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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
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…
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
Old Tjikko on Fulufjället and a juniper on Utö, Finland, can serve as examples of remarkable and unremarkable trees that I have spent a day with during the project Performing with Plants (2018-2019), hosted by Stockholm University of the Arts Research Centre and funded by the committee for artistic research at the Swedish research Council.