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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.
“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.
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.
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.
Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832. His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies. Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects. For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism. He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time. Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.
Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings. The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood. The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.
Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature. Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy). However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods. Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.
Sooo…I try to keep it light on Mondays so we can get through these long weeks, but one of our recent posts demands an immediate follow-up. Remember how I was discussing the grim fate of ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Fat Michel’) the strain of bananas which were wiped out by Panama disease in the 50s? Well, Panama disease has mutated and returned. It’s baaaack…and this time it destroying the once immune ‘Cavendish’ plants which make up almost every banana in Europe, Africa, and the New World Photos are becoming more and more common of dying banana plants and desperate farmers burning their groves. ‘Cavendish’ plants are clones and if one is susceptible, they all are. I really like bananas (when they are ripe) and the idea of doing without the radioactive potassium-rich fruit makes me sad. What are we going to do?
I guess a good market solution would be to make a transgenic banana that was resistant to the Panama disease, patent the critical gene fragment, and then sell sterile clones of the frankenfruit. Since I like science and bananas (though not necessarily giant agribusinesses) so this is an acceptable solution to keep the yellow fruit on the table.
An alternate idea, however strikes me as far better. We should send out teams of banana farmers and taste-testers to South East Asia (the first home of the banana) to collect purple, white, red, and gray bananas. Different folks can start growing all sorts of new bananas around the world. Undoubtedly some of them are more delicious than ‘Gros Michel” and I bet they are all more resistant to the blight.
In fact just yesterday, regular Ferrebeekeeper commenter Beatrix reported on the delicious (albeit plain-looking) bananas of Nepal. She writes:
Here in Nepal we have all sorts of different bananas growing wild & in cultivation. They vary from short sweeties to starchy plantain sorts. Nepalis don’t have names for the different types of bananas. One of the tastiest varieties here is the ugliest – it is rather small (fingerlike), sporting a mottled greenish black peel with patches of gray lichen when ripe. The peel is surprisingly paper thin but the the flesh is a rich golden yellow & the taste is the most incredible, sweet custard-y banana flavor ever. I have never tasted this type of banana anywhere but Nepal. Most Asians prefer the starchy, bland bananas that most westerners would consider unripe – they think by the time a banana gets to the yellow mottled with brown stage it’s rotten.
Who here doesn’t want to try these delicious ugly bananas? I am ready to pack up and head off to Nepal just to try them! What we have is a marketing problem. If these charlatans can sell people on stuff like organic food and bottled water, why can’t they sell delicious (but ugly) finger-length bananas? The second coming of Panama disease needn’t spell the end of bananas (although we may lose the familiar bright yellow “Cavendish”)—perhaps this could be the beginning of a glorious new era of multicolor bananas of all sizes and flavors!
It’s been a while since we had any posts about how beautiful trees are. Therefore here are two Ming Dynasty bowls which feature tree art. The first bowl above is rather large and dates back to the reign of the Jiajing emperor (which lasted from 1521 AD to 1567 AD). The Jiajing emperor was a noted loon who believed absolutely in magical portents and auspicious signs—which in turn made him a pawn to corrupt court officials who used the monarch’s credulity as an opportunity to steal and/or ruin everything. However the emperor’s obsession with magic meant that Jiajing-era porcelain was marked by a beautiful sense of occult whimsy and Taoist fantasy. This bowl shows four different potted plants: a cypress, a pine, a peach, and a bamboo which are growing in a beautiful garden filled with butterflies, cicadas, and dragonflies. The plants are shaped in the form of four different auspicious words fu, shou, kang, and ning (happiness, long life, health, and composure).
The second bowl is smaller and arguably finer. It also shows a garden scene bounded beneath by two ornamental borders of extreme elegance and beauty. A dwarf flower tree is bursting into blossom among spring foliage (the opposite side of the bowl shows a bamboo grove). Inside the bowl is a beautiful miniature garden of rocks, bamboo, and flowering trees. The tiny bowl was manufactured during the Chenghua reign (from between 1464 AD and 1487 AD) which was a troubled era of court intrigues and palace murders (which took place at the orders of the villainous concubine, Lady Wan). This little bowl, however, is exquisite and seems to have escaped the shadows of its era. For half a millennium the tiny perfect Ming garden has been blooming in delicate shades of cobalt glaze.
Gathered here for your amusement and delight are three world flags which feature trees (cedar, pine, and palm). I have arranged them in chronological order, but this could also represent order of importance, since Lebanon is a nation, Norfolk Island a territory, and the British Indian Ocean Territory is essentially a military base.
The flag of Lebanon shows one of the famous cedars of Lebanon which are referenced so poetically in the Bible. The colors and layout of the flag were specifically designed not to refer to any of Lebanon’s different religious groups. To quote Wikipedia, “The red stripes symbolize the pure blood shed in the aim of liberation. The white stripe symbolizes peace, and the white snow covering Lebanon’s mountains. The green cedar, (Species: Cedrus libani or Lebanon Cedar) symbolizes immortality and steadiness.” This flag was first flown in the dark year of 1943 as the world reeled in chaos and battle.
Norfolk Island is a small verdant island in the Pacific Ocean located between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. The flag of Norfolk Island was adopted in the long ago year of…1980. It shows a Norfolk Island Pine Tree on a white field between two bands of green (which represent the island’s rich vegetation). Norfolk Island is technically an outer territory of the Commonwealth of Australia but it enjoys a high degree of autonomy.
Civilians cannot visit the British Indian Ocean Territory. The only inhabited island, Diego Garcia, is dominated by vast secretive Anglo-American military bases from which the two allies run their Indian Ocean and Central Asian naval and air missions. The flag is similar to other British commonwealth/colony/dependency flags in that it has the Union Flag in the upper hoist-side corner. The crown represents the British monarchy and the palm tree is an obvious symbol of the island’s flora. The meaning of the blue wavy lines is unknown. Indeed it is unclear to what extent this flag is official or even in use. This flag has been in use since 1990.
Is this a nightmarish future dystopia? No, of course not, it’s just Singapore, the authoritarian concrete & steel city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Recognizing the manmade barrenness of land which should be a tropical rainforest, Singapore’s central planners mandated the creation of “the gardens by the bay” three gardens built on reclaimed land in central Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir. The centerpiece of the gardens is “the supertree grove” a series of artificial trees ranging between 25 metres (82 ft) and 50 metres (160 ft) in height. The artificial metal trees are rigged with water collectors and photovoltaic cells to mimic the function of real trees. They have also been festooned with living vines, bromeliads, flowers, and ferns to be green and living in verisimilitude of actual trees. Singapore hopes the strange structures will further mimic real trees and act as kidneys and lungs for the city—providing clean air and clean water. By day, visitors can walk through the ersatz trees on a walkway (perhaps to eat at a café on top of the largest), and, at night, the trees are the setting of a dazzling light show. Of course, the question remains: why didn’t Singapore use real trees? It seems the nation is extremely determined to make itself into an arcology—an artificial superstructure designed to support immense numbers of humans. Rebuilding natural ecosystems to be part of this great machine-city is a necessary step. I wonder when they will go ahead and just build a dome over the place.
Long-time readers know that I love trees. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this past weekend, when, for the first time, I visited a tropical rainforest–El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. The only tropical rainforest under the rubric of the United States Forest Department, El Yunque is a very gentle jungle: not only does it lack poisonous snakes or spiders, but there are not even any endemic mammals other than bats (although mongooses have crept in, thanks to a misguided introduction program long ago) and no predators larger than hawks. What it lacks in large violent animals, El Yunque makes up for with astonishing botanical diversity. Immense tree ferns tower over volcanic boulders. Delicate Coquís—tree frogs which are the unofficial mascot of Puerto Rico–sing beneath the umbrella-like leaves of Cecropia trees. The mollusks, that great strange phylum, exist in proliferation which rivals a coastline or an oyster reef. Transparent slugs with green nuclei are virtually invisible on stones. Snails the size of children’s hands hang in the branches.
Among the flowers, frogs, and fruitbats, there are ancient giants–just not animal ones. The most beautiful tree I saw in the rainforest was an Ausubo (Manikara bidentata) a huge, slow-growing evergreen tree rising magnificently 10 stories above the forest floor. The wood of ausubo is coveted by builders and carpenters since it is lovely to look at, rock hard, and resistant to rot and insects (the sap can also be formed into a hard resin like gutta-percha: this material, called gutta-balatá, was used to make golf balls for professional golfers until it was replaced by modern synthetics). Ausubo was once the most important timber tree in Puerto Rico and many of the great colonial buildings feature great halls made of mighty ausubo timbers now hundreds of years old. Today, sadly few large, ancient trees remain. However the forest service has planted great stands of them in El Yunque and some originals still remain like the one pictured below which a sign asserted was three to four hundred years old. It is strange to think that the tree (which is broader at the base than a person is tall) was once a tiny seed dropped by a fruit bat or a bird. It has outlasted all of the lumberjacks and hurricanes since San Juan was little more than a fort above a colonial village.
Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana). Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).
Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies. If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws). The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals. Tamanduas can live up to nine years. They are widespread but comparatively scarce.