ARA Trees

Meetings with trees in Johannesburg published

Yesterday the online, open access publication Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees in Johannesburg and Environs, published by ARA (Arts Research Africa) at Wits University in Johannesburg was officially launched with an event on zoom. The publication itself is openly available here, ; there is an online version and a print-on-demand version for ‘self-printing’. The publication is the result of my ARA residency about this time last year, which was interrupted by the pandemic. Originally we had the plan of organising a screening consisting of some of the video works made together with the trees introduced to me by generous colleagues. Now it feels like this option, a publication, which was a surrogate at first, is in many ways much better, since it a) remains and b) is accessible to more people.

The launching event was quite fascinating, too, organised by professor Christo Doherty, who had invited some of the contributors to say a few words: Manola Gayatri Kumarswamy, Myer Taub, Donald McCallum and Busisiwe Mahlangu. And some of the reviewers, too, I guess, and experts in the field like Anna Birch and Mareli Stolp. They all had beautiful presentations, questions and comments, but I want to remember especially the idea Manola mentioned, about the tree as a kind of ‘third space’, which enabled meetings across differences without focusing on those differences, or that is how I understood it. And then one of the points Myer took up, the poem by Brecht from 1939, which he quoted: “What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors?” That poem I remember very well from a Finnish political song in the 1970’s. And somehow it feels like these are such times again…

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.