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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 344-363
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Working the Techno-Lawn
In the summer of 1998, there were 325,293,680 blades of grass on the front lawn of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). At the opening night party for The American Lawn exhibition, gardeners dressed in black dinner jackets mowed almost all of these blades. 1 The scent of freshly cut grass, the taste of champagne, ornamental laborers--what could be more pastoral? The remaining tufts stood in relief: a relief sculpture of the grand total, 325, 293,680. If only the numbers had been in typescript instead of CCA director Phyllis Lambert's handwriting, artist Mel Ziegler's commissioned installation, "Growing Concern," would have perfectly prepared museum-goers for the technological extravaganza waiting inside.
Instead, the aestheticized letters indicated the visual splendors and problematic treatment of labor that characterized The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life, a two-part project comprised of an exhibit and related book. Following the 16 June-8 November 1998 run at the CCA, the exhibition was remounted at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati from 3 April to 6 June 1999; The American Lawn [End Page 344] was released by Princeton Architectural Press in February, 1999. Can a theory-heavy pop art exhibition give an accessible history lesson on a topic this complex and this vernacular? When the two installations of this exhibit are compared to each other, and to the accompanying book, the overall effect suggests the promise and danger of such a collaboration. While the book and exhibit were cast by their creators as "distinct endeavors playing in counterpoint to one another," 2 the tensions point to an unnecessary disparity between historical scholarship and artistic meditation. The installation's provocative play with the relationship between form and content was so refreshing, so suggestive of the aesthetic makeover that history exhibits need, that it is a shame to turn to the book and see how much stronger the content could have been.
The exhibition of The American Lawn was an "interpretive three-dimensional installation" created by the design team Diller+Scofidio, Architects, working in collaboration with theorists and historians from the Princeton School of Architecture. New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp promised a bucolic vacation from dull vitrines, gushing, "There's a bright shimmer to this exhibition, an aura of energy and delight that you may associate more with walks in the country than with trips to museums." 3 However, the shimmer, energy, and delight of the contrived decadence of a Rose Bowl parade float, or a Macworld convention before conventioneers swarm in, seem more accurate points of comparison. This show was blatantly expensive and irrefutably high-tech. 4 Any lingering romantic notions about the lawn as "natural" were quickly skewered by LED screens, cross-fading slide projectors, glossy chromogenic prints, freeze-dried and hand-painted grass specimens, and glowing infrared aerial photographs. At the same time, the idealized lawn was recalled in nostalgic, campy, or syrupy lawnmower ads, hand-colored glass-slides, and nineteenth-century gardening texts musing on the therapeutic wonders of the "velvety green carpet." Wall text worked against these cheerful details by reiterating the exhibit's implicit mantra: there is nothing natural about the lawn. Truly, a lawn is an aesthetic, ideological, and technological contrivance.
The more specific targets shared by the exhibit and book will be familiar to historians who have followed recent scholarship on environmentally-conscientious landscaping and the histories of suburbs and garden design. Among these, Virginia Scott Jenkins's publication The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, and Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, [End Page 345] and Gordon T. Geballe stand out as the most comprehensive overviews of the lawn as a historical and contemporary phenomenon...