Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Hollow Talk

Pardon the pun but it is hard not to sound sappy when talking about KatiePaterson’s experientially and aesthetically pleasing art work, ‘Hollow’ installed in the grounds of Bristol University. Containing 10,000 tree species formed into a man-made hollow that is encased within a Douglas fir structure; the piece is described as, ‘a miniature forest of the world’s trees’. It’s a macro concept on a relatively micro, or bodily-sized scale. Visitors are invited to enter ‘Hollow’ and contemplate, see, touch and experience the colours, textures and smells of many species of trees, samples of which, we are informed, ‘connect across time and space.’ They certainly do come from all over the world and contain fossilised samples over 390 million years old. It is important that it is bodily sized (the piece comfortably fits 1 to 2 people at the same time) as it allows for a more grotto-like and intimate experience that forces its viewer to get-up-close within the work.
Inside 'Hollow'
The collection is impressive and it certainly is an immersive experience, but for all its initial wonder and difference, these romantic notions are in fact driven by something altogether more scientific. It crosses disciplines, Katie Paterson as an artist working in collaboration with students studying Biological Sciences at Bristol University and architects Zeller and Moye. This is refreshing and I think artists working with scientists and architects generally is a mutually beneficial relationship; here in ‘Hollow’ it becomes as much about archiving tree specimens, designing a ‘space’ and ‘creative responses to illustrate how trees influence our experience of the planet’. I'd previously seen a piece by Katie Paterson in 2014, titled 'A History of Darkness' in a fantastic exhibition 'Curiosity'* in Cornwall; this piece archived 'darkness' in the form of slides of the night sky. Here, Paterson applies that same treatment of uniformity and archiving to tree specimens. 
There is much to marvel, walking into ‘Hollow’ is to discover a cave-like stratum and experience a muted silence, softened light from holes in Hollow’s canopy and smell from the world outside. As a structure it is a quietening, almost cathedral-like space in terms of the reverence the surprise of stepping into it causes.  After this subsides however its lasting resonance or deeper connection with the trees and how they influence our experience of the planet feels somewhat lost. ‘Hollow’ works as a man-made museum or collection of tree species, the samples within it are mostly rectangular or square cuts but formed into something that is mimicking a natural form.
This makes it non-comparable to an actual lived-experience of being in a woodland glade and is therefore hard to relate a machine cut sample of fossilised tree to its history or once living relationship with its environment. We are told some of the trees it contains are of great significance, such as an Indian Banyan tree and a Japanese Gingko from Hiroshima which is a wonderful thought, but these samples have become so detached and altered into their now man-made forms that they become mere building blocks in a larger work. Some may look at this as humbling or a reference to a philosophical concept of all these remarkable trees being altogether a part of one bigger whole that is a statement on ecology and diversity. There is a DNA, building block-like element to ‘Hollow’ which certainly backs this idea up, however for me personally I feel it has less impact now that the characteristics of the original trees has been unified into a form that can be used for construction rather than building something that displayed their more individual and natural forms. Unlike, 'A History of Darkness' the significance and endeavour of collecting these samples is lost with the overall impetuous of the work becoming more about the 'space' and structure rather than the collecting or feat of having 10,000 tree samples -an opinion that I am sure will divide many. The idea of time and age within these samples is hard to gauge and as mentioned previously I struggled, once the initial wow-factor had subsided, to have any lasting thought on the significance or importance of trees from this work.

Outside view of Katie Paterson's 'Hollow' at Royal Fort Gardens, Bristol.
These are dead trees, harvested trees and so do not respond, as you’d expect, like living trees that sway and crack and creak in the breeze. It’s beautiful and disconcerting at the same time and made me ponder the question of whether it is possible to ‘preserve something that’s already dead’? Scientifically perhaps, yes you can, but I am less sure of ‘what’ is actually being preserved in ‘Hollow’ as these are samples of wood and not the seeds or living tree itself. Perhaps like most museum collections ‘the act of preservation’ is not in the artefacts themselves but in the educating through the artefacts that leads to and promotes preservation and ecology of living things. I speculate.
 I enjoyed this piece but feel it lacks permanence, to what I experienced as a more visual and immersive form of organising or sampling tree species rather than an environmental or human connecting to or relationship with/how trees influence our existence. Like being inside an entomology cabinet rather than looking at one, you could not appreciate the true scope of diversity and range of trees when transformed into one large structure.
‘Hollow’ is open at Royal Fort Gardens at Bristol University during daylight hours. For more info visit:

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