It is the season when we look to the trees for budding encouragement of spring.
I welcome the miracle of a lush greening transformation as much as I welcome the skeletal baring of form over the winter.
Trees are presence, witnesses and geographic markers. They are complex symbiotic ecosystems that support life including fungi, insects and birds. Trees bathe us in phytoncides, which are basically essential oil compounds, with antimicrobial properties that offer numerous health benefits. Research in shinrin-yoku or forest bathing has shown that a walk in a forest regulates stress and metabolic hormones and supports our vitality as we are literally being swabbed by these phytoncides. I learned much of this from an interesting program on CBC Ideas called “The Witness Trees”. It brought forward a question; how can we bring community managed forests closer to our daily urban experiences, rather than commuting for hours to walk in nature?
An inspiring example in Toronto of community, culture and nature is the Evergreen Brickworks. You can walk along the now naturalized brickworks quarry, discover many of their exciting projects and wander into the ravines that connect with Toronto neighbourhoods.
Always curious about these sorts of explorations, this past fall I found myself at a number of art installations that invited questions about our relationship with the nature.
In a dimly lit room, the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, it appeared as though a long, gnarled, fallen tree lay on the floor. Its size and stillness were startling. Immediately compelling, its surprising material quality sustained my curiosity.
I slowly became aware that the tree was created with wax, epoxy, paint, cord and fabric. The branch junctures wrapped with cloth, like bandaged branches, began to look like broken bones and oozing, fleshy wounds. It felt painful and visceral. There was a strong sense, for me, of the intimate connection between bones of the body, our flesh and what composes all life forms. This work by Berlinde De Bruyckere in collaboration with acclaimed writer J.M.Coetzee titled, Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, transformed a familiar image, a fallen tree, through its surprising materials and composition into a renewed physical, emotional and cognitive experience and what seemed to me expressive of a distressing call to heal the earth.
The artists, in this work, also referenced the martyred Saint Sebastian, associated with Venice, who was often depicted tied to a tree with arrow wounds in his flesh. Referencing Saint Sebastian, as patron saint and protector of the plague, might there also be a symbolic appeal for protection from contemporary afflictions? (A contemporary affliction I often think about and a worry about, coined by Richard Louv, is the “nature deficit disorder”)
Walking further along Biennale, the Finnish artist, Antti Laitinen, reconstructed 5 felled nordic birch trees in the Giardini. This strikes me as a curious play of context and an interesting layering of form as the city of Venice itself was built upon a marshy lagoon with pillars of trees as its foundation.
I read recently in “The Global Forest”, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger that trees communicate through infrasound in low frequency sound waves. Each tree is unique in its sound due to the configuration of its trunk, bark and leaves. Aspects of Terike Haapoja’s installation in the Nordic Pavillion amplified opportunities to listen to tree frequencies and see our breath affect the decomposition of leaves. By way of a coupling of art and science, she invited us to investigate and question cycles of life and entropy as well as our presence as a participant within the ecosystem.
A couple of months later, I saw another fallen tree. This one, a bronze cast by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, was laying about in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris as part of FIAC, hors les murs.
Penone’s work are meditations on nature. For a number of years his carved works, “The Hidden Life Within” graced the Gallery Italia at Toronto’s AGO. Notably, in his striking “Cedro di Versailles”, he carved a young tree from the centre of its older self, thus revealing the process of time, growth, memory. Here at the Tuileries, his work mingled with nature constructed. Chairs lined up along the garden path position nature as a green stage with the hulking, uprooted cast tree as a central character to contemplate.
Somewhere between captivating and menacing, Éva Jospin’s h 3 x w 7 metre forest installation at Galerie des Gobelins, had an intensity that both invited the mind into its dreamscape while it also offered no point of entry for its prohibitive density.
It was created with common cardboard which was decisively cut, carved and layered. For me there is a kind of thrill when materials are related to their subject. Here a paper product reconstructed a forest.
The piece explores cultural representations of nature, use of materials and the mythology of the forest including our stories, projections, fears. I was drawn into stillness trying to decipher all it conjured.
Seeing these works reminded me that art is powerful and has a meaningful voice to raise questions, to entrance, to stir, and to bring us back to awareness of our participation in the ecosystem.
My own work in France led me to draw representations of the virginia creeper vine with plant based inks including pomegranate skins, indigo and madder root. It was moving to draw the subject of nature with the “juices” of nature itself. The vines became like arteries and alveoli.
Everything is connected.