Published in NewCity Art, May 2014.
header image: David Goldblatt, “Remnant of a hedge planted in 1660 to keep the indigenous Khoi out of the first European settlement in South Africa” (1993)
Encounters at The Edge of The Forest brings together a group of ten artists whose work addresses the relationship between the wooded landscape and its political interlay. Much of the work in the exhibition foregrounds the literal edges made apparent by the systematized displacement of forest groves. Steve Rowell’s lonely documents of the Brandenburg Forest evoke the location’s volatile political history as both a Nazi and Soviet base of operations, made uninhabitable by the latter’s storage of nuclear waste there. David Goldblatt’s photograph of a hedge describes the border separating European settlers in South Africa from the indigenous population of the region. This preamble to the horrors of apartheid counts itself among a number of works in the show which exhibit the tree as symbolically worked into the mechanics of oppression.
Encounters at The Edge of The Forest asks us to read the tree as the site where the capricious wild of the savage garden comes closet to resembling human architecture. This resembling pitches the tree at the deeply uncertain divide between nature and culture; in the symbol of the biblical Tree of Knowledge, on the boundary between paradisiacal lackaday and the atrocities of human enterprise. Ken Gonzales-Day’s work references the appalling history of the lynching photograph, locating the historic trees on which lynchings occurred in the contemporary American landscape. Gonzales-Day re-photographs the trees as haunting reminders of an abominable past, and still haunting reminders of the quietude and indifference of nature. Jennifer Scott’s life-sized silhouettes of hanged bodies are collaged from lynching postcards. Scott has removed the individual victims from these images, leaving the negative outlines of bodies behind. The effect is a ghostly doubling or totalizing bodily stand-in for the anonymous victims of racial violence; here, the tree is implied. While it would seem the exhibition aims to problematize the dominantly positive associations with forests and trees, Vaughn Bell reminds us of their eco-utopian symbolism and a human custodial responsibility by inviting guests to adopt a pocket-sized biosphere. Touching on a range of emotional registers, Encounters at The Edge of The Forest reminds us that the ambivalent symbolism of the tree retains a formidable affect worth examination.