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Gone to waste

We dismiss them as weeds but they have a powerful presence which we could exploit

Most architects will be familiar with the buddleia plant. Its lanky habit and conical purple blossoms are a common sight on derelict land across Britain. But these avid colonisers of leftover space, which proliferate and bloom at the margins of our attention, are in fact of exotic origin: they are from the borderlands of Tibet and China where, as the French missionaries who introduced them to Europe remarked, they are the favourite shelter of tigers.

Can landscape architects, gardeners, and urban practitioners reclaim such exoticism from the midst of the commonplace? Can they realise the potential of such vegetal presences and the spaces where they are found?

Independent of planting schemes, soil preparation and maintenance regimes, perception is the primary medium of landscape - the ability to guide vision to new visions. In this sense, photography has been at the cutting edge of landscape practice in recent years.We can borrow and learn from the lens of the camera in the way that Japanese gardens borrow views, informing the experience ofthe immediate with a distant vista.

The artist Nigel Green first started making photographic studies of plants about seven years ago. They began with a series of 'portraits' of clumps of brambles, thistles and umbelliferae (such as hemlock and giant hogweed) found in the Romney Marshes and the landscape surrounding Dungeness Power Station on the Kent coast.These seemed at first an unusual departure, for his photographic work until then had focused almost exclusively on the built environment.

As this new concern developed, however, it did not lead to an architecture/landscape split in Green's work. What we see in the photographs is a shift in perspective, with scenes of radical empathy between plant form and architectural context. Whether cultivated by man in gardens or within interior spaces, or self-seeded weeds relying on the meagre nutrients beneath cracks in concrete, this is a world of fully integrated and successful denizens. Even the seemingly most abject and desiccated of plant forms has, in Green's vision, a vigorous aura.

In AJ 28.1.99, Andrew Mead described a similar plant presence in the work of the Dutch photographer Anne Bousema, whose images of building sites and wastelands consistently feature these 'green intruders or survivors'. Another photographer who has assimilated the Arcadian delights of urban vegetation is Hisao Suzuki, whose recent building studies for the Spanish journal El Croquis invariably show architecture amid its ambient flora.

With a somewhat different agenda to that of Bousema or Suzuki, Green tends to close-in on the plant form, to a level of detail suitable for botanical study. Indeed, he seems to be inferring something of the graphic tradition of the botanical print. However, as he gets closer, it is not scientific rigour that is the order of the day so much as a metamorphic poetry.

There is a sense of alien menace to some of Green's plant forms which, like the best creations of science fiction, derives not from out-and-out fantasy but a skilful shift in the angle of perception of the everyday.

In this respect, these images recall the artist Paul Nash's interest in the disarming strangeness of certain natural forms. In the opening sentence of an article called 'The Monster Field', published in The Architectural Review in October 1941, Nash wrote: 'Have you ever known a place which seemed to have no beginning and no end?' Nash's 'elusive but ubiquitous' monster field contained the remains of dead trees, which he would draw and document photographically. He wrote of elm tree remnants in a field in Gloucestershire: 'The strange creature at hand? was eminently bovine yet scarcely male. Surely this was the cow of Guernica's bull. It seemed as mystical and as dire.' Compare this with Green's shot of weeds in the courtyard of the Old Post Office Gallery in Calais, where a broken curb has spawned a procession of macabre stalking figures, like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch turned vegetal.

Visions of a similar nature to Green's are quite hard to come by in the visual arts, but there are a wealth of them in literature. AndrÚ Breton in Mad Love writes of 'a tiny unforgettable fern' and 'the darkness of moving hedges'. The Surrealism of Breton is matched by the chemical transportations of Aldous Huxley, who writes in The Doors of Perception:

'The effects of the mescalin were already on the decline: but the flowers in the gardens still trembled on the brink of being supernatural, the pepper trees and carobs along the side streets still manifestly belonged to some sacred grove.' This seems a particularly precise equivalent to the kind of transmutations Green achieves in his partially solarised and tinted photo-fragments.

A number of relevant literary passages occur in accounts of catastrophe. Green himself cites a passage in the writings of John Steinbeck, reporting on the immediate postwar conditions of Stalingrad, and linking the space of human habitation to that of the plant denizen: 'Our windows looked out on acres of rubble? and in the wreckage the strange dark weeds that always seem to grow in destroyed places. From behind a slightly larger pile of rubble would suddenly appear a girl going to work in the morning? She would be dressed neatly, in clean clothes, and she would swing out through the weeds on her way to work.'

Paul Nash's interest in splintered and toppled elms no doubt derived from his earlier work documenting the pulverised landscapes of the First World War. Looking at his masterpiece from that period, The Menin Road, it is difficult to ignore, in the light of Green's interests, two blood/rust-coloured plant forms in the immediate foreground of the painting.

Both languid and menacing, they are not so much surviving victims of their horrific context, but products of it. The human figures of the painting are, by contrast, much less distinct, blurring into the forms of the middle distance. Plant thus displaces man as the 'actor' in the foreground.

Recently, Green has turned his attention back in the direction of Dungeness Power Station for a project commissioned by Photoworks to document the station and its surrounds. Green remarks on the degree of artifice regarding the natural landscape that falls within the station's perimeter - of how, for instance, rare orchids near one of the office blocks have been provided with protective cages. The station has ironically become the guardian of the flora and fauna that surrounds it.

What one will not find in the results of this project is any acknowledgement of the well-known garden which the film-maker Derek Jarman cultivated on the shingle beach of Dungeness, outside his adopted shack. This is significant, for although Green respects Jarman's tenacity and ingenuity as a gardener, his vision is quite at odds with Jarman's creation.

Despite the extreme aspect of Jarman's garden, it is nonethless a plot, a piece of cultivated property, and makes its radical gesture directly in response to the middle-class garden norm. As a result, it was ultimately destined to be assimilated back into middle-class culture - seen as just another lifestyle option.

This is where Nash's article, and his notion of 'a place which seemed to have no beginning and no end', provides such a useful framework for thinking differently about the diversity of topographies, and the way we inhabit and perceive them. This is, in a sense, entirely outside the garden mentality of plot and property, yet one could equally pass by another person's garden and perceive it as a fragment of that endless place - as, indeed, Huxley does on his mescalin trip.

Andrew Mead's take on Bousema's photos concurs with such a perspective when he writes: 'Deliberately, this is less the portrait of a place than of a process. It happens to be called Zaaneiland but it could be anywhere.'

Photographic vision as process and the natural processes of plant colonisation are directly equated here. Once recognised through the frame of the lens, this place of process becomes ever more apparent, proliferating endlessly - like the buddleia in Britain's railway sidings.

Nigel Green, in closing-in and focusing specifically on plant form, has invented something of a vegetal bestiary. His photography reveals the leftover spaces of the urban terrain to be nature's experimental laboratory of nurture and adaptation. But he also goes further, introducing abrupt changes of scale, juxtapositions of plant and architectural backdrop, and the strange transformation of the 'green intruder' into the graphic rigour of the blackand-white print.

Green makes of these plant scenes a dramaturgy - a symbolic intersection between human and plant - where the humble bramble, the aloe, or the nettle become primal monsters, asking fundamental questions about our relationship to nature.

A book of Nigel Green's photographs, Dungeness, has just been published by Photoworks at £17.95. Website www. photoworksuk. org.

There will be an exhibition of his work at the Rye Art Gallery, Rye, East Sussex, from 13 March-16 May

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