Though this weekend marked the close of Los Angeles’ inaugural CURRENT:LA public art biennial, one of its projects is just getting started.
Mel Chin’s “The Tie that Binds” is a collaborative work of land art that has brought water-saving gardens into public spaces and private yards across L.A. It works like this: participants are given blueprints of gardens made up of native California species that require little or no watering, which they can then recreate in their own yard. Taken together, those blueprints are all part of a larger pattern – more on that below.
Chin said that “The Tie that Binds” was born out of his desire to bridge two “adversarial notions,” as he described them: public vs. private, and temporary vs. permanent art.
“That’s the big ticket,” Chin said. “That you create a project that could be owned collectively.”
There are more than 500 garden blueprints available; only a small handful were installed as part of CURRENT:LA. These initial plots are called “mirror gardens” because they mimic demo gardens that were installed within the Bowtie Project, an 18-acre lot along the LA River, and a former rail yard that the State Parks Department aims to revitalize as a public park and greenway. The Bowtie Project served as the “base of operations” for “The Tie that Binds.”
Mirror gardens were planted in public spaces including Occidental College and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as private homes in Brentwood, South Central, and Boyle Heights, according to Chin. Moving forward from CURRENT:LA, which ran July 16 to August 14, Chin said he is hoping for the rest of the 500+ blueprinted gardens to be installed throughout the city.
I was curious about the people who signed up for the initial mirror gardens. Who were they? What did they have in common? Chin said that so far, they’ve come to the project with varied vantage points.
Both the participants from Brentwood and South L.A. wanted to “go native” with their yard plants to use less water. He said these two happened to come from “totally different economic realities but they both own a mirror of the future.” One woman initially wanted to place the garden in a lawn she had inherited from her mother. Another just wanted good plants to manage in their arid environment.
During the first phase of the project funded through CURRENT:LA, the mirror gardens were implemented at no cost to participants, according to Chin. But as “The Tie that Binds” moves forward, it will require support from individual participants – the blueprints are free, but installing and maintaining the gardens is not. Chin indicated that he’s wary of the cost and that the gardens can be installed over time. He added, “we calculated if someone was doing the California minimum wage it worked.”
He said he has also been working on setting up a credit with the L.A. Department of Water and Power for people who install the gardens, and wants to look into fundraising to help participants who need it.
Chin added that even though the land art is in part privately owned, there should be a shared public benefit that grows with every new garden: conserved water.
“If we’re all part of this, then what are we getting out of this in a public realm is millions of gallons per year of water [saved],” Chin said.
As for bridging the divide between temporary and permanent art, Chin isn’t just focused on the fact that these gardens will continue to grow past the biennial. They’re also tied to the future of the Bowtie Project.
If they were stitched together, Chin explained, all the gardens that participants are putting in their own spaces would create a “sweeping pattern” that could fit over the Bowtie Project lot. It’s a vision of what this space could ultimately become, shared by people and institutions across the city.
With the biennial over, the project is taking a breather for the moment because it’s not a great time to be planting, Chin said. Installations should gear up again in the fall and spring.
For any L.A.-based readers curious about picking up a garden, you can read more about the project here.