On 1 November, a slice of tree trunk measuring 6ft in diameter and emblazoned with human history from a feminist perspective will be installed at the edge of the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC. A timeline of 30 wood-burned milestones from the past 50,000 years punctuates the 250-year-old deodar cedar’s rings, from early goddess worship through today. The sculpture’s title, Dendrofemonology (2022), references dendrochronology, a method of using tree rings to mark time.
Last November, artist and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain unveiled Dendrofemonology as part of her debut solo show, Human Nature, at SHACK15 in San Francisco. Its installation on the National Mall (until 4 November), coincides with a US election week when thousands of races have important implications for women’s, trans and reproductive rights. Four days of programming will enliven the artwork’s stint in Washington, activated by the powerful likes of actress Lynda Carter (who famously starred in the original Wonder Woman series) and author and television host Padma Lakshmi, before Human Nature travels to Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York next year.
Shlain, an artist, film-maker and author from the Bay Area, sought a more tactile form of storytelling in 2020, when she roamed the Muir Woods National Monument’s ancient redwoods with renewed wonder. Trees embody the otherwise ephemeral notion of time, Shlain realised. Now, she reclaims naturally felled specimens to create organic, changeable anti-monuments that are fated to eventually return to the earth. National Parks across the US offer such spectacles, the artist says, though they recount predominantly patriarchal and colonial histories.
“When you start a timeline with the fact that goddesses were worshiped in almost every ancient civilization, it’s very powerful to see the events that follow,” Shlain tells The Art Newspaper. She finished the sculpture just as an early draft of the US Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked, in June 2022. “We move from goddess worship; to goddess worship being forbidden in every major religion; to women leaders arising hundreds of years ago in Africa and China; to witch burnings; to all the waves of feminism and this recent reversal of reproductive rights.”
The National Women's History Museum (NWHM) helped present the first iteration of Human Nature in San Francisco. Then president and chief executive of the museum, Frédérique Irwin, met Shlain at the opening of the NWHM’s latest show, We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminist DC (until 15 September 2024). The institution helped organise the events around the public display of Dendrofemonology, along with Planned Parenthood, Let It Ripple and WomenConnect4Good.
“There is both art and action,” Irwin says of the programme, which spans voter registrations, live- streamed talks, a silent disco and a convention of 50 organisations coordinated by the ERA Coalition. “I am excited to meet and hear from some of the incredible women who are showcased on the monument,” Irwin says, “like Dolores Huerta and Tarana Burke.” Supporters can write in which events referenced on Dendrofemonology are most surprising, and what they’d like to add; The NWHM will publish an expanded timeline.
“What surprised me is that while reproductive rights were eviscerated in the US, 64 other countries have legalised abortion,” Shlain says. “Progress doesn’t go in one direction and you have to keep pushing for the direction you want it to head.” Shlain’s most recent entry on Dendrofemonology’s tree ring timeline reads simply “Today—”, reminding viewers that history is being written at every moment.
- Tiffany Shlain: Dendrofemonology, 1-4 November, National Mall at Lincoln Memorial Circle, Washington, DC