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Seeing the wood, not the trees

Dorothée Brill, 2012
First published in The tree obverse

Photography “will make painting obsolete”.1 This prediction, noted in the 1870s by Gustave Flaubert in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, responded to the fact that with the advent of photography, painting had lost its primary function. It had no longer the responsibility of depicting the visible, of visually representing people, objects and events. Looking back, however, painting’s sudden lack of vocational grounding was in no way to cause its demise, as Flaubert had predicted. In the absence of its former role, painting was free to emancipate itself from mimetic tasks of any description. Gone was the responsibility to represent persons in the form of portraits, or events in the form of history paintings. This is the context in which we should view Paul Delaroche’s bold declaration, cited here by photographer Gisèle Freund: “From today, painting is dead.”2

Delaroche, a French history painter and member of the Academie Française, was referring to daguerreotypes; to him, these early photographs signified the immediate dissolution of his role as a painter. However, the change affected by photography becoming the primary means of documenting historical events was not only a change in media, but also a change in status; such depiction was no longer regarded as a process of art but one of craft. This shift was a result of the mechanical process involved in creating pictures photographically, which seemed to overcome the tensions that had traditionally informed history painting—the divergences between fact and fiction, between documentation and interpretation, between the painter as objective reporter and subjective storyteller.

In the latter decades of the 20th century, this seeming shift away from the realm of art was not only re-evaluated by the fact that photography on the whole established itself as an art form on a par with painting, sculpture and drawing, as well as with the newly emerging time‑based visual arts. There was also an increasing awareness of the influence that the producer, or creator, has over the mechanical image. The elementary question that once defined the discourse of historical painting thus also extends to photography. At what point does documentation become interpretation? At which stage is fact absorbed into fiction? Is it at all possible to draw a discernible line between the two?

With her photographic project in a forest, Ann Shelton addresses the different thresholds entailed in transporting historical events onto an artistic level. Across the globe, Shelton has captured photographic evidence of the questionable trophies that were received by the Gold Medal winners of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The winners, who in this instance were crowned not with a standard laurel wreath but a wreath made from oak leaves, were presented, alongside their medal and certificate, with a sapling from a German oak. “Grow in honour of this victory—spur further deeds”,3 was written on the plant pots. The course of history that was to follow the Berlin Olympics goes to show how insidious an award this was; at the time, the organising committee had described the gift as a “beautiful symbol of German character, German strength, German endurance and German hospitality”.4 In light of the wide-ranging discriminatory practices instated in Germany even at this time, leading to countries such as the U.S. calling for a boycott of the Berlin games, this statement was at best cynical.

Little numismatic knowledge is needed to realise that the oak has always been a national symbol in Germany—be it in the time of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, socialist East Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany. Not only have oak leaves been used as a decorative element on coins through the ages; the oak-planting woman became an important post-war symbol for reconstruction. Most tenaciously, however, the oak remains a symbol of the ruling mentality of the Nazis—be it in the form of an oak wreath adorning a swastika in the fangs of the German eagle, or in the words of a marching song, possibly from as early as 1933: “On Adolf Hitler Square stands a young oak tree; borne out of devastation and great need it strives towards the sun. Oak, guide us until we die in our loyal and brave battle for the fatherland.”5

Of these considerations, none are immediately evident in Ann Shelton’s photographs of the 30‑odd oak trees grown from the saplings gifted over 75 years ago. Shelton’s works are neutrally‑lit, front‑facing full frame views of the trees, mounted as a group with each photograph mirrored by another, upside‑down. This evokes not only the titular forest, but also the notion of this conceptual forest being reflected.

While there is a direct thematic analogy to Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks, a land art project whereby a total of 7000 oaks (as well as other trees) were planted in the German city of Kassel between 1982 and 1987, another work further afield displays more telling parallels. With an installation concept that is at once sobering and alienating, in a forest has a certain affinity to Jackson Mac Low’s Tree* Movie from 1961. This work, created around the beginnings of the Fluxus movement, was not so much a film as an instruction for making a film: “Select a tree*. Set up and focus a movie camera so that the tree* fills most of the picture. Turn on the camera and leave it on without moving it for any number of hours. If the camera is about to run out of film, substitute a camera with fresh film. The two cameras may be alternated in this way any number of times. Sound recording equipment may be turned on simultaneously with movie cameras. Beginning at any point in the film, any length of it may be projected at a showing.” The asterisk contained in the title was elaborated on in a footnote: “*For the word ‘tree’, one may substitute ‘mountain’, ‘sea’, ‘flower’, ‘lake’, etc.”6

What the works of Ann Shelton and Jackson Mac Low have in common is their juxtaposition of documentary aesthetics with a desire to alienate the depicted subjects. Using very simple devices, these works experiment with breaking down the innate relationship between the signified and the signifier, i.e., the tree and its depiction. By projecting a largely static image of a tree for several hours and further complementing this with a layered and incessantly-repeated recording of the word ‘tree’, Mac Low’s 1975 presentation of Tree* Movie had the effect of gradually eroding its subject’s familiarity. “What happens if a word is repeated to a point at which its meaningful semantic entity collapses, leaving behind only a collection of isolated phonemes?” asks Kathryn Chiong, providing her own answer: “The result is not simply a meaningless mumble—rather, the excessiveness of the process signals a presence of its own.”7 When a word is repeated over and over, it loses its descriptive function and is instead perceived as an abstract acoustic contour.

The same type of transformation can be affected within visual language. When the objectivity inherent in documentary visual presentation is disrupted, this can reveal a parallel perspective on the depicted subject. In the process of attempting to ascribe meaning to Mac Low’s hours-long projection of unchanging tree footage, viewers may gain a new perspective on something that they otherwise instinctively classify as a tree. In this respect, Tree* Movie is a superb example of the Fluxus aim to subtly disrupt our day-to-day perceptual processes and detach them from their ingrained associative structures, transforming them into tangible, conscious experiences. It is exactly at this point that the functional becomes fictional—which is also what happens in Ann Shelton’s in a forest. She achieves this transformation by laying out a series of mirrored images that, both in terms of form and content, appear entirely ordinary, arbitrary even.

Unlike Mac Low, however, Shelton does not so much concern herself with exposing our perceptual processes for their own sake. Whereas Fluxus pursues a reduction of signification—draining sensory perception from being instantaneously charged with a pre-fixed meaning—Shelton uses a parallel approach to venture into the opposite direction. With similarly simple means of defamiliarisation, she sets off a process of charging rather than discharging, and focuses on the point at which the depiction becomes a metaphor. Where is it that an interpretational perspective begins? Or, more specifically: What are the stages whereby a series of innocuous photographs of similarly sized and aged trees becomes understandable as more than just that? Which steps of estrangement are required to bring such a series of images firstly to represent an historical event—the celebration of Olympic medallists; secondly to expose the self-serving and subversive glorification of a cruel dictator; and finally to become a beacon against the sprouting of political regimes such as the Third Reich and ideologies such as Nazism?

Shelton thus addresses the impossibility of drawing a line between fact and fiction and between documentation and interpretation. The perceived objectivity of an image can be understood as depending on the extent to which the process of its decoding affirms or deviates from a standard reading. By combining documentary aesthetics—an aesthetic that is considered neutral—with simple modifications of the photographs’ presentation, she initiates our mistrust in what is depicted and triggers our suspicion as to what it is our eyes perceive and our mind understands.

  1. Flaubert, G. (1976). Bouvard and Pécuchet, trans. Krailsheimer, A. J. New York: Penguin Books, p. 321. 

  2. Paul D, cit. after: Freund, G. (1980). Photography and Society. London: Gordon Fraser, p. 81. 

  3. See Wildmann, D. (1998). Begehrte Körper. Konstruktion und Inszenierung des „arischen“ Männerkörpers im „Dritten Reich“, Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, p. 90. Quote translated from German. 

  4. Cit. after ibid., p. 91. 

  5. The German original reads: “Am Adolf Hitler-Platz steht eine junge Eiche,
sie strebt zur Sonne auf von Sturm und Not.
Sie ist uns Vorbild treu und brav zu streiten
für unser Vaterland bis in den Tod.” Text: Wilhelm Friedrich Weiß, music: Emil Palm. 

  6. See, for example, Fredman, K; Smith, O; and Sawchyn, L (eds.). (2002). The Fluxus Performance Workbook (e-publication). Performance Research, p. 77. 

  7. Chiong, K. Naumans Beckett Gang. In Glasmeier, M (ed.). (2000). Samuel Beckett, Bruce Nauman. Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, p. 103. Quote translated from German.