Tucked away from the main drive, this gnome garden is protected from real estate agents and letters to the editor of the local paper in prestigious Rye, New York. Dominant culture does not support the garden gnome. The appearance of garden gnomes is illegal and carefully monitored in England’s annual Chelsea Flower Show, and Eva Londos reports that in her curated show “The Garden as Popular Art “ at the Regional Museum of Jonkoping in Sweden, 1998, gnomes were censored, “considered to disgrace the museum's reputation of being an art institution of first class! “. *
However the garden gnome was brought to England in 1846 by Charles Isham, a spiritualist whose family lived in the estate above for over 400 years. Charles Isham was one of the earliest and loudest supporters of the spiritualist movement in England, publicly defending psychics in the press. Wrote four-time prime minister William Gladstone, also somewhat of a spiritualist, upon his visit to Isham’s estate , ”Sir C.I. touched on Spiritualism with me, and Mr Dasent on his favourite belief in Fairies. Most curious are the little low benches and stumps placed under his trees [...] said to be for their accommodation.”**
Spiritualism was a strange confluence of ideas, whose adherents were pious towards both science and religion and at a time when the comparative study of religion, as armchair anthropology, was all the rage. Science was not so far from religion at this time, and the question of how God could enter the dead matter of the world quite real. The rappings of the dead and garden gnomes fit together in this larger picture of a new spiritual era. Anthropologists were driven to define "animism," in order to distinguish the contemporary object from the fetish object of the primitive world.*** The garden gnome, it might be said, was one of industrialism’s figurative cultural defenses against the fetish object - a bone or a piece of wood - of more primitive cultures.
The first garden gnomes were made in Germany in the mid-18th century. Production in Germany stopped during World War II, however. Joseph Goebbels advised Hitler that gnomes as used in popular culture could too easily refer to him. During the Cold War, the American version was one of happy workers surrounding “the most beautiful one of all,” and in protection of her from evil.
This June, a 53 year old man was caught stealing a gnome and is now suspected of stealing the 170 gnomes in his French garden. A little over two weeks ago, a woman in Gloucester England had her stolen garden gnome mysteriously returned to her, along with photographs of his travels through twelve different countries. This has long been a popular prank now encouraged further by Travelocity commercials. In short, the traveling gnome is a cultural expression of our own time where sculpture's conditions of publicity are in its mobility.
By Catherine Spaeth
*Eva Londos, “Kitsch is Dead - Long Live Garden Gnomes,” Home Cultures, Nov. 2006, V. 3#3, pp. 293-306.
** Gladstone Diary, 7/4/79, as cited in Ruth Claton Windscheffel, “Politics, Religion and Text: W. E. Gladstone and Spritualism,” Journal of Victorian Culture, 11.1 (2006) pp. 1-29
***Tomoko Masuzawa, “Troubles with Materiality: The Ghost of Fetishism in the Nineteenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 242-267
Image credits: “Wishes to remain anonymous,” Rye, NY, photo moi; Lamport Hall and Gardens, Northampton, England, 1560; Album für Teppichgärtnerei und Gruppenbepflanzung 2nd ed., Erfurt: L. Möller, ; martinklasch.blogspot.com/2007_04_01_archive.html; “mysteriously returned”; Chris Burden, “What my Dad Gave Me,” 2008, 65’ tall, Rockefeller Plaza, photo moi; Takashi Murakami: Oval Buddha, 2007, Aluminum and platinum leaf, 568 x 319 x 310 cm, 590 Sculpture garden, photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/2447353393/.