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Folly In Transit

The Olive Tree Symposium
Gangelt, Germany

A heart for wood

About the Olive Tree Symposium in Gangelt, Germany, 2011

‘There is a relationship between the growth patterns in nature and in our body.
Nature reflects the form of man,
shows us what we are.
We are nature.
We are no more important than a leaf on a tree,
although we think that we are above nature.

'My work is neither spiritual nor religious.
I detest rhetoric.
I have no other object than to demonstrate the logic of the material.
Wood of every kind of wood bears a recollection of the seasons,
embodies memories of the north,
of the shadows of whatever was in the vicinity.
The structure of a tree is fashioned by light.
It is a living sculpture.
I can be perpetually astonished by it.
It is poetry.’

Guiseppe Penone





Wood is a statement

The artists who participated in the wood symposium came from various countries. They employ different approaches, but have one thing in common. Like the Italian artist Guiseppe Penone, they are devoted to the wood, and its origin, the tree. That is anything but an obvious choice for a sculptor today.

Our lives are governed by technology. We spend our days in front of computer monitors or television screens, and we move about in motorised vehicles. Our range of activity is greater than ever. Our horizon takes in the whole world. Windows is our window on the world and with Google Maps gives us an eagle's eye view of a landscape. And yet, we live in a sort of bell jar. We experience our world behind glass, and virtually, and that distances us from it, and creates a certain disjunction. You look at a landscape, but have no physical contact with it.

You can not touch the wood, you miss the sounds and smells of the tidal marsh, and the odour of leaves, that remind us of the passage of time and of a cycle of life to which we are also subject. Wood is the Mother of Matter, observed Carl André soberly, but even if you, like André, want to use material as rationally and minimally as possible, there are still associations that cling to wood. Anyone who chooses wood, as these artists have done, consciously or unconsciously makes a statement about the relations between nature, culture and mankind.





The story of the olive tree

Wood is pregnant with meaning, and that is particularly true for olive wood. I still remember the high-pitched chirping of the cicadas in the blistering heat while I sought the coolness under an olive tree in Greece. Pearls of sweat formed on my forehead, but the temperature bothered the olive tree not in the least. It's small, grey-green pilose leaves were resistant to the heat. Its roots reached deep into the earth, in search of the scarce water. An olive tree gets by on little enough. Year after year it bears its fruit, but its fantastic, gnarled forms are a testimony to its struggle to survive. The structure of an olive tree is determined by the scorching heat. It is tough. It is said that there are trees that are more than a 1000 years old. It is no wonder that in many cultures the olive tree symbolises eternal life.

But our world, ruled by money, attaches no value to that any more. The European Commission decided that it cost too much to pick the olives from these old trees. Dwarf trees are more economical. So, with one stroke of a pen, the fate of thousands of trees was sealed, and the Mediterranean landscape desecrated. Johannes Heinrichs, the Maecenas of this Olive Tree Symposium, watched the proceedings with a heavy heart. He imported two-thousand trees and had them replanted in Germany, but they could not survive the cold winter. Through the efforts of the sculptor Brele Scholz these trees now were given a new purpose. During the wood symposium they were transformed into sculptures, which bear with them the history of these olive trees.





The tree as the source of life
The British artist Lorna Green cut the branches from the dead tree and covered the wounds with a red glass specially made for her. The naked, bleeding trunk calls up associations with a crucifixion, but instead of a suffering body, it is the tree itself which has been offered up on the altar of money. Lorna Green often produces installations in the landscape, using natural and recycled materials. Her work leans toward a certain romanticism, which is rooted in the British culture.

Niall Walsh lives  in the north-west of Ireland, far from the over-populated world. His various wood sculptures bear witness to a sombre view of our ‘civilisation’. For this symposium Walsh constructed a man-sized cabinet with several holes through which one can peer inside . If you look in, you see an olive tree, with mirrors on the inside of the cabinet creating multiplies, transforming the tree  into a  forest. The title, ‘Folly in Transit’, is a reference to follies, the playful structures in neo-classical landscaped gardens and also to the term folly as foolishness , questioning the logic of how a forest of centurys old olive trees end up in nothern Germany.  ‘In transit’ refers to the surreal Journey which the crated olive tree now takes on it’s journey back to Evora in Portugal from where it originated.

The Dane Jorn Ronnau also lives in a forest. He collects wood from all over the world, which he transforms into small, gilded houses, altars for nature. ‘Trees were sacred, and we still have great respect for them today,’ Ronnau says. In Founded on the Mountain of the Tree he lets the vitality of the olive tree speak for itself. He crowns the desolate root system with fragile little houses which reach up toward the sky. That relation speaks volumes: our culture is a wafer thin layer which rests on the robust foundation of nature.

The work of Petra Pfaffenholz, from Germany, also compels one to think about nature. With minimal interventions she focuses our attention on the elegant structure of the grain in the wood. She covers it with tissue thin rice paper. As her homage she paints the surface with ultramarine, the most expensive of all pigments. In the series Ultramarine (Beyond the Sea) she draws a parallel between the grain of the wood and flowing water: both are shaped by nature, the latent energy that lies behind all things.





Wood as a building block

The artists discussed above work conceptually, and clearly want to make a statement, but there are also sculptors who are fascinated with the physical qualities of the wood. The Dutch artist Simcha Roodenburg gained his reputation for his constructions of scrap wood that he recovered from skips at demolition sites in Amsterdam. In Dansende meisjes (Dancing girls) he has worked with tree trunks for the first time. He plays with rhythm, space and balance in his formal, ‘honest’ constructions, in which as a matter of principle he uses no nails or screws. Roodenburg regards himself as an abstract sculptor, but the wood adds an extra layer of meaning to that. He often uses slabs, planks with irregular edges that are sawn off the outside of a log, which will still bear traces of the tree from which they came. As a result, his sculptures tack back and forth between nature and culture, between what grew organically and the shackles of human intervention.

That is also the tension with which Miroslav Struzik operates. This Polish sculptor works in metal and wood, and comes out of a technical background. He incorporated branches in geometric, spherical constructions, which emphasise the beauty of the whimsical growth patterns of the wood. His contribution, Two Worlds, is a nod to Guiseppe Penone's famous 1969-1997 work, To repeat the forest. While the Italian sculptor the transforms the beam into its origin, a tree, Struzik does precisely the opposite: he transforms the olive tree into a beam and thereby fixes our attention on the elegant curve of the trunk.

The British artist Stephanie Carlton Smith has her background in glass work. She likes to contrast different materials in one object, and seeks to unite these antitheses with each other, in a harmonious image. In this case she split the olive tree and reunited the sections with steel tubes. One can regard the result as an abstract sculpture: open and closed, organic and mathematical forms alternate with one another. But the history of this olive tree also gets a word in edgewise. The sculpture is called Scar, and it is as if Carlton Smith seeks to heal the felled tree again.





The tree as a mirror for the soul

A tree has something human about it. It stands with its feet in the earth, stretches its branches heavenward like arms. It is not difficult to identify with a tree. Emmanuel Bour, Jan Tomas and Brele Scholz, project human emotions on the tree. They work intuitively. During the carving process their desires, fears and dreams surface.

All three of them are also sculptors in the original sense of the word. They carve: that is to say, they remove material with chisels, en taille directe. Rather than copying a clay model, they sculpt directly from the wood. That is the way that African ancestor figures were made. You can still see the tree trunk. This direct approach appealed to the imagination of the early modern sculptors - such as Derain and Brancusi -  who wanted to separate themselves from the Western naturalistic tradition, but also to sculptors today.

The monstrous human and animal figures by the German Jan Tomas are intensely simplified and frontal. Pandemonium (which means ‘place of all demons’ in Greek) is a bizarre being with three feet and five heads. It reminds one of the gargoyles on the eaves of Gothic cathedrals, which served not only to carry away rain water but also to ward off evil. Perhaps Jan Tomas's grotesque figures also do the latter. They embody our anxieties about illness, death and deformities, which have now taken on a contemporary dimension. With genetic manipulation we can now breed modern monsters.

As the son of a carpenter the Frenchman Emmanuel Bour developed a particular sensitivity for the skin and structure of wood. The material stirs his imagination and leads to sensual sculptures. ‘I open the tree like a book, and let it reveal its secrets.’ Tentatively Bour’s chisel seeks its way through the centuries-old olive tree, cutting paths, little houses and vaults which we can enter in our imagination, private spaces where we can feel as secure as a child.

For Brele Scholz, trees are a mirror of the soul. They are a screen on which one can project the deepest emotions, from love and desire to violence and tyranny. Projecting branches effortlessly become yearning or wrestling arms – in this case, of Daphne and the amorous Apollo. As Ovid described it so beautifully in his classic Metamorphoses, Daphne wants nothing to do with him. ‘Swift as the wind Daphne fled, as lambs flee from wolves and hinds from lions, as doves on fluttering wings fly from an eagle, but her pursuer drew ever nearer…’ Brele Scholz has powerfully visualised this evasion and approach in her sculpture. Just at the moment that Apollo is about to overpower the nymph she changes into a tree. Has the girl been freed – or captured?  It is left up to the viewer to answer