Linda Tegg’s thought-provoking practice is aligned in the legacy of the 1960s conceptual art movement whereby an idea forms the catalyst and core of a work of art. As such, the artist first approached Grasslands as an idea, which proved to be a good one . As the American artist Sol LeWitt (1927-2008) commented in his iconic “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in 1969: It is difficult to bungle a good idea. Tegg’s poetic and wild idea was to reconstruct the flora that thrived on the land where the State Library of Victoria’s iconic edifice now stands. The aim was to create a temporal layering where memory and the present coexist and where indigenous flora and Victorian architecture meet.
In her previous works, Tegg had already explored the ascendency of man over nature. She used highly trained animals, such as sheep and horses, placing them in a gallery context where they performed highly estheticized and choreographed poses. These uncanny moments were immortalised in photographs or videos, creating a fantasized portrait of nature, much like in a dream or in a David Lynch movie.
For Grasslands however, Tegg’s conceptual idea of bringing back to life the natural history of the site grew into a labour of love. She researched the State Library of Victoria’s collection to find illustrated maps of early Melbourne, Victorian paintings of the Australian landscape and rare books on indigenous plants. In the plethora of 19th century paintings gathered in the Library’s gallery, such as Frederik McCubbin’s Melbourne gaol in sunlight from the Public Library Grounds (1884), the nascent city is depicted as having replaced the natural site.
Tegg was also drawn to was the records of European explorers and settlers who noted with astonishment the beauty they found in the Australian grasslands and how closely these resembled the parks of England. At that time, cultivating flora was synonymous with culture and the leisure classes. They recorded their findings of the rich Australian grasslands as an inexplicable phenomenon rather than looking at the Aboriginal techniques of cultivating the land, such as fire stick farming.
These historical documents combined offered representational, interpretative clues but no reliable sources, such as listings of species for example. Wanting to expand her sources of knowledge, Tegg collaborated with The University of Melbourne, and horticulturist John Delpratt to research the biodiversity of the site. Over 15 months, they cultivated 15 000 plants of 60 indigenous species that comprise a rich fragment of this historical landscape.
Grasslands was thus composed as a site-specific work and designed to create a natural overlay on the Library steps. The public art installation came in direct contact with Melbournians as a form of public remembrance and celebration of the cultural natural roots of the site.
However, like all great artworks, Grasslands offers viewers multiple layers of entry. On an immediate level, the work transforms the steps of the State Library of Victoria, a historical place for social and political gathering, into a sphere of pleasure and delight. An exercise in vision and detail, the more time spent contemplating the Grasslands, the more our eye sees blossoming the bushy Kangaroo and Wallaby grasses. The rich palette of flowers, such as Chocolate Lilies, Lemon Beauty-heads and Billy Buttons draw butterflies and insects that have not been seen on the site for many years.
But Grasslands also functions as green urban retreat for people to enjoy and gather in the summer months. As a work of immense artistic imagination created in a public space, it offers a utopian microcosm that directly engages even the most casual of passer-by’s. More politically engaged Melbournians might perceive this work as a political gesture breathing life back into long-lost Australian indigenous species. Grasslands offers Melbournians the rare chance to experience their city transformed by this artistic imagination. Ultimately, Tegg’s Grasslands is an open-ended work, for viewers to interpret and connect to their own experiences of Australian nature or their idea of it.
After almost two years of development, when Grasslands was planted on the forecourt of the State Library of Victoria, the recurrent feedback from the public has been to call for this work to be permanent. Grasslands will be gifted to the City of Melbourne’s Royal Park and a number of plants will be given away to Melbournians who will be able to enrich their gardens with indigenous species.
Because Grasslands oscillates from poetry to politics, from past to present, from function to art, it instantly became a treasured experience for Melbournians. While ephemeral, the beauty and ideas represented by Tegg’s work will linger in Melbournian’s collective memory for years to come.
1. The prophetic definitions of conceptual ‘Art as Idea’ was written by the great American artist Sol LeWitt in his ‘Sentences on conceptual art’. First published in 0-9 (New York), 1969, and Art-Language (England), May 1969.