Seeing the wood for the trees

Seeing the wood for the trees

Dotted around Kew Gardens are some twenty ‘tree sculptures’ by David Nash. They come in all sizes, and sit variously in the middle of lawns, between bushes, or almost hidden in the undergrowth. Just finding them is fun in itself. They are being displayed, as the organisers say, in a ‘Natural Gallery’ and it works well. Each made me stop and think. Then it was on to the next, appetite whetted.

If Nash has a genius, and for me he does, it is in his ability to create art from ‘within’ trees. He is not using the trees for their wood, as would be the case for a classical sculptor or furniture-maker, rather he takes the form and shape, and somehow even the texture, of trees and manipulates them or their parts to create novel structures. Of the various installations, four were special. Certainly, if I had the money and the space (and if they were for sale) I would have bought any one of them there and then. Interestingly, all four came alive when viewed close up, so are unlike trees whose splendour is usually best seen from a distance.

The first of the four was a six-metre high, charred redwood trunk. It looked like some giant reptile with shiny black tessellated skin. Converting a plant into an animal in this way was eerie. The second consisted of hundreds of closely packed gnarled and curved pieces of cork bark, some bits the size of a policeman’s shield. Together, they somehow formed a smooth mound about two meters high and ten metres across. By this arrangement Nash magically converted these individually ugly, black and brown ‘planks’ into something beautiful with a form reminiscent of coral. The third was an intact trunk in which deep saw cuts had been made in such a way as to give a feeling of stacked planks. But these were still attached. Stripping away the bark and making the wood into a commodity while still in situ was a powerful reminder for me that planks were once themselves living. The fourth sculpture, and my favourite, was a large forked and twisted branch that had been cut lengthwise down its centre. The cut created two, long, Y-shaped, slithers each the mirror image of the other. Somehow they demanded one’s mind’s eye to put them back together again, just to see if they really fitted. This look inside felt like an intrusion. We were seeing something that should be private to the tree and should never have been exposed. It was uncanny how Nash’s treatment of the individual trees, or their parts, turned them into such demanding art forms.

So there they were, distinct and powerful. But, it soon became clear that the exhibition’s publicity and signage had not been a great success. Tucked away in the Temperate House, one of Kew’s main conservatories, was a two-metre high, squared-off, column through which Nash had cut a rectangular-shaped hole. Staring at the installation, and looking somewhat bemused, was a well-dressed, fierce-looking woman in her 60s in a black suit and with black hair drawn back tightly into a bun. Feeling that perhaps she was not sure what the vast cube was about, I asked her if she wanted any help – some explanation perhaps? No, she said with confidence, and reading the label just beside its base, told me the cube was a native plant from New Zealand called Fuchsia excorticata and known there as ‘’kotukutuku’. Now it happens that this particular fuchsia, which was indeed growing close by the sculpture, is a bush with a slim trunk, flimsy branches and lovely hanging, purple, trumpet-shaped, flowers.

Clearly there was some confusion. But I suppose she must have assumed that this being a botanical garden the great chunk of wood would have to be a botanical specimen. Once I realised the misunderstanding I went on to tell her about the exhibition. She was not at all happy and walked away looking even fiercer than before.

My women in black was not unique. Surprised by her response, I went out of my way to ask other Kew visitors about the sculptures and all five of my interviewees looked askance. For whatever reason none had noticed the publicity; for them the sculptures simply did not exist. For a couple who were carrying a brochure telling of the works and their whereabouts, one piece (the reptile tree), remained invisible even when it was staring them in the face. In my view all were missing a treat but none seemed interested. But not so my stern acquaintance – and all credit it to her. Soon after she had walked off I spotted her with a friend of a similar style. She was standing and gesticulating enthusiastically in front of one the more sensual of Nash’s pieces entitled ‘Thrown’.

All rather different from the kotukutuku bush.

Links: David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery (until March 2013)

David Nash at Kew – in pictures

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