The conceptual, the pastoral, and the plainly freakish (or, some of my favourite artworks are trees…)
It’s an awfully strange position to be in: an academic who knows zilch about trees asked to contribute to a journal with a specifically arboreal theme. I’m a terrible gardener, uninterested in amateur botany, and all too often a culture junkie rather than a nature rhapsodist. So what can I even pretend to offer here? I have been taking all too much time wrestling with this question (ie procrastinating!), so have decided to consider the curious role of certain contemporary art that incorporates, represents, and conjures some semblance of trees.
A foundational moment of modern abstraction occurred when Piet Mondrian ingeniously transformed the trees that he saw interrupting the stark Dutch landscape into increasingly abstracted, Cubist-influenced paintings of criss-crossing branches. This strategic pictorial reductionism, taking place from 1908-13, eventually led into the gridded primary colour works, now so extremely well known it’s as if they somehow had always existed. In 1917 the artist wrote that: “life is becoming more and more abstract. Natural (external) things become more and more automatic, and we observe that our vital attention fastens more and more on internal things.”1 And trees definitely have a tendency to haunt our visual imagination, much as the fairy tales that so often feature being lost in the forest. With potential predators lurking, perhaps mysterious beings, alchemical shifts and turns: dark, hidden, unknown places inspiring some of the most compelling narratives.
In cinematic terms the antagonistic talking trees of The Wizard of Oz (1939) always, frankly, scared me shitless. Tree (to Dorothy): “What do you think you’re doing?…How would you like to have someone come along and pick something off of you?” (so innocuous now, but at one time quite disturbing!) Those trees also echo the elaborate (and also fear-inducing) book illustrations of the incomparable Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). His trees always appear in a process of movement or stretching, almost carrying along the narrative themselves. Patterns emerging and submerging, much as when I lay down on the cool earth during one long LSD-drenched teenage night watching kaleidoscopic branches waving at me from the starry Appalachian sky.
The venerable performance, video, and installation artist Paul McCarthy is still shocking the bourgeoisie today, but the exhibition that brought him to wider fame was the now historic Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s (although much of the nineties hadn’t happened yet, Kurt Cobain was still alive and unwell for example). McCarthy’s The Garden depicted two men copulating with the ground and a tree, respectively. I say men, but these were kind of animatronic scruffily hyperreal sculptures; an installation owing much to the Disneyesque spectacle, but adding on some additional layers of impure, horrific weirdness. Like some clandestine rendezvous in the park, but the men instead of fondling each other (and they have been read as father and son), chose to get off on this highly artificial nature; a disturbing diorama to be sure. And some of the “trees” in question purportedly had been props for the once-popular 1960s television western Bonanza. Performance theorist Amelia Jones has noted that: “McCarthy’s work enacts an ongoing narrative of the terrifying loss of control that underlies the mechanisms of patriarchy in Western culture, in spite of the macho masquerade of impenetrability that is meant to secure masculinity in its effects of domination.”2 Both of the essays that introduced the Helter Skelter catalogue (by Lane Relyea and Norman M. Klein) detailed the darker cultural history of LA, from Raymond Chandler to Charles Manson.3 Intriguingly today Manson is depicted as a proto-ecologist by his belated followers, using the organizational acronym ATWA (Air Trees Water Animals): “It is a name for all life on Earth, and represents the human quest to live in balance with our planet’s life-support systems.”4
I was fascinated (and rather disconcerted) by those who chained themselves to trees or even occupied them in the 1990s, such as Julia Butterfly Hill who lived 200 feet up an 1000 year old Redwood tree (named Luna) for over two years: life becoming just as interesting as art in certain ways, and avowedly utopian. And several artists made tree houses (I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis in there somewhere) in their art practices. Polish artist Pawel Althamer built one in the courtyard of the legendary Warsaw independent artspace Foksal, and subsequently near the entrance of the Venice Biennale (in 2001). Young artists Johnston Foster, Jules de Balincourt, and Andy Cross, then art students at Hunter College collaboratively created a vibrantly multi-coloured tree house in turn of the new century NYC, a childlike constructive gesture occurring in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers.
Chicago-based artist Tony Tasset also harbours an enduring fascination with the neo-Surreal and the uncanny, and in 2003 created a startlingly convincing sculptural Cherry Tree from steel, wax, and paint. According to the artist: “I was trying to get back to making art the way I did as a child. I wanted to re-experience the sheer thrill of copy. … I knew labour equals love to a wide audience.”5 California artist Jane Tsong has reconfigured existing tree stumps found along the streets of Los Angeles neighborhoods into new sculptural endeavours: chairs to create a Comfy City.6 Three decades earlier, artist Chris Burden had installed In Venice Money Grows on Trees: “On a couple of low palm trees along the Boardwalk, I got up one morning and glued on 100 dollars in singles. They were folded lengthwise about five times so they fitted into the leaves so that each leaf had about 20 bucks in it. The amazing thing was that the money stayed out there for two days.”7
In 2009 the veteran (b. 1926) artist Gustav Metzger, pioneering theorist of “auto-destructive” art created Flailing Trees, an installation that upended 21 willows, plunged into a bed of concrete, emphasising not leaves or branches, but rather a series of chaotic-looking roots. In the artist’s estimation the work becomes: “a protest against the general trend of life today … the brutality that we humans display toward nature.”8 Metzger as a child had emigrated on the kindertransport to escape the Nazi regime, and his works have addressed the relations between creativity and destruction over the course of many decades. More recently photographer Ann Shelton investigated the current whereabouts of the seedlings presented by Adolf Hitler to 130 participants in the 1936 Olympic Games for her series entitled in a forest. The so-called “Hitler Oaks” have proved sometimes elusive, other times closer to home, as in the one planted in Timaru.9
Another artwork that has haunted me ever since I learned of it is Michael Craig - Martin’s conceptualist masterpiece, An Oak Tree (1973) in which the artist combines an ordinary glass of water on a glass shelf with a memorably constructed self-interview. Here’s the first portion:
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work? A.Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water. Q. The accidents? A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree? A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. Q. It looks like a glass of water. A.Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree. Q. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done? A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists. Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree? A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree. Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes? A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree. Q. Was it difficult to effect the change? A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it. Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree? A. When I put the water in the glass. Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water? A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.10
The artwork was actually held up by the Australian Ministry of Agriculture prior to a 1976 exhibition in Brisbane. As the artist later wrote: “We went immediately to try to obtain its release. I asked the customs official what was the problem. He thrust the bill of lading in front of me and pointed to the item listed: ‘an oak tree’. “No plants allowed,” he said firmly, with the satisfied confidence of a man stating the obvious.”11
But I suppose on my part I admit that I’ve been digressing the whole time, trying to clumsily evoke a series of representations of trees, a badly painted camouflage, without leaving many gaps to let my woeful lack of tree expertise show through. A kind of thicket. Or cacophonous array of lowhanging branches in hopes of keeping one ducking and distracted in order not to get knocked out or injured in the process of negotiating one’s way through this syntactical forest.
About the author
Dr. Martin Patrick, Senior Lecturer in Fine Arts at Massey University, Wellington New Zealand, is an art critic, historian and writer. A regular contributor to and reviewer for a variety of publications, including Afterimage, Art Monthly, EyeContact, and the New Zealand Listener, his research specifically involves critical writing on interdisciplinary practices and experimental uses of media in the contemporary visual arts.
Piet Mondrian, “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality” (1919) in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975) 321.
Amelia Jones, “Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body and The Desublimation of Masculinity,” in Paul McCarthy (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000) 129.
Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art) 1992.
ATWA, http://www.atwaearth.com/index.html (accessed December 17, 2014).
Stuart Horodner, “Interview with Tony Tasset,” in Tony Tasset, Barry Blinderman, ed. (Normal, IL: University Galleries, 2003) 24.
myriadsmallthings, http://www.myriadsmallthings.org/comfycity.html (accessed December 17, 2014).
“Border Crossing: Interview with Jim Moisan (1979),” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, eds. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 772.
Christopher Thomond, “Live and wild: Gustav Metzger at Manchester International Festival,”http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/interactive/2009/jun/30/gustav-metzger-manchester-festival (accessed December 17, 2014).
Ann Shelton, http://www.annshelton.com/works/in-a-forest/ (accessed December 17, 2014).
Michael Craig-Martin: A Retrospective 1968-1989 (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1989) 60-61.