Fiona Hall’s Fern garden has transformed a daunting site into a wondrous, fertile space for interaction and contemplation. Hall considers the work as garden design rather than public sculpture or ‘land art’, informed by historical precedents such as Japanese temple gardens and Islamic gardens. As the work was for the National Gallery of Australia, she chose the Dicksonia antarctica tree fern, one of this country’s most ancient plants. Within the pebbled paths are pavers inscribed with Aboriginal names for the tree fern, together with names of the languages/language groups from which they come, as a way of recognising the significance of Indigenous knowledge and histories.
In Fern garden, there are associations between regenerative plant-forms and the human body, so evident in Hall’s earlier Paradisus Terrestris series. There is, for example, the sense of entering a womb-like space, through curvilinear gates that represent the female reproductive system. The main path, like a large unfurling fern frond, spirals in to the central fountain which in turn provides a shimmering, tactile and audible element in the garden.
The recurring idea of naming is a significant, often poignant, aspect of Fern garden, as shown in the granite tops of two facing seats inscribed with the names of Tamsin and Deuchar Davy, twins who died tragically in a light plane accident near Canberra. Friends of Tamsin and Deuchar made a significant bequest to the garden in their memory. Another bench is inscribed with the name of Koori artist Destiny Deacon, a friend of Hall’s, who playfully requested her own ‘Lady Macquarie’s Chair’ in the garden.
Fern garden is in part a place of reconnection and remembering and, like so many great gardens around the world, it is a sanctuary for reflection. Since the garden was first established, the tree ferns have continued to develop. They will endure into the lives of future generations, reminding us of the regenerative capacities of the plant world to inform our lives: to deepen awareness, nourish our sensibilities and fill us with a sense of wonder.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002