Life Lessons: Artist Linda Tegg

In 2014, swathes of native grass species appeared to sprout from the earth and spill across the steps of the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. The creator of the installation, Australian artist Linda Tegg, was interested in the conversation between the pre-colonial grasslands that once grew freely upon the site, and the images hanging in the gallery that overlooked the space. In the years since, Linda’s exploration of the more-than-human world has continued to blur the boundaries between art and design, ecology and science, history and horticulture. Today, Linda’s work is highly regarded internationally – she exhibits in galleries around the world, in designer showrooms and at the Venice Architecture Biennale. We recently caught up with the artist to learn more about her process, the secret behind cultivating plants indoors, and where her fascination with the natural world began.

Artist, Linda Tegg. Image by Michelle Tran

Please tell us about you and your life with art. As I’m living it, I have to say that it always seems to be changing. I’m dedicated to the practice so have been able to let it lead me to some pretty interesting places, socially, geographically, intellectually. Sometimes it feels as if I’m travelling constantly, and other times it feels like months go by without me stepping outside my block. I tend to work into the areas in which I’m least comfortable, so there is always a challenge.

Can you paint a picture of your life growing up in Australia and how this context influenced you in your formative years? Growing up I spent a lot of time in the moment. I never really concerned myself much with where and when I was in a broader context. This might be somewhat of a characteristic of Australian childhood in the 1980’s. I see children today questioning a lot more than I ever did.

I spent a lot of my life growing up outdoors. I always felt more confident in the bush than in the conservative middle-class suburbs that I spent the rest of my time in.”

I came to art through photography and performance. The unmediated experience, or what lay beneath the images and fictions we construct, was always compelling to me. It’s nice to return to my early works and see a continuity in interests.

These days you are a successful working artist, being awarded important fellowships, positioning goats on plinths in the Centre d’Art Neuchatel, and filling the Jil Sander headquarters in Milan with wild growing, ‘spontaneous plants’. I wonder, did the Linda Tegg of your youth ever consider such a future possible? I never really thought too far down the track. I just felt grateful to be making the work I was making, often thinking that each work would be the last I would get to make. So I’ve never taken being an artist for granted.

Many of your works explore the idea of nature as a construct; the tension between the natural as wilderness, but also as a human concept. What are you considering in this process? Within the complexity of this space, thinking through what’s better or worse depends on your point of view. Better or worse for who? Over what time scale? It occurs to me that much of how we see ourselves, and how we act in the world, is defined through the imaging of nature. Rather than make judgements, I’m interested in opening those images up for questioning.

Many Australians will know you by your spectacular work Grasslands, an installation of pre-colonial native grass species that were assembled over the steps of the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, almost as if they had re-sprouted from the earth 160 years later in revolution. Why did you want to make this work? I spent a year as the Georges Mora Creative fellow at the State Library. I was there to work with the pictures collection, to understand something about the nature culture divide in Melbourne. As I worked there, I started to wonder what could live in the library, then more specifically what had lived on the site prior to the library, what had it replaced. Looking into the pictures collection didn’t reveal much. Three paintings described the site, the complex grassy plains woodland rendered in broad green brushstrokes. To me this was an incredible blind spot. So I decided to learn about the plants that once grew on the site and to bring them into proximity with the pictures collection that had overlooked them.

How did you discover which grasses had been growing in the area and where did you source the seeds/plants from for the work? I started reading about early Melbourne, and it’s natural history. As I realised the complexity of my question I began to talk about the site with ecologist, Dr Steve Sinclair and natural historian Dr Gary Presland. These conversations helped to put what I was reading in physical and temporal context. I also spent quite a bit of time in remnant grasslands with John Delpratt (who I also grew the grassland with) to observe how the plants grow together.

Some plants we sourced from commercial growers who specialise in ecological restoration. Many we grew from seed originally sourced from sites that are now roads. Some seed we collected ourselves. We grew them together for months before relocating them to the Library.”

As a collective the plant community is endangered, however most of the individual species we worked with are not endangered.

Grasslands, 2014. Image by Matthew Stanton
Grasslands, 2014. Image by Matthew Stanton

The premise of Grasslands was further developed into Repair, a collaborative piece with architects Baracco + Wright, which was included in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018. Can you tell us about the process of creating this work and the international response to the installation? Louise Wright and Mauro Baracco saw Grasslands in 2014, and it resonated with what they were thinking about as architects – how to see the ground as something connected to, and carrying complex histories and ecologies, rather than a blank piece of paper or something to pave over.

Much of Repair was thinking about how architecture can play a role in ‘making good’ some of those connections. There were three key artworks that formed Repair. Grasslands, Repair was an assembly of the Victorian Western Plains Grassland plant community in the Australian Pavilion. This plant community was similar to the plant community that occupied the State Library site and while endangered is still actively threatened by urbanisation.

To support the plants in the pavilion we created another artwork, Skylight, which enabled the plants to live within a space that had been designed for the appreciation of a very different kind of artwork. The Australian Pavilion is sealed off from the surrounding Giardini and has very little access to natural light. Skylight mediated a physical dialogue between building, plants and moving image. It fostered a coexistence that I didn’t think was possible at the start of the process.

The third artwork I made in collaboration with David Fox. We documented architectural projects around Australia in a series of two-channel videos. Baracco+Wright, along with an interdisciplinary team, chose projects that sought to repair the places they were a part of. We called this series of videos Ground as we were looking to shift the dominant representation of architecture as object in the landscape and see it in continuity with the environment.

Throughout the process there was a lot of building on the thinking that surfaced though Grasslands, 2014. We placed the plants, and their care, at the centre of our thinking and actions. It also shifted the way I understood architecture.”

An exciting aspect of the Architecture Biennale is that the national pavilions tend to engage with the central theme put forward by the curators. In 2018, curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara put forth the theme of Freespace that promoted architecture of generosity. Our work in the Australian Pavilion connected strongly with this dialogue. Since then, we’ve been able to continue conversations that began in Venice, contributing to books and participating in exhibitions in Europe.

Do you garden? If so, where and how? After many years of growing plants indoors and moving around, I’m finally looking after a few plants in the ground. It’s a small space, a bit of a mix of what was already there, gifts, and indigenous plants that I’ve planted.

It sits somewhere between a naturalistic grassland and the clearance section at your local nursery.”

What are your thoughts on weeds? Some weeds I find quite inspiring, the way they live despite every anthropocentric design and obstacle put up in their way. I love observing them in the city in particular. But when I see what looks like my grandmother’s gazanias outcompeting native plants while holding together a sand dune, thoughts are far more conflicted.

Grasses and cultivating plants indoors has continued to be a theme in your practice. One World Rice Pilaf and Terrain are works constructed from legumes sourced out of supermarket throw-out bins for example. What is your fascination with cultivating nature indoors? I’m interested in re-thinking and applying pressure to the structures that have evolved to actively exclude certain life forms – plants and animals are the most prominent in my work. While plants and animals are admitted into galleries and museums as material or in representation, they’re mostly excluded as beings. I’m interested in pushing against this in shifting how we see these relationships.

In the case of One World Rice Pilaf I thought about the supermarket as a latent garden. I destroyed the grains as food by wetting and sprouting them so I could understand them as plants.

I can imagine it’s pretty difficult to keep these plants happy and healthy indoors. What’s the secret? There is no secret as such, its more about care, attention and meeting the plant’s needs.

I tend to foreground the care involved in the work, whether that be me, or someone else present in the work watering, pruning, rotating plants. It adds another social dimension to the work, it’s amazing how much I’ve learned in conversation with the passing public.”

Any breakdown of life is heightened in the work. In most displays plants are usually performing at their peak so the presence of a completely browned-off tussock can feel like an abject failure. However, the longer I see the installations through, the more complexity there is in terms of life, death, and dormancy. Once you start looking for it outside, you find it everywhere.

Who are you influenced by? Influence is everywhere – the people I work with, the art that challenges me, and all the conversations in between, continue to influence my thinking and actions. I read post-humanist literature and often go to great lengths to spend time with artworks that I feel are important to know well.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Anthropomorphising plants is not my mode, I think more toward a shift in human subjectivity.

You can see more of Linda’s work by visiting her website.

Header image of Grasslands, 2014 by Matthew Stanton.

Repair. Image by Rory Gardiner
Repair. Image by Rory Gardiner
One World Rice Pilaf. Image by Linda Tegg