‘Tis the season—especially in the US and Northern Europe—for introducing trees into our houses. So my December column seems an appropriate moment to consider how living trees are increasingly being used as green—in more ways than one—artworks and to look at just how practicable and sustainable this really is.
But before investigating some of the pros, cons and pitfalls of the arboreal in art, let’s stay with Christmas for a moment. If a tree is mandatory for your festivities and you are lucky enough to have a suitably-sized garden, then the most ecologically-sound solution is a living, pot-grown evergreen that you can bring inside and then put back out in January.
For the rest of us who are feeling uneasy about the environmental impact of the Christmas conifers that get chucked out every year, some comfort can be found in the UK’s Soil Association’s confirmation that real trees—even ones burned or pulped in January—are ten times kinder to the environment than their fake counterparts. Provided your festive tree is locally sourced, organically grown and ends up being chipped or incinerated, it is infinitely greener than the non-biodegradable metal and plastic version which is usually imported from China and rarely gets reused enough times to mitigate its polluting impact.
So, beyond the festive season, what about trees in art? It may seem a neat and sustainable option to make art from living trees, but the reality requires careful planning and long term considerations. “The first thing for any artist working with trees is a duty of care, for at least three years—and now probably longer, with all the different shifts in the climate,” say the environmental activist-artist duo Ackroyd & Harvey. “Any budget needs to make provision for maintenance and that has to be addressed right from the beginning.”
Ackroyd & Harvey have a long track record of working with trees: last year to mark the centenary of the artistic Tree-Meister Joseph Beuys, they installed Beuys’s Acorns, a forest of 100 young oak trees outside Tate Modern. Each tree had its own bespoke pot and was irrigated by a specially devised watering system which ensured their survival for six months on Tate Modern’s exposed Thames side forecourt. They are the direct progeny of the 7000 oak trees planted by Joseph Beuys in and around the city of Kassel in Germany between 1982-87, many of which remain today, each accompanied by their own basalt standing stone.
Beuys’s Acorns are now back in the Surrey countryside awaiting the next—and final—phase of this project which began in 2007 when Ackroyd & Harvey travelled to Kassel and collected acorns from the original Beuys oaks with the aim of nurturing new trees. The ultimate plan for these sturdy saplings is to be planted in circles of seven in communities throughout the UK to form what Ackroyd and Harvey describe as a “mosaic of trees”. The duo have said they hope the project will be a “beacon of restoration and regeneration by local people within the context of their land.” However each location needs to be carefully researched with the artists stressing that for Beuys’s Acorns to achieve their full potential as mighty oaks they need not only the right environment, but also the most appropriate social context. “It’s not just planting the tree into the ground, it’s planting the tree into a community and into a consciousness of place,” they say. “ If you create relational connections between a tree and the people who live around and nearby – then the community will nurture the tree.”
This lesson was learned the hard way in History Trees, the duo’s 2012 commission for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. Here, Ackroyd & Harvey marked each of the ten entrances to the Olympic Park with a large, specially planted mature tree, each one around 30 years old and supporting a stainless steel or bronze ring. These rings were carefully installed to ensure that the trees could thrive and grow around them and each ring was the bearer of information, historical, horticultural and anecdotal, about their specific locations. As its title implies, this multiple, living artwork work was conceived as a permanent one, intended to last into the next century and hopefully beyond.
However, with the passing of time and the subsequent post-Olympic development of the park, some of the sites themselves have proved less welcoming to their arboreal occupants. The Northern Red Oak by the velodrome perished early on due to being waterlogged by a blocked drain; the Copper Beech by Carpenter’s Road underpass died over several years having been badly moved and poorly maintained by its site’s new owners; while most shockingly the Dawn Redwood planted at the Stratford City Approach, which forms the main entry and exit point to the park, has recently been chopped down entirely. Now Ackroyd & Harvey are now battling to preserve the Silver Lime at the South of the former park which is currently surrounded by a building site. “We now realise that it’s not just maintenance of the tree, but maintenance of legacy as well” they stress. “If at all possible trees need to be issued with Preservation Orders which must then be honoured by future owners of any site. There also has to be a budget which allows for connection with the residents and surrounding communities and for reaffirming that bond with the planting.”
This afterlife is especially important when a tree only has a temporary incarnation as an artwork. No doubt inspired by the work of both Ackroyd & Harvey and Joseph Beuys before them, in June 2021 the artist and designer Es Devlin placed an installation of four hundred juvenile trees and a multitude of shrubs at the centrepiece of the Design Biennale held at London’s Somerset House. This Forest For Change contained a ‘Global Goals Pavilion’ which highlighting the facts behind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that plot out ways for a fairer, greener future for our planet. “In literature forests are often places of transformation: the forest of Arden in Shakespeare, the enchanted forests of the Brothers Grimm,” declared Devlin at the time. "The UN Global Goals offer us clear ways to engage and alter our behaviour and it is our hope that an interaction with the Goals in the forest will be transformative.”
Not only were the twenty three varieties of trees—including Scots pines, hazels, planes and silver birches—chosen for the visual impact of their differing canopies, shapes, heights and forms, but they were also selected as species best suited for their resilience to the changing London environment. After their three week stint in recyclable planters in the courtyard of Somerset house, the saplings were all then relocated to permanent homes in the London boroughs of Islington and Southwark. Here they are being managed by public park keepers as part of The Queen’s Green Canopy, a tree-planting initiative created to mark the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. All the shrubs in Devlin’s forest were donated to Greenfingers Charity which specialises in creating and maintaining gardens in children’s hospices around the UK.
So for anyone who is considering either creating or commissioning a living, growing artwork, it is the long term benefit as much as the immediate impact that needs to be taken carefully and thoroughly into account. And in the case of trees, this means considering a time frame that could—and should—extend well beyond all of our lifetimes. Happy (Green) Christmas!