I posted this after a day off to soak up some culture on November 21 2009. An updated coda to it would be to mention that I’ve since met Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey and talked about their project to continue the work of Beuys in planting oaks, and we’ve also seen the spread of Sudden Oak Death in the UK.
The bad news about the evidence of warming and resistance to act on it is relentlessly dripping into my Twitter stream. It’s difficult to be upbeat in the face of it. The climate negotiations are based on out of date predictions. Last night, I heard that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing 57 gigatonnes of ice a year (a gigatonne is a billion tonnes) and that the temperature there is now 6 degrees warmer than it should be. Last week there were reports of over 100 icebergs heading slowly for New Zealand. If the sheet melts entirely the sea levels will rise by 64 metres. Almost the most depressing thing about that is that the predictional film most likely to come true would be Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.
Having spent weeks without any breaks for creativity and culture I thought I should lift my spirits with a cultural afternoon. Angela Palmer is the artist behind the Ghost Forest which landed in Trafalgar Square last week en route to Copenhagen. She was so depressed by deforestation and its links to climate change that she couldn’t sleep about it. So she undertook a major challenge, went to Ghana and transported these rainforest tree stumps to Europe. I found the installation an odd experience, unsettling, being in Trafalgar Square surrounded by these great uprooted things while people looked on respectfully at this combination-at-once of creativity and destruction. The labels told us that some of the trees had stood as tall as Nelson’s column. We were just looking at the feet of these giants, all washed of their soil. As I was taking photos, I felt a shadow of what it must be as a photographer in a war, albeit an extremely safe one, yet aware that the context was far more serious than any war.
Afterwards I went over to St Martins in the Fields to the Hard Rain exhibition, which although unconnected to Ghost Forest, had a lot of resonance with it. It showed photos of the Ghanaian logging operations, and other evidence of environmental destruction. There is an image of a small Ghanaian boy stretching out his arms in front of the disc of a chopped trunk, a vibrant orange colour. The text for this exhibition said ‘If we can understand the horror we can dare to hope.’
My next stop was another exhibition by Angela Palmer, called Breathing In, in the Wellcome Institute. This is the result of journeys to China and Tasmania to collect evidence of the effects of climate change and pollution on people’s lives. For example, she compares white clothes and face masks worn in both places, China showing itself as one of the polluted places on earth by the black grime.
I liked these three exhibitions and I was glad they had been made. But I felt a kind of tedium or hopelessness, a feeling that art as eco-propaganda isn’t going to work, all these images of destruction and dystopias, that it wasn’t actually planting trees but using them up.
My final exhibition that day was Points of View, about 19thC photography from the British Library. Having just been to see the Ghost Forest I was struck by the first image, blown up large, a ghostly tree, all brachial white against dark. This was the negative of An Oak Tree in Winter, the first photograph by Fox Talbot, the first photographer, the image itself a ghost. He was excited that in a few seconds you could make an image that would take a skilled artist weeks or months. This process is still something we can get excited about, and photography is a primary means by which artists show us the abuses of nature and peoples around the world. But it is all part of the mechanisation that accelerated the materialism which has brought us to this state.
The next day I went for a walk in Honor Oak, up to One Tree Hill and found myself caught by an oak tree. A man came along the path and stood there quietly looking at it with me, then after a while he nodded, smiled and walked on. Oaks were planted by Joseph Beuys in his 7,000 oaks work in Kassell and are still being planted around the world in a legacy to that project.
The tree of doors and of endurance…