It’s an odd tree that greets visitors to The Fields Sculpture Park in Ghent—suspended in space, bare of leaves, a sprawl of spreading roots exposed. The tree expansively and emphatically fills the generous volume of the interior gallery space of the impressive new visitor’s center that is now both gateway and focal point of the park, yet the work never seems oppressive. It is huge, yet light as air, a sculptural confection by Irish artist Katie Holten that looks uncannily like a real tree, but that was actually improvised out of cardboard, newspaper, wire, duct tape, and a laundry list of other materials.
In fact, the form of Holten’s tree was modeled on a photograph of an actual uprooted dogwood tree, which has obviously contributed to the authority of this doppelganger’s presence. But why on Earth should someone expend such time and effort to make a fake tree, when so many perfectly nice ones are available just a stone’s throw from this gallery? (You know, like that poem says ,“I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree.”)
I think it has something to do with the very strange relationship we humans have spent the last eight or nine millennia building with what we’ve come to call “nature.” We invent tools, name things with language, build houses, drive SUVs to the country house—all these endless arrays of technologies have historically tended to remove us from the earthly realm, reinforcing our separateness from the natural world that surrounds us.
The slickly packaged life that we’ve so ingeniously engineered for ourselves (in the technological, formerly industrialized West) is incredibly volatile, and the future seems to bode only more and more rapid, radical change. Ever since the Industrial Revolution kicked off in the late 18th century, forward-thinking artists have found themselves grappling with the impeccable (and unforeseeable) logic of the unintended consequences that we all face. Think of art as a peculiarly appropriate evolutionary adaptation—a realm of specialized technology (creativity) that is needed to cope with all the strange side effects of the social, economic, and environmental upheavals and all those other technologies.
The Holten piece is part of the latest temporary exhibition to open at The Fields, “Into the Trees,” curated by Lilly Wei and the new director of the Fields, Amy Lipton. In stark contrast to many of the more traditionally monumental works that populate the sculpture park, this show invites the viewer to stroll through the wooded trails along one side of the pond in its center, to find works that for the most part have gently insinuated themselves into the landscape, and that require a bit of attentive looking to discover. Wei and Lipton invited the artists to select a living tree to create a site-specific installation, taking into consideration the temporary nature of the show, and asking only that they not harm the tree.
A number of the works adopt intimate, overtly gentle strategies to insinuate themselves into the forest landscape. Shinique Smith, whose work normally involves making monumental bundles of discarded fabric (à la the 19th-century rag picker), has here adapted her process to wrap and bind colorful fabrics to the branches of two trees at one of the entrances to the path, an open invitation to enter the woods to discover the unexpected. A bit further in, Elizabeth Demaray has ingeniously knitted her Plant Sweater around four or five thick, woody plant stems. The piece required Demaray to literally camp out onsite to do the knitting, part a series of what she calls “inappropriate caregiving activities” that she’s developed over the past few years.
The tour de force on this wooded path, however, has to be Nina Katchadourian’s Twitchers and Cheaters, a multichannel video piece installed on a series of small LCD monitors on tree branches overhead. The screens feature videos of all 228 North American birds whose range (whether resident or migratory) includes The Fields. The title refers to a British slang term for birdwatchers (twitchers), and plays on the phenomenon of avid birdwatchers who keep a “life list” of all the species of birds they’ve observed. Theoretically, you could cheat and complete your life list for the Hudson Valley simply by standing in one spot, observing all the birds recorded on the video in the span of just a few minutes. (You might even want to use binoculars to get a closer look!)
Katchadourian’s work offers a fascinating way of reframing our relationship to nature in/through technology—are they really such separate dimensions of experience? After all, the videos she’s used have come largely from CDs and DVDs that were made for birdwatchers in the first place, people who would be expected to use the images as a mental reference as they hiked into nature to see the “real thing.” But the technologies we have created are themselves something real, aren’t they?
It’s tempting to think of technology as something that keeps us at arm’s length from that big world outside. Driving in my car, I can crank up the radio and the AC and remain entirely oblivious to the heat, the sounds, and the smells of the places I pass through all too quickly. But that obliviousness is a choice on my part—I don’t necessarily have to barricade myself from the cycles and realities of the natural world, I can choose to embrace them instead. Twitchers and Cheaters was not always the title of Katchadourian’s piece—her original idea was to create a “bird organ” to accompany the videos with a soundtrack of recorded bird calls. Yet, as she spent time on the site, the artist noticed that there was already a wealth of natural birdsong in the woods, and she recognized the intensity to be gained by allowing her video representations of birds to interleave themselves with the already rich aural reality of the place.
It is in this spirit of free and open exchange—a recognition of the radical interdependence of humans and nature, and of the creative embrace of improvisation as our special contribution to the larger reality of the world (as seen in Katie Holten’s re-created tree)—that we can experience any hope for the future. Ironically, perhaps it is the apparent unreality of art that can serve to bring us, literally and figuratively, back to Earth.
“Into the Trees” is open through November 30 at The Fields Sculpture Park at Omi International Arts Center in Ghent. (518) 392-4747; www.artomi.org.
- Nina Katchadourian, Twitchers and Cheaters,5 video monitors, 2008
- Katie Holten, Excavated Tree (Missouri Native Flowering Dogwood), cardboard, newspaper, wire, PVC, steel, duct tape, 2007-08.