Mustarinda Trees

The Tallest Spruce in the Neighbourhood

How to perform with a really big tree? And especially a tree that you have not chosen, or that has not “chosen” you, but one that has been pointed to you as a local celebrity? These notes will document my first attempts at visiting and performing with or in the vicinity of a tall spruce tree growing in the Paljakka area near Hyrynsalmi, not very far from the Mustarinda House. It is visible from the road, with an overgrown carriage path leading up to it. My hostess Hanna pointed at it already when we were driving past it on arrival on Tuesday 1 September. On Wednesday I decided to walk and see if I could find it, and came easily to the path. The grass was so high that I decided not to continue all the way to the spruce but to return the following day wearing rubber boots.

The path up to the spruce – without the spruce being visible at this point.

And so I did, in soft drizzle on Thursday. I walked up towards the spruce and realized that the path was bending so I could no longer see the tree, but continued for a while until I saw it again. The path did not lead up to spruce, however, but ended up in another path forming a T-cross. In order to reach the spruce I had to enter the forest and try to find my way through the shrubs. That was not difficult as such, but I was suddenly afraid of not finding my way back. I could find the spruce alright, it was a landmark, but how would I find the path again, if I lost my bearings. I tried to note particular stubs on the way, to be able to turn back into the right direction when returning from the spruce. It was majestic, for sure. I did not take out my camera and tripod but decided to make two simple videos with my phone, one further away and one quite close, simply following its trunk from the root to the top. How on earth could I perform with a giant like this? Performing with trees is always difficult if you would like to show the tree in full, but in this case almost impossible, because of the surrounding vegetation. I felt slightly scared in the midst of the forest and decided to return and come back later.

my landmarks to find my way back to the path

Today I realized I should take this spruce as my partner and challenger to explore various strategies of performing, rather than trying to “solve” the problem with one solution. So I decided to try to return to the tree and try out different approaches each time. And I also remembered the text “Befriending a tree”, that I encountered online, here. The writer Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder has some good advice to think about: finding a tree, introducing yourself, avoid referring to “it”, quiet yourself, observe the tree, let the tree surprise you, ask the questions that come up, maybe find out facts about the tree, return several times, spend at least 30 minutes each time, and try to write, photograph, draw, and share. – In my explorations with trees I have never been so systematic, or, on the other hand more systematic in the sense of being practical, deciding rather quickly what I want to do and how I will repeat it. And all the experiences usually come up during those repetitions. But now, what if I do not allow myself the comfort and security of a repetitive routine, but try something new each time, try to acknowledge the specificity of each moment? That is a challenge…

performances Trees

Be-coming Tree with a Pine

My meetings with trees tend to be based on repetition, repeated visits, rather than durational performances, long sessions together with a tree. When the action is to balance on your toes and reach up with your arms, in a yoga pose of sorts, 21 breaths is plenty. This, time, however, I was supposed to continue for an hour, in order to participate in the Live Art event via zoom called Be-Coming Tree. A quote from the event description:

“The Zoom live art event will showcase a network of artists communing simultaneously with their local trees and woodlands across the globe. The initiative wants to grow kinship and mutuality with more-than-human forms of life through a heartfelt, collective and connective action of communion with nature throught a creative use of Zoom: the most used video conferencing platform these days. Audiences can use the chat room as they witness this global experience. /–/ With performances by and from:
O. Pen Be (UK), Danielle Imara (UK), Jatun Risba (SLO), Surya Tüchler (GER), Emma Cole (UK), Annette Arlander (FIN), Yolande Brener (USA), Caroline Frizell (UK), Anne Murray (HUN), Izabela Waszak (SCT), Sumedha Bhattacharyya (IND), Phil Barton (UK), Nitesh Kushwaha (IND), Satadru Sovan (IND), Chaturi Nissansala(LK), Lucy Stockton-Smith (UK), Prashant Jha (IND), Dinesh Solanki (IND), Agathe Gizard (GER), Pierce Starre (UK)” For a full description of the event, see here.

Since I was to finish my daily sessions with a small pine tree on Harakka Island only the day before, the most natural thing was to perform with the same pine. The only way I could think of to extend my 21-breath performance to last for an hour, was to repeat the action for ten breaths at a time, with ten breaths of resting in between. It was not too hard, the weather was fine – the sun was almost too hot and the occasional cloud felt like a relief, as did the small gusts of wind from the north. The setting up was quite a hassle; I have not used zoom on my phone before, and my small tripod was rather unstable. Luckily Marika Maijala agreed to act as my assistant, guarding my phone and telling me when the thing was over. She also took some nice photos and video clips.

video still Marika Maijala
video still Marika Maijala
performances Trees

Performing Live with an Apple Tree

Performing for a live audience feels almost absurd in these Corona days, especially since I usually only perform for the camera. Now, when everybody else is performing via zoom or other media, I was invited to give a lecture performance at a private festival – yes, a three-day garden party with Finno-Ugric folklorists or ethnographers, sociologists, artists and general intellectuals, in short, a great event. My planning consisted of asking the host whether there was a projector, so I could show a video, or then a tree. No projector, but several trees – fine. I translated a short text about my project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees into Finnish, checked that I could show the video with the Spruce of Independence on my iPad and send it around among the audience, and decided to choose the tree once on the spot and to ask the audience to document my standing with the tree with their phones and send to me by email. There was a beautiful apple tree in the garden, remarkably high, actually, and after a brief introductory talk I invited people to come to the tree and then did what I do for the camera, raise my arms, and try to balance on my toes for a while. Due to my nervousness, or my shoes or both, I did not stay put longer than one minute, but that was enough. This was like a prototype performance, and I would be happy to make more similar type of brief performances with other trees at other parties. The documentation is compiled on the RC, here.


Remarkable Spruces

Is it because Old Tjikko, an ancient spruce, was the first tree in this series of meetings with remarkable and unremarkable trees, or because spruces are some of the trees most common to the Nordic countries, or for some other reason, that I seem to be attached to spruces these days? After befriending the pine on Hundudden in Stockholm in the beginning of the year and then finding another pine in Brunnsparken or Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki to console myself with – not being able to travel to Stockholm from Helsinki in these covid-times – I chose the spruce on Harakka Island as another pen pal to visit. Speaking of “the” spruce is appropriate in this case; it is the only spruce tree on the island, and a tall one at that. With these two small pines and the spruce I have been writing to them sitting next to them, in Swedish with the pines and in Finnish with the spruce, performing writing for the camera, as it were. When I learned about the Spruce of Independence – a truly remarkable tree, at least nationally in Finland, because it was planted from a seed at the time of the Finnish declaration of independence in 19017 – I thought I would perhaps sit and write next to that tree as well, or then make a time-lapse video for a day together with it, as it grows very near to where I live. When I finished my daily Corona Diary with the maple tree in the yard on Tehtaankatu at the end of May, I suddenly realized I could continue the practice of “becoming a tree” together with the spruce of independence, that is, standing in a yoga pose, balancing on my toes with arms stretched upwards. Said and done, I began on the second June and today on the third I tried to repeat the same image – not really succeeding, unfortunately, the framing is slightly off to the left, but in future images I know now to adjust it. The funny addition today was the English speaking lady sitting and reading in the grass. I told her she would be visible in the image and she said she did not mind, but politely turned her back towards the camera. Perhaps this surprise made me fumble with the framing, or then the fact that I placed the camera tripod so close to the trunk of a huge maple tree – to remember the position – that adjusting the framing was actually difficult. Anyway, this was a beginning, and a proper continuation of my meetings with remarkable spruces.

First image, 2 June 2020.
Second image 3 June 2020
Snapshot with my phone some days before
The spruce of Harakka Island

Quarantine in Helsinki

What can you do in these exceptional times when Covid-19 is limiting the activities of most people, and especially those, who have arrived from abroad? Two weeks quarantine in your own home is not that bad, though, because you are allowed to move outdoors as long as you keep some distance to people. But this does not include trees. After a week of trying to adjust to this new world, cold, bright and windy, I finally decided to find some tree companions to pass time with. I walked in parks that I seldom visit and tried to find something that would remind me of the Pine on Hundudden in Stockholm, which I cannot visit now. But I could not find anything. All the parks were so well cleaned and open, and also filled with people – a sunny weekend and nothing else to do. Finally, today, I realized I could try to perform with the maple tree in my home yard, as I did with the oak on Galway road in Johannesburg. Why not? So, I simply began, and this is the image I will try to repeat:

After this decision I took a walk to the nearby Brunnsparken or Kaivopuisto, not really expecting to find anything. And there, on top of the nearest rocks was a small pine, as if waiting for me. I experimented with several camera angles, and decided to leave out the streets and the sea and the recognisable buildings and place my camera facing north; the view could be from anywhere. I tried various poses and realized this little pine would be nice to stand next to as well. My plan was to sit down and write to it, with it, though. It was already late afternoon and too cold to write, and I decided to return tomorrow for a proper start. This pine tree is nevertheless the one I will try to befriend and collaborate with in Helsinki for now…

Today, Monday I finally tried writing, with a cap and gloves, and for a moment only, because it started snowing! Getting a cold while in quarantine would be somewhat of a paradox – or just in line with the times… In the future my (hopefully) regular visits to the Maple tree in the yard on Tehtaankatu and my irregular visits to the Pine in Brunnsparken will be documented as video stills on the Research Catalogue: The Maple and The Pine.

ARA Trees

Five Days in Nirox

The first day of my brief Nirox Residency was filled with travel, settling in my room and wandering around the Sculpture Park, marvelling at all the artworks, water features, lawns and trees, enjoying the peace and calm after the hectic days in Joburg. In the evening I looked at some trees to spend a day with, since that was my plan – to use this opportunity of being close to nature in a protected space to make a time-lapse video with a tree every hour for one day.

The second day began early, I thought, at 7 am, when I went to look at one of the trees that I remembered as small and unremarkable but nevertheless interesting among all the magnificent trees around. The sun was already high, we should have started at 6 am, I realized, too late. The tree was unknown to me, but my host told me later it was called Rhus pyroides, today Searsia pyroides, in English either Firethorn Rhus or Common Wild Currant. I spent the grey day visiting the tree every hour from 7 AM until 6 PM when the rain began – a veritable thunderstorm. The plan was to continue until 7 pm, expecting there to be some light left after the sunset 18.22., but it was rather dark already at 6 pm, as you can see from the second image below, so I gladly stopped at six and nearly escaped the storm.

Day with the Firethorn Rhus, first image (7 AM)
Day with the Firethorn Rhus, last image (6 PM)

The third day at Nirox began in a relaxed manner with my usual routines, including yoga etc. I headed out into the park with my camera around 10 AM and generated material for three works, or three sketches, before lunch – this is what happens sometimes, when you are in the right place at the right time. The sketches included standing with the majestic Weeping Willow, simply because it was so beautiful, sitting and writing on the Firethorn Rhus above the brook (although the writing is not visible in the image) and then stopping to reach for the crowns of some Hackberry trees on the way back – see images below:

Dear Firethorn Rhus
With a Weeping Willow
With the Hackberry Trees I
With the Hackberry Trees II

The fourth and last day opened a whole new world; I walked out into the reserve, the bushveld, and enjoyed the open grassland, the slopes, the wide and vast landscape. This was the right place for me… After finding the road I quickly returned to bring my camera, continued walking and found a small Firethorn Rhus to perform with. They actually grow all over the place; I chose a small one with a rock next to it:

Dear Firethorn Rhus II

Friday, the fifth day, was again a traveling day, and in the car on the way back to Joburg I looked at the landscape with different eyes. These four days were the highlight of my time in this country, at least in terms of art and peace and beauty. This was further accentuated by the Corona virus panic spreading everywhere. Maybe I will come back one day to revisit the trees, and to see the rest of the sculptures, some of them far away in the Reserve. A big thank you to everybody who made this brief visit possible!

ARA Trees

In the River Bushwillow

Of all the trees I have met in Johannesburg during my ARA (Arts Research Africa) residency, so far, the huge tree next to the pond up on the slope of The Wilds Park, surrounded by benches, is the most photogenic one. The reason is light, of course, as usual, when it comes to working with camera – a dramatic division into brightly sunlit areas and deep shadows. The thick trunks or branches of the River Bushwillow (there was a label with the name attached to it) are very pale, almost white, so the light has an effect. They were strong enough to easily take my weight, but not very comfortable, I must say. Although I counted my breaths while sitting in the tree, and tried to relax and let my bony legs somehow sink down between the branches, sitting there was so uncomfortable that I gave up after 120 breaths. I must have breathed quickly, because usually 100 breaths will cover 20 minutes or more. Now the final video is only little more than 15 minutes (it took me quite a while to find a pose to remain in, to begin with) but that is probably enough. The other tree we visited in the same park, Henkel’s Yellowwood, which I leaned on, I managed to pose with for the full duration (21 minutes is the time my camera is recording video at a time) but the image is not especially interesting.

There have been other trees that I have been sitting in, indigenous trees like the Karee, and exotic ones, too, like the Ombu tree, the Cork tree and the Purple Leaf Acasia. They are all secondary to my real ambition here, that is, to record the trees of people and also their stories about the trees and why they chose them. That is something I have never done before, and after trying that here with Myer’s Oak, it seems like the right thing to do. I have recorded Samuel’s Oak, Christo’s Cabbage Tree and Donald’s Searsia, and I hope there will be more. The four first ones are all white men, so now it would be nice with some women, and some colour, too. Manola and the River blue gum tree we already visited, and hopefully we can record something next week. The trees are all listed here, sooner or later

In terms of changes to my practice here, the idea of recording other people performing or posing with the trees of their choice is something new, as is the idea of recording their stories, in the form of interviews of sorts. Concerning my own practice posing or balancing for less than a minute every morning with the oak on Galway road is new in terms of the pose, although the idea of time-lapse is well-worn. And sitting in individual trees for a while I have done before, the only difference is that here I use more time. Contrary to what I planned, I have not written anything with or by a tree. Perhaps I will write something afterwards…

ARA Trees

Looking for trees in Johannesburg

During two months of an ARA (Arts Research Africa) residency I am looking to meet remarkable and unremarkable trees in Johannesburg, perhaps in order to perform for camera with them, and possibly also to record their stories in some manner. After only two days in this huge city filled with trees, both native and imported, most of them completely unfamiliar to me, I had already encountered some stories or details to begin with.

The streets in the neighbourhood I am housed in are lined with trees, including the famous Jacaranda trees from Argentina, and also plane trees, which look like London planes. Some of them are marked with huge white crosses, and my assistant Samuel explained that they are marked for treatment because they have been infested by a borer beetle or “polyphagous shot hole borer (PSHB),” which will slowly kill them. It seems that the area is one of the most affected in the city. See news article here. And the borer has spread all over the country, attacking various kinds of trees, see here and here. The Jacarandas seem to be less vulnerable, though.

Around Zoo lake, a nearby park created on former marshland, I saw beautiful old Willow trees, which have been planted there and are now causing controversy, because they consume a lot of water, poor drunkards. And in the garden of the house I live in there are two plum trees, an almond tree and a huge old oak tree, which was brought from Ireland in the beginning of 1900. That was the first tree I began performing with, simply standing next to it in a simple yoga pose “becoming a tree”. I am creating a small diary together with, documented here.

Now, when almost two weeks have passed since my arrival I am happy to report that the first completed video of a meeting with a tree called Myer’s Oak (10 min.) was recorded in Paterson Park on 17 February. It is rather different from my usual meetings with trees because the person presenting the tree to me, my hos Myer Taub, is the performer, not me, and because there is a voice-over text recorded in the same place, where he recounts his choice, added to the video. The video is presented on this blog, too, under ARA, here, and can be viewed in full online, together with other (future) ARA-trees, here.

On the same day in the same park I also made an attempt at performing with an Ombú tree, a strange tree imported from South America, with a trunk extended on the ground in a way that makes it easy to climb into. Samuel was keeping an eye on the camera on tripod, and noticed some boys being too interested in it, so we left the place. The rather short performance or pose, as well as a version with Samuel recounting his experience, are available on the same page with theARA-trees, here.

Anyway, this was only the beginning. I hope to be introduced to many other remarkable, unremarkable or in some way interesting trees in the coming weeks.


Three Letters to the Pine

After the initial visit to the Pine on Hundudden on January 6th 2020 I have recorded three 21 minute sessions with the pine, writing letters to it, in Swedish. These three letter writing sessions took place on 7th, 13th and 26th January. An image of me writing, one video still of each session, is added here below. The images and the letters are added to an archive on the Research Catalogue, here. The archive is in the making, and will be updated with new letters, and hopefully also new trees.

My initial idea was to find a pen pal in Stockholm that I could write to from abroad, but now it seems like the letters are best written while sitting next to the little pine. Thus, I will have to find new tree friends to visit and write to, elsewhere. And return to the Pine on Hundudden next time I am here.


The Pine on Hundudden

Sitting on the cliff, looking out to sea
With the Pine on Hundudden 6 January 2020