Anya Gallaccio on trees and flowers
- The Whitworth
- Published 8 June 2016
The artist's work for the Whitworth, part funded by the Art Fund, will soon be unveiled at Whitworth Park. Here, she talks to Art Quarterly about the role of trees and flowers on her work.
When I started working with gerberas in the early 1990s [creating works such as Preserve ‘Beauty’ in Tate Britain] people warned me against it on the grounds that flowers were feminine, and my work wouldn’t be taken seriously. I took that as a challenge.
If you ask a child to draw a flower, they’ll draw a gerbera – a circle with elliptical shapes around the edge – so they’re a kind of symbol, and I was playing with tropes of minimalism and formalism. In any case, I perceive gerberas as readymades: they’re grown industrially in hothouses 12 months of the year. I don’t associate them with any sense of being natural.
Forestry is not dissimilar. Historically people planted trees in the belief they would be used for something. It was an investment in the future, a legacy, proof of faith in a continuing existence. It’s like the story about the hall at New College, Oxford, and how the people who built it planted a grove of oaks at the same time in case, hundreds of years hence, the beams would need replacing. I’m interested in that kind of economy, in the social aspect of plants. We think of forests as wilderness, as sublime spaces. We don’t think of going for a walk in a tree factory.
Maria Balshaw [the director of the Whitworth] had seen the deconstructed tree I made for the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York. It was a huge weeping cherry [its roots had been severed by builders] that was cut into pieces, brought inside and strapped together. She had an idea that I might remake a version of that. As we were walking in the park that surrounds the gallery, I noticed a line of planes with a gap in it, where one of the trees had died. The architects had done Lidar scans of the site and captured the tree, which was 11m tall, so there was this technical data. It’s approximate because the tree wasn’t scanned deliberately so it bundles groups of branches together, reducing it to a series of vertical lines. There’s no surface detail, but the dimensions are exact. I came up with the idea of remaking it in polished stainless steel that will change with the seasons, and putting it back in the line like a ghost, a kind of optical illusion in the sense that the surface is both mirrored and fractured. The lines will be very visible, formal and graphic when the trees around it are not in leaf, and then in summer, they’ll be partially obscured by foliage, and its reflections will refract and confuse the surface even more.
A lot of the trees I’ve cast [for works such as Because I could not stop] have been apple trees. I’d found this orchard where the trees had been left to their own devices and as a consequence they weren’t producing good fruit because pruning is essential. The owner let me choose the ones with the most interesting shapes, which I pruned further before casting them. But real pruning isn’t to do with aesthetics. It’s about letting air circulate and light come in to maximise the crop. Trees and vines are cut back to stress the plant out so that its impulse is to survive, to put all its energy into fruit-making in order to reproduce.
The apple is an interesting symbol, representing temptation, sin and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but also something simple and wholesome that keeps the doctor away and can be taken to schoolteachers. It’s not a sexy fruit. Plums and grapes, juicy things that drip, are much more erotic.
Maybe it’s because apple trees don’t grow true from seed. They need human intervention to produce edible fruit. What we think of as eating apples originated in the East, but the Romans discovered that if you grafted them on to crab-apple rootstock, you could produce eating apples from trees that would otherwise only have produced small, bitter fruit. Even now if you buy an apple tree from a garden centre, the rootstock will have come from one species, the fruiting part from another. If you plant apple pips, only one in a million will grow into an apple tree as we know it. The success of apples is entirely thanks to man.
People think I’m a tree hugger, but I have this sort of awe and terror of real nature. I’m a city girl and a terrible gardener. We have half an acre here in San Diego [where she is a professor at the University of California]. There was a luscious garden when we moved here, but there’s been a drought for years, and I thought it was immoral to water it. That killed the lawn, and the citrus trees were freaking out, though I have started to water them now because it seemed too cruel. But I’ve been planting lots of salvias, succulents and cacti, things that don’t need much water and that butterflies and hummingbirds like. A lot of them are rescued from table arrangements at art dinners. If you take proteas and succulents and stick them in water, little roots begin to grow, and you can plant them.
Anya Gallaccio’s work for the Whitworth will be unveiled on 24 June. Her other permanent public installation is the amethyst grotto, The Light Pours Out of Me, at Jupiter Artland – one of our Museum of the Year 2016 finalists – to 25 September.