Art as living garden, illegal occupation and vox populi is still a rare combination, but in 1978 in Wellington, New Zealand, it was an eye-opener. With the help of friends, Barry Thomas trucked topsoil and cut fence onto a private vacant site without permission, and planted 180 cabbage seedlings in the shape of the word CABBAGE. The artwork lasted for 6 months and contributed to the psyche of the city.
Rosslyn Noonan, former Wellington City Councillor and Chief Human Rights Commissioner (NZ), said, “The cabbage patch … always seemed to me to reflect a special Wellington spirit which grew over the next few years and contributed to make Wellington the liveable, human city it became”.
For the two and a half years before the intervention, the site had been vacant and unkempt. People had become increasingly angry that its owners could not manage to care for their land. The world’s first Green party – the Values Party – even drew up plans for a public park on the site.
Once he had planted the 180 cabbage seedlings, Thomas commented to the media: “Whether they [the public] just leave them, steal them or run them over with motorbikes, it’s part of the art because it’s a reflection of our culture … It’s a unification of nature with the culture of our society”.
Over the ensuing weeks, the public moved in. The cabbage patch site was augmented with couches, a gravestone, a toilet, a bed, and a television. Joe Bleakley plugged a mainframe computer into the cabbages. George Rose spent over two hours up a ladder bolting a monocycle to the adjoining wall. Two chemists from Victoria University tested the growing cabbages for lead content, and pronounced them “fit to eat”.
The Council and the site’s owner then decided to clear the site, but they left the monocycle and the original cabbage patch. People continued to water the cabbages – the local butcher loaned a hose – and the site became known locally as the ‘soapbox art corner’.
An example of the many acts of public expression in the soapbox art corner was the temporary installation of an over sized papier-mâché pink pig emblazoned with the words “Media, media expose the pig. Time to stop dancing to his jig”. The pig was made by a Wellington women’s group (WONAC) headed by Helen Wilson, and represented the right-wing Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.
Finally, Barry Thomas partnered with landscape architect Bryan MacDonald, who gained some funding from the Commission for the Environment to help pay for a last, week-long festival on the site. For this event, called The Last Roxy Show, architect Ian Athfield designed a cottage on wheels (built by Barrie McKintyre) to promote native forest restoration. There was a ‘Free Coleslaw Party’. Performances included pop-up theatre by the Red Mole Theatre Troupe and readings by poets Ian Wedde, Sam Hunt and Lauris Edmond and installations by Chris Lipscombe and Gaylene Preston.. As part of now-famed actor Sam Neill’s documentary film of the festival, Thomas, dressed in a cassock with face painted half black, half white, ceremonially harvested the cabbages and burned them in a symbolic ‘phoenix’ gesture.
The site later became a shopping arcade called Duke’s Arcade. In late 2012, noting the value of the work and its legacy to Wellington’s and New Zealand’s art and social history, New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa Tongarewa acquired Thomas’s archive of Vacant Lot of Cabbages for its permanent collection. Curator Sarah Farrar described it as “an important moment in New Zealand’s art and social history”.
The project aimed to question the relationship between land ‘owners’ and the local democratic Council as to who could or should be involved in deciding how our city landscape is determined. If land is to be left or declared ‘vacant’, should there be better methods, protocols and practices to ensure public bodies have a greater say in how such land could and should be cared for, respected, utilised and enjoyed?
Property rights are possibly the most sacrosanct item of law especially in western culture. Here a work of art – without any permission from Council or the landowner, sought to challenge and question this sanctioning. We asked: “Who can shape the environment? Who can grow food? Where, when and how can that happen? How can individuals have a say in these issues? Why is there not public space in every city that generously opens the door to public activation, debate, expression through the physical and other performative arts? — Why doesn’t every city have a permanent soapbox art corner?”
More specifically, the artist aimed to stimulate debate and action at the time about what art is. Vacant Lot of Cabbages provided a place, vehicle and medium for people to be heard. Thomas acted temporarily and voluntarily to act as a community leader by lancing something of a sore in the central business district of New Zealand’s capital. Vacant Lot of Cabbages opened a floodgate of expression and creativity, around issues relating to land and citizen control. The Last Roxy Show deliberately aimed to shift public consciousness from the usury notion of land tenure and the tarmac mentality of the skyscraper city to reintroduce notions of wholesomeness, self-sufficiency, natural and provident earth, and food production on a small local scale – even in the centre of town.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Vacant Lot of Cabbages is recognised by its inclusion in the collection of the country’s foremost cultural institution Te Papa Tongarewa – Museum of New Zealand; in the country’s online encyclopaedia Te Ara; and in the edited art book Wellington: A City for Sculpture from Victoria University Press (2008). Arguably no other NZ art project has resulted in such a large body of media documentation being collected by the Te Papa Museum.
The notion of art ‘intervening’ in disused space is now the central tenet of Wellington’s ‘Letting Space’ group, which runs a liaison programme between landowners and artists called Urban Dream Brokerage. The programme helps artists to cheaply use otherwise unlettable space to stimulate economic and cultural activity.
Vacant Lot of Cabbages challenged the rule of law directly, offering a way forward through artistic creativity and political and media debate – a lead on how creativity itself could be seen as a part of the identity of the city.
Some anecdotes might best display the social dimensions of the project’s ‘results’.
In the first, artist Barry Thomas met a working class man in his fifties from the Hutt Valley, who recognised Thomas via his publicised role in Vacant Lot of Cabbages. The man approached Thomas and said, “Good on ya mate! You just keep sticking it to them mate! Stick it right up them!” and other words to that effect. Thomas says: “What this meant to me was that this man saw the project as a direct confrontation, taking on an issue between a poor working class and the powerful oligarchy. He saw me as a revolutionary, an activator and a leader and he wanted more of it. He saw the cabbage patch as a place for and a sanctioning of a true Vox Populi – a voice for the people – that, in his mind, was obviously repressed. As such he was also saying – it frees us, gives us a voice.”
The second incident might possibly have happened many times, but it has been reported to the artist that at least one bus passenger, on a bus travelling past the cabbage patch, “started laughing… and didn’t stop till it had reached the railway station” (some 2 kilometres away). Says Thomas: “For me this meant that the cabbage patch acted as a dig in the ribs of the powers that be – that people on those buses felt somehow obliged to join together in a beautiful harmony of chortles, laughter and mirth… such a wonderfully positive outcome and value. Who’d have thought planting cabbages could make them laugh? In this, the piece acted as theatre, as comedy and as such a truly democratically unifying audience maker. Without any of the usual institutional signifiers of comedy – a stage, a comic, a joke, etc. – it somehow triggered an almost convulsive and automatic response – truly inspirational in itself.”
Thomas was also once told (but still has not found a hard trail of evidence for) a story that Vacant Lot of Cabbages directly prompted changes in city bylaws for how long demolished buildings may lie vacant without any adornment, fencing, etc. – so that in seeking a new demolition order, applicants now have to demonstrate how they will care for the site if it is left vacant.
In his MA thesis, Henry Davidson cites Vacant Lot of Cabbages as the antecedent to a large number of what he calls “event specific” arts initiatives across the nation.
“When I was growing up everyone had a home vege garden… this was normal. Now the re-spreading of this meme is a wonderful way for schools, communities and neighbourhoods to engage with one another, self sustain and be active in a pursuit that symbolises growth itself. For me the notion of taking the readymades back into the real world – in the instance of the Cabbage Patch – has delivered a new way of seeing art itself, giving it a new dimension and adding value into things like the humble vege garden, in part we can now see the real world afresh through artists’ eyes […]
I suspect that if more people are growing more food in every western city there will be a better quality of relations between its citizens, more trust, less theft, more collaboration and a greater sense of belonging… and a healthier, more respectful relationship between nature and culture. [...]
I know of many instances where disaffected youth are now finding personal and collective value in getting their hands dirty, learning horticulture and growing food. Groups like Kai o Te Aro have actively sought out such youth to re-engage back into society. The Aro Valley Community council (of which Thomas was a councillor for five years) likewise established community gardens and engaged current inmates of local prisons and convicted people doing ‘community service’ to assist develop gardens in the Aro Valley.”
At the time of the cabbage planting, Wellington was perceived by many people as a drab, grey, bureaucratic Victorian environment. According to artist Barry Thomas, Mayor Michael Fowler (an architect) wanted renewal, and was systematically demolishing much of the aging built environment. Previous buildings on the now vacant art site had been The Duke of Edinburgh Hotel and the continuous cinema The Roxy. The Duke had been the watering hole of left wing radicals and intellectuals, and its demolition was something of a catalyst for dissent, which was exacerbated by the length of time it took for the owner (and Council) to rebuild. It was seen as a slap in the face of a culture that loved that pub, as a stimulating community including the likes of film-makers Geoff Murphy and Bruno Lawrence (of Blerta fame), and politicians Tony Brunt and Norman Smith from the world’s first Green Party.
The intervention of the Vacant Lot of Cabbages art action was taken up by this community, and a wider urban ‘dispossessed’ community, as a trigger to action. At worst, the landowner and Council had a version of popular revolution on their hands. They moved in to clear the site, but chose –generously and wisely – to leave the cabbages to grow out their term. This decision gave the artwork time to cement itself into the minds of the citizenry, and allowed for other events like The Last Roxy Show to add value and meaning. The cabbage patch came socially to be read as a ‘survivor’, and a Council-sanctioned one at that.
The cabbage patch was sited centrally on the vacant site. Most of the contributing ‘interventiart’ works were placed around the site. George Rose’s pink monocycle was attached with dynabolts to the northern boundary wall approx. 4–5 metres up. During The Last Roxy Show, Wellington High School and Wellington College arts students, under artists Rob McLeod and Rob Taylor, painted large McCahonesque murals, most attesting to the value of Indigenous forests. There was other graffiti around the site promoting concerns over the (then current) occupation of Maori land in Auckland at Bastion Point.
In 1979 Vacant Lot of Cabbages directly inspired the first of a long chain of projects by Wellington City Council. Rohesia Hamilton-Metcalf, a past employee of the Council, has said, “the cabbage patch and your Artist’s co-op inspired our WCC project Summer of ’79”. Summer of ’79 grew into People in the Parks, managed by Graham Nesbit and employing hundreds of artists under the banner ‘Summer City’. Thousands of Wellingtonians have able to enjoy activities with artists in People in the Parks events since.
Since Vacant Lot of Cabbages, the entire wharf/waterfront area of Wellington has been revitalised and the city houses hundreds if not thousands of people in its CBD. Before Vacant Lot of Cabbages the city of Wellington had no central town square – now it does. Yarn bombing on city fences is now commonplace, as are community arts initiatives, and the local Council has established protocols and funding for such projects as a focus for its city arts team. Now there is an established sculptural fund for large public sculptures administered by City Council in association with the Wellington Sculpture Trust. Island Bay’s Sisters of Compassion has a hugely successful gardening initiative, Aro Valley has an organisation called Kai o Te Aro, the city has now got a large public native forest reserve (Zealandia) with populations of native bird growing year on year. Owhiro Road has a stream restoration project and community gardens, and the Council runs many gardens, such as Innermost Gardens in Mount Victoria, which combines food growing and arts practice.
While these may not be direct results of Vacant Lot of Cabbages (Zealandia could be called a direct result), directly or indirectly, there are now large numbers of community gardening initiatives across the Wellington city, and across the developed first world. When Vacant Lot of Cabbages was planted there was very little by way of this kind of environmental and socially inclusive, creative spirit. Political columnist and media presenter Chris Trotter (author’s blog & Dominion Post, 2010) declared that the work pushed back against the status quo:
“Thomas’s ‘Cabbage Patch’ – a conceptual artistic statement against the life-negating conservatism of the Muldoon years – quite literally ‘grew’ into a life-affirming (and edible) challenge to Wellington’s bureaucratic soul.”
No-one was excluded – all were welcome to contribute. Thomas deliberately involved the media and challenged the public to contribute and care.
The work issued from the artist studying Jack Burnham’s ‘The Structure of Art’ and connecting this theory with his awareness of Smithson’s land art, and some contemporary work by artists re-planting Indigenous wetlands in New York. Thomas considered planting native trees in the Old Duke vacant site, but instead chose something very familiar to the Kiwi psyche – the quarter acre home garden. As he was about to plant the first of the 180 cabbages, he made an impromptu speech where he heralded the first planting of a vege garden on that particular land since the Maori and the subsequent Pakeha settlers had lived there.
At the time, Thomas was working on various site specific projects with other artists under the collaborative title Jarl (see e.g. The Claremont Grove street directory, URL provided below). Thomas brought his cabbage planting idea to Jarl, but the group felt it wasn’t for them. After a few weeks, Thomas decided that “if it was ever to happen, it had to be my own artwork”. So he mustered the soil/truck from Thomas’ Transport in Upper Hutt, and bought the cabbage seedlings from the nearby garden shop in Manners Street.
Some constraints were that the land was privately owned, and there was a wire fence that had to be cut to allow the truck to enter and exit. Thomas also had to rise to the challenge of potential legal action being brought against him for occupying private land. Due to the framework of the art intervention he had constructed, he had to be very public – without the institutional support afforded much public art.
The key lesson that Thomas learned was a developed definition of the means, methods and purpose of such art, serving the need for delivering possibilities for genuine freedom of expression. “For me art is only leading, seeding radical new memes in the pavement cracks of culture… framing elephants in rooms.”
Justin Keen photographed the initial planting of the site, providing his own film. The artist compiled press clippings, stories and television news items evidencing, inadvertently documenting, and ultimately helping to produce the work. The artist has also written extensively on the work, some of which writing is archived with Te Papa Tongarewa – Museum of New Zealand.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
As discussed above, Thomas’s archive of Vacant Lot of Cabbages was acquired in 2012 by New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa Tongarewa. Curator Sarah Farrar described it as “an important moment in New Zealand’s art and social history”. Curator/writer Mark Amery wrote in the NZ Listener: “If you need an official marker that contemporary art’s role as a politicized community change agent is now centre stage … Te Papa’s purchase of the cabbage patch archive
could well be it. Ever greater numbers of artists are doing planting projects, increasing the public commons and collaborating with communities, industries and businesses, well beyond the confines of the gallery … This is art that deals with the complexities of life. It is a movement, I predict, that will see artists this century recognized as key public players in experimenting with the different ways society might operate.”
Vacant Lot of Cabbages has been cited as the world’s first guerrilla gardening (http://www.cityfarmer.info/2014/06/12/guerrilla-gardening-started-in-new-zealand-vacant-lot-of-cabbages). The artist claims it as the first CBD garden as art. A visiting Mayor from the USA claimed to want to “do this in all our vacant lots back home”.
In the Massey University Master of Arts in Visual and Material Culture thesis ‘Event-specific art in New Zealand: a visual culture analysis of One Day Sculpture and selected case studies’ (2011), Henry Davidson described Vacant Lot of Cabbages as an “antecedent to site specific and ‘event specific’ art”.
A new generation in New Zealand and worldwide is acting in ways that recall many of the qualities and modes of Vacant Lot of Cabbages. Specifically in Wellington, the group called Letting Space is actively institutionalising the idea of Vacant Lot of Cabbages by acting as a broker between landlords (with large amounts of unrented CBD spaces) and artists. Likewise, in post-earthquake Christchurch, many groups such as Plant Gang and Gap Filler are actively doing planting projects, often as or including art. Similarly the likes of Food is Free in Austin USA – and the whole town of Tod Morden in the UK – are taking the same ideas in the cabbage patch and growing them for their communities. There are hundreds if not thousands of these groups now worldwide.
Vacant Lot of Cabbages is listed in NZ’s online encyclopaedia Te Ara.
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Davidson, Henry William Event-specific art in New Zealand: A visual culture analysis of One Day Sculpture and selected case studies, Masters thesis, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand, 2011.
Farrar, Sarah “‘Vacant lot of cabbages’ documentation enters Te Papa’s archives”, Te Papa blog, Te Papa Tongarewa, November 2, 2012. http://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2012/11/02/vacant-lot-of-cabbages-documentation-enters-te-papas-archives/ (accessed June 11, 2015).
Hantler, Mark, Ann E Taylor and JARL Society The Claremont Grove Street Directory, Wellington: JARL, 1978.
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Powell, Selina “Te Papa buys cabbage art show mementoes”, The Dominion Post, December 29, 2012. http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/8127145/Te-Papa-buys-cabbage-art-show-mementoes (accessed June 11, 2015).
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