of New Zealand is very beautiful but not actually interesting to me. But coming across a pair of old stone gates in an overgrown landscape on the outskirts of Rome, that’s kinda sexy.’
I find wilderness endlessly interesting, but I get his point. There’s something about the tension between order and chaos – the contrast of form and wildness in a landscape – that creates an attraction like no other. The beauty of Bill’s wild planting is made more pronounced, more dramatic and more mysterious by being constrained by walls, boundaries and gravel. ‘My ideal garden tends towards wilderness. You have the known world, which in my case is the gravel, and then it heads off into the hinterland, where you’re not sure where it begins or ends. Magic, mystery, darkness. That’s what animates the speculative capacity in people. It forces them to think.’
For Bill, gardening is a drug. It’s a form of meditation and ‘one of the most ancient and greatest pathways into contemplation’. Sometimes he’ll head down in the morning to rake the gravel or water his endless collection of pots and he won’t return for four hours. Constructive manual labour is important to him. He waters all his plants by hand every day (many of which are trees in huge terracotta pots), offhandedly mentioning how he can wrangle nearly any sized pot and plant with a crowbar ‘like the Egyptians’, and tells me about installing bird’s nest ferns (Asplenium australasicum) in the tops of the trees. ‘It’s a bit precarious.’
Many of the plants in Bill’s garden have been rescued. ‘I can’t stand the disappearance of the city’s gardens. Every time they pull down an old house they bulldoze the garden. It’s destroying the city. There are so many things that could be saved.’ So Bill saves them. He has rescued accidentally bonsaied radiata pines (Pinus radiata) that were growing in tin cans in a run-down nursery, an old cypress from a building site, and more. He tells me about a recent mission to a nursery he’d visited as a child. ‘When they bulldozed it, I went out with my friend who has a digger and a truck and saved a whole bunch of ferns. They would be hundreds of years old.’
There’s always room for more plants in Bill’s unruly garden. ‘A big, overgrown garden in the middle of the city is the ultimate luxury.’ He likes the country, but there’s something about the containment and humanity of the city that appeals to him. It’s like he needs structure to push against.
For Bill, gardening and making art are one and the same. He has committed himself fully – mind and body – to both. Both are acts of construction. Both are about creating mood and stimulating emotion. Both are about using beauty as a tool for discovery and speculation.
‘The best experience you can have with art is to go away with more questions than you came with, even though everything today is about certainty and exactitude and measuring. To encounter the great untidiness in good art is like going into a garden where you can’t see the beginning or the end of the space.’
Bill Henson’s garden, then, is the work of a great artist.
‘The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants’ by Georgina Reid with photography by Daniel Shipp is published by Thames & Hudson. Released tomorrow October 30th, it is now available for pre-order online.