‘A Still Life’ goes to root of the connection of all things

What if we were to view the world through the lens of a dead or dying tree, one that had lived through the many human histories that played out under its canopy? What would we discover about the tree, the place and the humans that lived in its vicinity? 

We are constantly reminded of our own mortality with graphs of infection and death rates, images of flood-stricken areas and daily updates of military action. Viewing a city through the lens of dying trees could offer us an alternative experience, one that places our human existence within a greater natural context. 

This is the thesis at the heart of our project, A Still Life, which pays homage to selected dying trees with temporary site-specific memorials on a digital platform. Art that responds sensitively to the stories of the trees provides the viewer with an opportunity to consider a moment of stillness and beauty in the cyclical nature of life. 

We tested our thesis at the (Un)Infecting the City 2021 arts festival in Cape Town. The festival aimed to make art “a shared, public, open-access encounter” and due to Covid‑19, a virtual one.

We divided the map of Cape Town into six segments and partnered with Cape Town-based artist and climate activist Tracy Megan and landscape architect and chair of TreeKeepers Cape Town Clare Burgess. 

Our stories tell of trees providing shade and a European aesthetic for colonial settlers, as well as shelter for people forcibly removed and awaiting return. They tell of forest fires and human negligence, of the power of the wind and the destruction of drought. They tell of connections between the trees, the places and the people. 

From towering sculptures in city squares to a pile of stones on a cattle track, humans like to make marks. Christopher Tilley, professor of anthropology at University College London, observes that “humans leave behind a vast array of artefacts which, quite literally, objectify their past presence”. This is how we face our mortality: memento mori. Mementos, monuments and memorials mark time, a person, a moment of significance. But whose moment, whose identity and what significance? And is it necessary to leave permanent traces in a world scarred by human endeavour? 

As Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai warned: “We are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system.” 

Artists responded to humanity’s overexuberance in pronouncing and making markers with ephemeral art. It seemed a promising alternative to an outright call for the termination of production of anything nonutilitarian. In 1968, art critic Lucy Lippard argued in her essay, The Dematerialisation of Art, for a future of art without objects. 

Tate gallery describes ephemeral art as “a work of art that only occurs once, like a happening, and cannot be embodied in any lasting object to be shown in a museum or gallery”. It is associated with transience and nonpermanence. 

Since Lippard’s essay we have not witnessed the complete dematerialisation of art that she predicted — it is evident that humans need to make things. As Tilley puts it, our “personal, social and cultural

identity is embodied in our persons and objectified in our things”. But perhaps we have learnt, as we become increasingly aware of the precarious nature of our existence, to make our marks a little more gently and in partnership with the other species that share our home. 

How then, were we to memorialise these six dead or dying trees? The frame for our project was set by (Un)Infecting the City 2021, which focussed on the psychological and social effects of Covid-19. We were constrained by time, budget and travelling by the pandemic. Paradoxically, these limitations provided fertile ground for transient artmaking that leaves a gentle footprint. At the outset we decided to allow each tree to lead us to our content. We embedded ourselves in the social and political histories that occurred during the trees’ lifetimes and researched the environmental conditions that shaped their characteristics. Each new piece of information carved away at rough ideas gradually giving shape to the final artworks.

The Waiting Room represents watching people being forcibly removed from Protea Village

The Waiting Room is a sky-blue chair suspended between two giant senescent stone pine trees at the Boschenheuvel Arboretum in Newlands. The trees were present during the forced relocation of the residents of Protea Village in the 1960s. After a successful land claim, the area awaits their return. 

Waiting was similarly a defining characteristic of our daily lives in 2020. Groundless and without certainty, we were forced to wait; for test results, for the president’s briefing, to visit loved ones, or for a dreaded phone call from the hospital. The Waiting Room, however, suggests another side to this liminal state by encouraging us to view waiting from a different perspective. It gives rise to a moment of pause, pregnant with potential, between what was and what is. 

A Biography of a Sugar Gum is a narrative sound piece, leading listeners through the historical moments experienced by a deceased tree, once growing alongside the N2 highway in front of the Athlone power station. The tree was one of many growing in a liminal space between the incessant movement and noise from the highway and the silence of the decommissioned power station. We responded by punctuating these extremes with an intimate sound piece starting from the moment the tree was seeded to when it was felled by someone in need of firewood.

The virtual nature of (Un)Infecting the City led us to make use of a digital map. A marker locates each tree on the map and is accompanied by a photograph of the tree, the tree’s story, a photograph of the artwork and its statement. A bird’s-eye view of the map draws a line between the six trees, connecting the trees, places and people to one another.

The further you zoom out of the map, the more cities you can view. The lens of a dead or dying tree offers each of these cities and its dwellers an alternative way to view themselves in relation to their communities in nature. 

Together, this knowledge could form a web of connections between the trees, places and people across the world, highlighting a shared reality: the precarious yet cyclical nature of life. 

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut, focusing on sustainability and the arts

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Sarah Cairns
Sarah Cairns is an artist and student of history of art and English literature. She has a background in the nonprofit sector and corporate social responsibility.
Taryn Millar
Taryn Millar is an interdisciplinary artist and art educator and is a member of EITZ, an environmental activist art collective.
Aarti Shah
Aarti Shah is an artist and is studying history of art and has a background in public finance

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