Much of the Stuart Collection struck me as a collection of pieces that didn't quite work and had been discarded by the artist -- peices by Alexis Smith and Kiki Smith notwithstanding.A notable exception was Terry Allen's Trees, a refreshing and poetic gesture among the forced feeling of the rest of the peices. Terry Allens site-specific sculpture, Trees, consists of three forms, two of which are located in a eucalyptus grove and one in front of the Central Library, at UCSD as part of the Stuart Collection. Trees most obviously functions as a synedcoche for trees and nature, but, more subtly, as a synecdoche for death, destruction and magic.Because the forms were created by covering real trees with metal, their structure is very lifelike and they present themselves as representations of actual eucalyptus trees. The metal is dull gray, like the color of live eucalyptus tree trunks, and has a soft, non-reflective, almost organic feel. Nails are used to attach the metal to the trees and their presence breaks up the metal which prevents large areas of uninterrupted metallic texture from asserting a difference between the exterior of the sculptures and the exterior of the neighboring live trees. The metal surface is also soft enough to scratch; passersby can engrave their initials into the trunks of the sculpture, as if they were real trees. The metal not only retains the marks, but, because of its malleability, over time it absorbs the marks, just as the trunk of a live tree heals. The two forms are planted in the grove in the same linear formation as the other trees, which causes the sculptures to blend in with the live trees so well that it is necessary to look closely to pick out the sculptures. Because the fabrications, which are metaphors for live trees, have such a visual affinity for the live trees in the grove, they integrate easily into their environment. A relationship between the forms and the live trees is formed, and thus, through integration and relationship, the sculptures become a synecdoche for nature. The sculpture Trees becomes a synecdoche for death first in the process of its creation. The forms are based on eucalyptus trees already cut, therefore the foundation of the piece involves death not only of the individual trees that were used, but also in a more generic sense because eucalyptus poison the ground in which they are planted through their natural oils which kills any other plant life growing too near.
Next, the all leaves and twigs were removed, leaving only the trunks and primary branches of the trees, like trees dormant in winter, a metaphor for death. Stripped of their leaves, which provide energy to the trees, the trunks and branches resemble lifeless forms and again suggest loss, which, through metonymy, leads to grief and thus arrives again as a synecdoche for death. This stripping of leaves and branches also reflects the ancient Egyptian process of mummification, in which the deceased were stripped of all parts deemed non-essential to the preservation of their essential form. The next step in preparing the dead trees was preservation, the cut eucalyptus were literally embalmed, and again Trees resonates with the ancient Egyptian death ritual. Finally, the forms were covered with metal, which in this case is lead, a substance well-known for its toxicity. Lead is associated with the planet Saturn, said to represent destruction, death and rebirth. In this sense, Trees become a synecdoche for disaster. Their lead-lined exteriors conjure up images of bomb-shelters, the many nails further the metonymic process by suggesting heavy armor in anticipation of extreme circumstances. Their presence in the grove places the disaster as an event beginning with nature. Obviously UCSD has cleared hundreds of acres of natural habitat, destroying an enormous ecosystem, for the purposes of human use. Trees could be read as signposts pointing towards a dire future if the natural environment continues to be abused and exploited. The forms raise questions such as: Must nature adapt to human intervention by assuming a veneer of human qualities (in this case the human-made skin)? Or must nature fight back by becoming toxic to humans? Or is this new toxicity the result of the rebirth of nature in the aftermath of human-made disaster?Trees also becomes a synecdoche for magic. The live trees in the grove are surrounded by fallen leaves and twigs. But surrounding each sculpture in the grove is a ring of cleared space, caused by humans regularly interacting with the forms, which, particularly at night, suggests ritual, aboriginal magic, shamanism and witchcraft. These spaces also draw attention to where the roots would be, and in so doing, metonymic association leads to chthonic images of roots reaching towards an underworld of supernatural beings. The artist has given these sculptures the ability to produce sounds, which, in turn, gives the sculptures the quality of enchantment. One sculpture is known as The Literary Tree and recites poems, the other is the Music Tree and it plays songs. The Literary Tree enjoys a particularly strong association with shamanism as some of the sound it produces includes Navajo chants and Aztec poetry, while the Music Tree reminds viewers of the old admonition about whistling in the graveyard to ward off spirits. The artists who produced the music and poetry are all friends of Terry Allen and a partial list includes: (Music Tree) The Nightmare Asparagus. William T. Wiley, Joe Ely, The Maines Brothers and David Byrne, who wrote a composition exclusively for this project, and (Literary Tree) Bale Allen and Phillip Levine.So far, the analysis has concentrated on the two forms in the grove. The third form is the Silent Tree which is located directly in front of the Central Library and which is covered with text. Because the sculpture makes no sound and the gray color blends with the concrete of the library, viewers have a tendency to ignore Silent Tree. Through metonymic association, Silent Tree suggests books, as the text can be read, books have leaves and paper comes from trees. The silence also reminds the viewer of the atmosphere in the library. The text, which lists the names of the artists whose music and poetry are used for the other two forms, establishes the form as a reference, hence the tree becomes a site of information, just as the Central Library is a site for information. When a viewer carves a name into the lead lining of the tree, they symbolically add themselves to the list of credits. Over time, their mark will fade and be covered with additional graffiti, yet the text will remain stable.
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