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Wakehurst champions one of the UK’s most threatened habitats in new summer art programme, Meadowland

Forming the most ambitious summer programme to date for RBG Kew’s wild botanic garden, Meadowland at Wakehurst presents a series of bespoke art installations specially commissioned for the 535-acre site to give voice to one of Britain’s most critically threatened habitats – the meadow.

Coronation Meadow Wakehurst
Wakehurst’s Coronation Meadow Drone, Visual Air © RGB Kew 2023

Running for 13 weeks from 14 June to 10 September 2024 (10 am – 6 pm), Meadowland forms both a celebration of the diverse wildflowers, grasses and wildlife that form these precious ecosystems and a rallying cry to unite people in protecting the rare habitat for future generations.

Wakehurst is home to a range of beautiful biodiverse meadows – from the ancient Hanging Meadow in the Loder Valley Nature Reserve to Coronation Meadow created in 2015 as a response to the then Prince of Wales’ call for new wildflower meadows marking 60 years of the late Queen’s reign.

Meadows under threat

Across the country, it is estimated that only 1% of species-rich meadows survive in active management, and they continue to be lost at an alarming rate. The scale and speed of this decline represent a conservation catastrophe. Responding to this critical state, Wakehurst has developed Meadowland to champion this threatened habitat in its time of great need.

Tord Boontje, Shadowy chair orange, Photography by Eye Studio – Moroso

Working in collaboration with leading artists on four new installations, Wakehurst hopes to connect visitors with the grasslands that serve such an important role for both the environment and society. Nestled across the landscapes, the bespoke commissions will draw explorers down new paths through Wakehurst’s vibrant meadows, teeming with life – inviting them to follow the shifting landscapes as they bloom and fade across the season. Taking inspiration from swishing grasses, buzzing pollinators, bursts of colour, and hidden voices, the artworks span a multitude of creative mediums from audio and film to sculpture and textile. For the first time in a summer programme, Wakehurst’s own horticulturalists will explore their creative side, as the meadows themselves become a canvas for important stories, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between humans and grassland.

Meadows become the canvas

Meadows offer an arena of calm, a space to feel immersed in the sights and sounds of nature and disconnect from the pressures of life. For artist Saroj Patel, a desire for visitors to enjoy this feeling of being present in nature informed her large-scale piece, The Wings Flutter, Grasslands are Alive. Located in the breathtaking Bloomers Valley, rich in local Wealden species, her five large gateways form a shrine to the meadows. Taking inspiration from the grasslands across her ancestral home in Gujarat, India, and the colourful shrines carved into the foothills of the Himalayas, the 3.5m high gateways will be adorned with over 700 handsewn flags, evoking the colours of butterfly and moth wings and the flowers they pollinate. Bells at each gateway signal a sense of arrival, evoking an inner peace when rung, completing the sacred place where plants, pollinators and people meet.

Peace and pollinators have also proven to be inspiring subjects for multi-disciplinary designer Tord Boontje. The Meadow Shadow installation will form a ring of brightly coloured cocoon-like chairs in the heart of the Asian Heath Garden. Woven by expert craftspeople in Senegal, the curled shape of the tall chair backs invite visitors to nestle into the enclosed seat, designed to provide shade. Bespoke digitally-printed cushions featuring imagery from the surrounding plants and animals explore the ecosystem of the meadow and offer additional comfort. Designed for dwelling, the chairs offer a place to slow down and enjoy a deeper connection with nature. Encircled by a specially selected collection of wildflowers, the chairs will reflect the bright colours beyond. Boontje was inspired by the research of Kew scientists, exploring which colours attract a greater diversity of pollinators.

Whilst Boonjte’s work invites stillness, a new intervention in Coronation Meadow encourages visitors to roam to every corner of the expansive grassland. Breaking with tradition of a single mown path, the horticultural team will mow a maze of paths through the grasses and wildflowers, inviting people to experience the variety of plant life and the wonders of new perspectives from each end. As they wind their way through, planks of ash harvested from fallen trees across Wakehurst will display quotes from a range of figures about what meadows mean to them.

Changing perspectives Meadows serve an important role in the health of the planet, providing food and shelter for an array of mammals and nesting birds whilst the diverse species of wildflowers and grasses offer food to pollinating insects – a community which has inspired two multimedia installations.

Annabel Ross, founder and producer of the podcast series ‘Messages from the Wild’ joins forces with British composer and sound artist Alice Boyd, and Irish sculptor Donnacha Cahill to create Voices from the Meadow, a new audio installation housed in Cahill’s The Gramophone, a 3.2m steel gramophone. Weighing a ton, the sculpture will project interviews and sound recordings made onsite – with unexpected interviewees. Giving voice to nature, the piece reveals stories of a cinnabar moth, meadow grasshopper and a scissor bee, voiced by Wakehurst horticulturalists and scientists, accompanied by the sounds of their natural habitat. Visitors are invited to nestle into a natural amphitheater created by the Wakehurst team and specially planted with the flowers that would attract such creatures.

Beeline Proposal visualisation 1 ©Heinrich & Palmer

Experiencing life from an insect’s perspective, is a concept artist partnership Heinrich & Palmer also explore in Beeline – a film lasting 12-15 minutes housed in a large shipping container overlooking the Millennium Seed Bank. As visitors enter the enclosed space, they are transported into a new portal which asks ‘what might life look like to a bee at Wakehurst’? Combining drone footage with evocative imaging methods and experimental filming techniques, the film will shift viewers into an imaginative space, inviting them to leave human perspective behind and consider what the outdoors might look like to the powerful pollinators which the natural world relies on.

New discoveries At Wakehurst, visitors can immerse themselves in a whole spectrum of grasslands, from meadows to prairie and parkland. The American Prairie found at the heart of the garden transports people to the arid grasslands of North America, flourishing in late-summer with an ever-evolving tapestry of flowers and grasses. For the first time ever, visitors can also explore the ancient parkland of South Park. The 40-acre species-rich grassland bordering the Asian Heath Garden, is entering a new phase of life, where the horticultural team will add additional wildflower species to enhance its colour and character and undertake a summer hay cut combined with autumn and winter grazing.

But for summer 2024, the profusion of wildflowers and wildlife that form the meadow habitat, once a common feature of the British rural landscape, will form a ‘living programme’ for Wakehurst. Working with the cycle of traditional meadow management practices, the Meadowland experience will shift with each month. From blooming colours in early summer, to the sun-bleached tones of high-season grasses, and eventually the freshly mown scenes following the hay cut as autumn approaches, the changing landscape and how the installations sit within them invite visitors to return to admire their evolution and the caretaking required to conserve the precious habitat.

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