Chelsea Flower Show: A garden inspired by a war zone

By Stephanie Hegarty
BBC World Service


Not many show gardens have a watchtower and barbed wire. But to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean war (1950-53), its tensions and aftermath have been evoked in the unlikely surroundings of London's Chelsea Flower Show.

The demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea - an area off limits to civilians - has a reputation as a barren wasteland.

But when South Korean artist Jihae Hwang first visited the area 10 years ago, what she found was far from the abandoned battlefield she expected.

"It felt like being in some sort of jungle," she says. "Sometimes you can hear the sound of water or trees rustling against each other. It is so tranquil you can even hear the noise of animals running around."

Sixty years ago, the area was at the front of the war between North and South Korea and much of what lived there was entirely decimated.

But when the war ended in 1953, a border was drawn to divide the country in two and a buffer zone created. It stretched for two kilometres on either each side of the border and was almost entirely devoid of human life.

Rare plants and animals, endangered in the rest of Korea, thrived there undisturbed.

"It is a garden that is more pure, more transparent and untouched than anywhere else in the world," says Hwang.

When she visited - on one of the special tours introduced by South Korea a few years ago - she was struck by the power of nature to heal itself. It was some years later that she decided to create a garden to communicate that message of healing and reconciliation to the world.

Her show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, entitled Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden, is only a tiny representation of the uninhabited area. But in that space Hwang has captured the quiet wilderness that she found in the demilitarised zone.

The garden is a brightly coloured mess of wild plants that wind around each other as if they have grown there for decades.

In fact, half of them were imported - with some difficulty - from Korea and planted in the garden by an army of volunteers. The rest were sourced in Europe but they are all species or close relatives of those native to the demilitarised zone.

"Some of the plants are difficult to keep in London, the weather here is very crazy," says Hwang.

After studying the plant life in the zone, she found that some plants were unique. One plant called Gaeneusam only survives in the area where the cold climate of the north and the warmer climate of the south meet.

In Hwang's garden, a tall wooden hut towers above the green brush flanked by tall, young trees. It represents the watch towers that are found along the border.

The structure of the tower's base is modelled on the Bridge of No Return, a crossing on the border which North and South Korea used to exchange prisoners.

"There are too many remnants of war in the zone, they can be seen everywhere - just like in the garden here," says Hwang.

Bullet casings litter the tangled undergrowth and vast hulks of rusty metal are just visible among the flowers. A helmet, a lunchbox and an old Zippo lighter lie rotting in a bush.

This rusty detritus of war is a constant reminder that this represents a place where thousands of people died, but these relics feels strangely out of place in the tranquility of the garden.

Even the noise of a thick crowd of gardening enthusiasts milling past all day seems to be lost among the thick foliage, replaced by the trickling water of a small stream.

Hwang has tried to be true to the atmosphere of the zone - most of the artefacts were given to her by a collector who sneaks inside to collect them.

But some features of the garden are merely symbolic, such as the small path running through the middle of the garden that is paved with buttons.

"They represent the buttons on the jackets of fallen soldiers, the suffering and pain of the past and what we are dealing with currently, the tension between the south and the north."

Huang has spent a lot of time studying the relationship between north and south and has read hundreds of interviews with North Korean defectors.

Image caption,
Last year Hwang also won gold with her recreation of a Korean toilet

She has collected letters written by families that were separated by the border as well as copies of letters they received from their relatives in the north - some of them dating back 20 years.

They are displayed in bottles that hang from a barbed wire fence dividing the garden in two.

The garden has been awarded a gold medal at the show this year, a high accolade for someone who is not a landscape artist by training.

Hwang studied fine art and worked on sculptures, mosaics and murals for public spaces. But in 2002, a Korean friend returned from travelling with a DVD about the Chelsea Flower Show.

"It was like love at first sight," she says.

Gardening culture is relatively new in Korea. Most people live in high-rise apartments and go to the countryside to enjoy the outdoors.

"We are a small country but we have big mountains and big trees and maybe that is why people don't feel the need to have a garden."

Image caption,
The stream symbolises the river that flows from North to South

She has an innate understanding of ecology that she says comes from her rural childhood on Jiri-san, one of Korea's famed sacred mountains.

But she believes art and gardening are the same. "I paint with flowers. A garden is a good medium to tell a story, to get behind what the artist is thinking."

As tensions have risen between North and South Korea in the past few months she believes the story of healing and tranquillity that her garden tells has even more relevance.

"The timing of this garden is very important to keep the peace," she says. "Now it is very dangerous.

"We have to share knowledge about Korea.

"Even in the darkest areas, close to the border, people need to know the importance of the brightness inside the darkness."

Jihae Hwang spoke to The Strand on the BBC World Service. Listen to the programme here.