Secret Garden Party

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This year’s Secret Garden Party saw the multi-media event taking over Mill Hill Field near Huntingdon for the tenth time since it’s launch in 2004, with a wealth of eye-boggling, mind expanding, gravity-defying stages and art installations spread across idyllic country fields. Despite its status as one of Britain’s must-go summer music festivals, music has always been secondary to the ethos of SGP with it’s wonderful mixture of family orientated entertainment, old-school yoga and meditation tents, and pure Dionysian hedonism.

The location of this annual fling is a highlight, with several installations remaining on the grounds of Abbots Ripton for the duration of the year. One such example is the 25 foot straw fox, dubbed The Urban Fox and standing since 2012, this year it was decked out in a native American headdress and feathers, bushy tail curving around the small mounds and hills that characterise the area. The Pirate Technics, a group of artists and engineers from across the UK, were responsible not only for our urban fox but also the ‘Middle of the Lake’ installation in SGP, which this year featured a wonderfully crafted ship being pulled under the placid glass surface of the lake by a giant kraken. The beauty of the Secret Garden Party is its ability to completely transport the individual, just an hour away from the busy metropolis of London the flags and lanterns of the festival are a sight for sore eyes, made all the more beautiful by the knowledge that after four short days- it will all be over. Such is the symbolic power of the lake installation, which on Saturday night was burned down amid a half-hour musically coordinated fireworks display. After bursting into flames amongst a cacophony of lights, colours, and classical music, the smoldering wreckage of the ship had many hundreds of festival-goers transfixed for long after the display finished.

The wealth of art installations at the Secret Garden Party are designed to be interactive, commissioned by Secret Arts and funded by grants via Secret Productions, it is an excellent platform for both emerging and established artists. ‘Lûz’ by London based Les Méchants was more blinding than eye-catching, a giant silver triangle standing tall and reflecting light back at anyone who dares look too long. The interest in this piece is that it is instantly transformed when entered, from outside the symbolic rectangle- lacking everything but the eye of providence- inside is a chasm of kaleidoscopic colour. Its mirrored interior reflects the geometric painted patterns making them appear infinite, a meditation on light and the subjective nature of sight, the colours of the installation change as you move around it revealing new geometric landscapes with every step. 

Another favorite was the subtle Roborigami installation next to a bridge where the serene lake gives way to a gently splashing waterfall, the collaboration between artist and robotic scientist Coco Sata and Ad Spiers gives way to something a little bizarre and melancholic with the angular red and yellow sculptures seeming strangely at home amongst the flora and fauna. Deeper into the wooded area of the festival you come across the Labyrinth, through surrealist doorways and into a winding wooded path marked by disorientating signs such as ‘exit this way ↑↓’. If you stop to look hard enough you can even find a fireplace to crawl through, leading you into a small clearing decked out with lights and comfy sofas, a perfect place of refuge in the center of delightful confusion.

The contrast between the man made and the natural at the Secret Garden Party has always been a point of fascination, taking a naturally stunning location and molding it into a massive production which caters to thousands of people, while still retaining it’s ethereal beauty, is no easy feat. ‘The Temple’ by An-Architecture managed to do just this, combining natural materials with the landscape to create a functional platform for revelers to swim, walk, and climb to. Located in the middle of a small lake it rises like a natural refuge from the water, with its angular architecture creating new frames of reference to view the landscape from every new position. Just like the festival itself, this piece combines art and architecture, organic and synthetic, and is never experienced the same way twice.

Continuing on the thematic dualism between city/country, organic/synthetic is a piece by Tetsuro Nagata and Guy Woodhouse dubbed ‘Twilight Tweets’. Located in the Labyrinth these mechanized owl sculptures hang in groups high on the tree-trunks, seemingly dead during the day, at night they begin to transform and interact with passers by and with each other, moving like liberated cuckoos from a cuckoo clock and emitting a glowing blue light. If this is a subtle reference to social media these captivating sculptures unfurl their wings during the night onto which short films of the day’s revelry are projected, connecting hundreds of strangers who walk through the area to each other via a disorientating and beautiful array of looped videos.

If birds are your thing, then one sculpture shocked and delighted me. Standing inanely on a hill overlooking the main field a giant yellow sculpture of a character strangely reminiscent of The Muppet’s own Big Bird, who observes the scene through bleary eyes. Dubbed ‘Lucky Shit’ this strange concoction of humor, childhood memory, and wacky surrealism is so interactive that it poops yellow goo at an undisclosed moment in the festival, dousing whoever is underneath. Thought up by collective Hungry Castle, the towering sculpture plays on this year’s Superstition theme by giving a certain Gardener a lucky bird shit to remember.

The transformative quality of the Secret Garden Party is something to experience, from the first couple of days drenched in sunlight with people wandering around in absurd fancy dress, to the rain soaked Saturday night, things can change in an instant. After emerging from my tent in the North camp where I had sheltered from the rain, looking over to the main site I could see hoards of black silhouetted figures loping nimbly against green and blue back-lit trees, with lasers bursting from the stages onto the rain falling from the clouds. It seems that at SGP, everything can be turned into art.

-Alexandra Embiricos


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[…] Published: Glasgow University Magazine, 11 August […]