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Hollow (Katie Paterson, 206, wood)

Hollow (Katie Paterson, 2016, wood)

A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy.  The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft.  But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth.  The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.

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“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol.  It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together.  Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.

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Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct.  There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens.  There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando.  There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike.   There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.

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The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it).  We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals.  The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity.  The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.

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Shandon House, Scotland (circa present)

Shandon House, Scotland (circa present)

Here is one of the most beautiful Gothic houses I could find on the internet: Shandon House, a 19th century Scottish revival manor/castle overlooking Gare Loch in Scotland.  The house was built in 1849 on 31 acres of beautiful Scottish hills.  It was owned by various grandees (shipping magnates, tobacco merchants, and such), before becoming a boys’ school, but the school then closed in the mid-eighties.

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The region where Shandon House is located is dominated by Faslane Naval Base, one of the three ports of the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom (and arguably the most important).  So Shandon House was purchased by the Ministry of Defense…but since the Ministry of Defense has no actual use for dark fairy tale castles, the house has been derelict for over a decade, and may now be beyond repair.  As far as I can tell, the MOD is incapable of finding buyers and hopes to knock the house down (although its designation as a historical landmark makes such an outcome somewhat unlikely).

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It is a shame the house is decaying away, since this is truly an elegant and imposing structure.  On the other hand, who would actually live here other than evil sorcerers, mad scientists, Dalmatian coat enthusiasts, and other suchlike Disney villain folk?

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Jaggy MacBee walks towards retirement

Jaggy MacBee walks towards retirement

Today’s post comes from the thrilling (?) world of international football aka soccer [Ed. Are you sure this is right?]  Although, to American eyes, soccer sometimes seems to lack critical elements of sport (excitement, skill, scoring, and so forth), it definitely has the most important thing: wacky mascots!  In fact, soccer arguably has the wackiest mascots, as is very emphatically demonstrated by the new mascot of the Scottish football team Partick Thistle (er, that’s apparently the name of their soccer club, not the new spokesbeing).  Apparently the old mascot, Jaggy MacBee, (pictured above) was not edgy enough for something as riot-inducing as Scottish football.  Fortunately, the new mascot, pictured below in all of his (its?) stark raging horror is nothing but edges!  Well, that isn’t entirely true, “Kingsley” the yellow thistle also has a mouth-breathing look of angry stupor and a unibrow to go with his (its?) sharpened head.

“Kingsley” the thistle mascot

The internet has been abuzz with sarcastic quips about the ambulatory thistle and with wistful nostalgia for the unemployed bee (as indeed was almost certainly the intent of some sinister group of marketers behind the entire switch).  Even despite the transparently manipulative nature of the upgrade, there really is something poignant about the substitution.  Bees are fading from our pesticide-heavy world (as we will discuss in a real post tomorrow) while irritating characters specifically and solely designed to create an angry emotional response are proliferating.

“Why won’t anyone sit with me?”

Also, Kingsley is not unfunny.  He has his own particular Alfred Jarry flavor, as was the intent of the responsible artist David Shrigley, who designs deliberately crude cartoons to mock the shirking anomie of contemporary mass culture (at least that’s how I am going to interpret them).  How would you design a thistle mascot? It is not necessarily an easy challenge, although I know my submission would have been more purple and baroque—like everything I make.  Stay tuned for the further adventures of Kingsley and Jaggy MacBee.  I get the sense we haven’t heard the last of these guys—if for no other reason than the obtrusive attention-seeking of their makers.

"Eh...what are you gonna do?"

“Eh…what are you gonna do?”

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

If you wander through the beautiful landscape of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you will encounter many lovely sights: vistas of pastoral splendor will open before you filled with fields, trees, forests, streams, and lakes. There are stately statues, Victorian villas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens aplenty in the huge park–but there oddities too. Beside the Beaux Arts boathouse which floats above the lake like a huge elegant wedding cake, you will come upon a strange sight.  Completely bounded within a gothic ironwork fence, a horribly twisted and mutated tree is held together with bolts, crutches, and wire.  Although the tree’s trunk and limbs are monstrous, it is only 4 meters (twelve feet) tall and it is covered with lovely deep green hand-sized leaves in summer.

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The tree is a Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) a bizarre mutant elm brought as a graft from the old world.  It was planted in 1872–the year that Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president (and also the first year that Arbor Day was celebrated). This particular tree has survived Dutch Elm disease, which wiped away America’s splendid elm-lined avenues, and the wizened tree somehow stayed alive during the urban decay of the 1960s-1990s (indeed its limbs are carved with obscure yet strangely familiar graffiti).  The wires, crutches, and supports are the work of gifted tree surgeons, brought in by the Prospect Park Alliance to keep the ancient tree alive.  It remains bonsai-like in its own little yard, a testament to the vigor of trees.

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The story of how the weeping elm was discovered is likewise a strange trip into the past.  Between 1835 and 1840 David Taylor, who was the forester for the Earl of Camperdown, discovered a bizarre mutant branch of what seemed like an elm tree growing along the floor of the forest outside the Earl’s huge Greek revival manor house in Scotland.  The forester grafted the branch onto a normal Wych Elm and discovered that the resultant tree was a twisted weeping mutant.

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

During the Victorian age, there was a trend towards interesting and bizarre specimen plants in aristocratic gardens and arboretums (the perplexingly self-referential name of the aesthetic movement emphasizing such specimens was “gardenesque”).  Prospect Park’s Camperdown elm tree rode this movement across the ocean to Brooklyn where Olmstead and Vaux were putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece park.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by Wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

 

The Heath Pea (Lathyrus linifolius)

Last week Mark Goff, an alert reader with a deep knowledge of botany and herblore, informed me of a mistake in my column concerning the bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). Apparently a second plant goes by this common name and I accidentally reported on it as though it was Vicia ervilia. This second bitter vetch is Lathyrus linifolius, aka the “heath pea” (which is the name I’m going to use for it here on out). I have edited my earlier article and purged it of information and photos of the heath pea. Suffice to say, Vicia ervilia is indeed the Neolithic founder crop known for its bitterness. Please note that the seeds of Vicia ervilia are edible only if prepared properly (not that I imagine anyone running out to feast on the ancient legume). Vicia ervilia must be blanched and the water must be then be dumped out over and over again and again to ensure that the final dish is not toxic.

The heath pea (Lathyrus linifolius) is a fascinating plant in its own right. Native to the Highlands of Scotland it is a delicate fern-like plant with purple flowers. I had used photos of its lovely flowers in the Vicia ervilia article. I have replaced those images–and now I get to show the pretty heath pea once again (properly labeled this time). The heath pea produces a bitter tuber in its roots which was apparently consumed by higlanders in times of scarcity and famine to suppress hunger. Charles II is said to have given it to his mistress Nell Gwyn to help her lose weight (although I make it a practice not to believe everything I read about the restoration court). Mark Goff, who is brave as well as learned, reports that he has been eating the tubers and has noticed no side effects other than weight loss. Since obesity and weight-related health problems are becoming more pervasive in today’s world, contemporary scientists are studying the plant and analytically assessing the claims about it. Contemporary business people are close behind, trying to determine if they can make a fortune from Scottish weight-loss tubers.

 

Lathyrus linifolius

Whatever the end results of theses studies and hopes, I wish to apologize for conflating the two plants and offer my thanks to Mr. Goff. All of this is a massive vindication for Linnaeus who established binomial nomenclature to avoid precisely this sort of misunderstanding. To wrap up this article, here is a statue of the great taxonomist which was given to my alma mater by the king of Sweden!

 

A statue of Carl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), Founder of Binomial Taxonomy...

Thanks MS Paint!

To celebrate the spooky season, we have been recounting the various fates of the brood of monsters descended from Echidna. While doing so, one aspect of the story has become glaringly apparent:  more than half of the family of monsters was defeated by Hercules. Cerberus, Ladon, Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the great Caucasian Eagle…the demigod bested them all as he bludgeoned and ripped his shining path through the world.  (I haven’t told the tale of Orthrus, the two headed dog who was best friend to the three-headed monster Geryon:  suffice to say, during his tenth labor, Hercules killed the poor pooch.)  One would expect a devoted mother to be enraged and thirst for vengeance.  However there is a story about Hercules and Echidna meeting, and it seems the mother of monsters desired something very different from revenge.  I’ll turn the storytelling over to Herodotus.  It is worth remembering that while people call Herodotus “the father of history”, historians call him “the father of lies”.  He tells a great many thrilling stories but he probably made them up while he was binge drinking in his library…. Anyway, here is the passage from Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson):

Hercules came from thence into the region now called Scythia, and, being overtaken by storm and frost, drew his lion’s skin about him, and fell fast asleep. While he slept, his mares, which he had loosed from his chariot to graze, by some wonderful chance disappeared. On waking, he went in quest of them, and, after wandering over the whole country, came at last to the district called “the Woodland,” where he found in a cave a strange being, between a maiden and a serpent, whose form from the waist upwards was like that of a woman, while all below was like a snake. He looked at her wonderingly; but nevertheless inquired, whether she had chanced to see his strayed mares anywhere. She answered him, “Yes, and they were now in her keeping; but never would she consent to give them back, unless he took her for his mistress.” So Hercules, to get his mares back, agreed; but afterwards she put him off and delayed restoring the mares, since she wished to keep him with her as long as possible. He, on the other hand, was only anxious to secure them and to get away. At last, when she gave them up, she said to him, “When thy mares strayed hither, it was I who saved them for thee: now thou hast paid their salvage; for lo! I bear in my womb three sons of thine. Tell me therefore when thy sons grow up, what must I do with them? Wouldst thou wish that I should settle them here in this land, whereof I am mistress, or shall I send them to thee?” Thus questioned, they say, Hercules answered, “When the lads have grown to manhood, do thus, and assuredly thou wilt not err. Watch them, and when thou seest one of them bend this bow as I now bend it, and gird himself with this girdle thus, choose him to remain in the land. Those who fail in the trial, send away. Thus wilt thou at once please thyself and obey me.”

Two of Echidna’s human children by Hercules proved to be disappointments and were sent away, but Skythes, the youngest son was indeed capable of wielding Hercules’ bow.  Skythes stayed in the land, became its king, and fathered the race of the Scythians, a (real) tribe of people whom the ancient Greeks regarded as being descended from union of the the greatest Greek hero and a primordial monster!  People who are familiar with the Scythians will be yelling and punching the air right now (because Scythians are just completely awesome), however, to quickly summarize; the fearsome Scythians were nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.  They were renowned for their formidable prowess at mounted warfare and for being general badasses. Roman historians described the Goths as Scythians.  The Scottish even called themselves Scythians!  in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, an open letter to the pope, the elite aristocrats of Scotland claim Scythia as their former homeland.  It goes without saying they were binge-drinking in a library when they wrote that puppy.

Scythian Warriors on the steppes (Painting by Angus McBride)

Speaking of puppies, tomorrow, we wrap up this series with everyone’s favorite child of Echidna…

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