Richard Orjis at The Apron garden

Tauranga Art Gallery brought Auckland artist Richard to Orjis to the city on January 21 to give a free talk about The Apron, an installation garden for the Tauranga Garden and Artfest in November, commissioned by the gallery and the festival.

As you may recall, I visited the garden – planted on a lawn in front of Baycourt Theatre (hence the name, The Apron) – the day the festival closed and wasn’t mightily impressed but am always open to learning more and maybe having my opinion changed. Having the chance to hear an artist talk about his/her work is always valuable.

Richard walked our small group up to The Apron for his talk – being on site was a great way for us all to understand his vision, ask questions and learn more.

Richard Orjis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The brief was wide open but he felt an area near the gallery would be good [Baycourt is a 2-minute walk from the gallery]. He wanted the garden to be “authentic”, make people think about the everyday and communicate something a traditional garden designer wouldn’t necessarily think about.

He believes the project should be considered land art or environmental art rather than gardening, but for ease of description I will call it a garden here.

Richard has used what most people would think of as weeds (he calls them wildflowers) and describes them as “international citizens that are robust and hardy, part of an ecosystem that’s too complex for scientists to understand”.

“They provide food and habitat in the most unpromising places – the side of the road, empty lots – and establish quickly, much faster than our native plants can.”

Wild verbena. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He has a “genuine love” of pastures and meadows and wanted to develop something that was in the context of Tauranga – seeds were all sourced locally – and the age in which we live.

Richard chose to have subtle paths mown through the garden, liking the idea of not using any hard landscaping, partly because it is a temporary site.

“There’s a feeling that urban is bad and rural good, and people in a city romanticise about living in the country when the reality of rural life is quite different – the traditional chocolate box meadow we all know has been created by agriculture, not nature.

“The Apron offers a comparison of urban gardens right in the middle of town – this looks unkempt and messy but it changes fortnightly as it grows.

A bumblebee feeds on red clover. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“There are so many lessons from a garden – nothing will stay the same, no matter how much you trim and prune. The idea of controlling a plant or garden is pointless.”

It’s not a struggle, he says, to consider a garden as art, although the ones we’re used to seeing in traditional art are frozen in time – paintings, sculpture, video etc.

“With the garden we have here we’re working with the elements and have to let go that sense of freezing.” Richard mentioned the founder of the Arts and Crafts  movement, William Morris, as having a looser idea of what a garden might be.

Plants in The Apron include Verbena bonariensis (several common names), red clover, barley, rye, Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Anthriscus sylvestris (cow parsley, Queen Anne’s lace), Sinapis arvensis (wild mustard), Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy) and Oenothera biennis (evening primrose).

“There were things I was not permitted to use because of their weed status,” Richard said, “and at times it got really tense in our discussions with the Tauranga City Council. I love wild carrot and wild fennel but wasn’t permitted to use them. The irony is that there are a couple of things in here that weren’t planted – they’ve blown in and established themselves.

Several chicory plants have self-established in the garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“We can have wildness even in the most built-up areas by letting things go and trusting in the intelligence of nature, a stance that might be interesting for urban planners to pick up. It’s a cheaper option for councils to leave certain areas to their own devices but the city’s residents have to get behind it and signage is key to letting people know what’s going on.”

The gallery is taking school groups through The Apron in February, something that Richard considered, thinking about the height of young children when he was planning the planting.

He’s thrilled with the many seed heads, saying that although people might dismiss the garden as dead and dying, it’s providing food to wildlife and is full of movement thanks to our constant winds.

A mustard seed-head. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He’s also enjoyed the change of colour in the garden since flowering began – first it was the yellow of mustard and white daisies, moving into reds and now purple is dominant, thanks to wild verbena.

Richard has undertaken “plant projects” before, including creating a garden of native and exotic medicinal plants, and constructing a scaffolding bridge between two large Moreton Bay figs so people could experience the canopy.

“You can create art just by the way you mow your lawn.” Read about Richard’s 2011 grass art project.

He is taking up an arts residency in Malaysia at the end of this month and will be looking at green spaces there, planning a publication that will also include a photo record of The Apron.

Richard has a garden at his home that he says is closely planted so weeds aren’t a problem. “It looks wild, but it’s structured,” he said.

The Apron will be mowed at the end of February and the Baycourt lawn reinstated.

Dying or full of life? Messy or a welcome relief from a strictly controlled garden? Photo: Sandra Simpson