Writing, interviews and reviews /

The lacuna

Emma Bugden, 2012
First published in The tree obverse

The essence of the trauma is precisely that it is too horrible to be remembered, to be integrated into our symbolic universe. All we have to do is mark repeatedly the trauma as such.
–Slavoj Žižek1

When suffering is no longer an open wound, but a scab of the past we pick away at, memory comes to the fore. The role of the memorial is to provide a locator beacon for public remembrance. Official sites are places where mediated and civic events occur, wreaths are laid and ceremony is facilitated. They provide a channel for public grief—whether formal (as at war memorials) or informal (such as the mounds of flowers, letters and other tributes that sprung up in London and around the world when Diana, Princess of Wales died).

The trees that provide the subject for Ann Shelton’s photographic series in a forest were originally offered up as unique forms of commemoration (or propaganda) for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, the apotheosis of pre‑war Nazi triumphalism. Now they can be read as living reminders of the slaughter and destruction that followed. Our visual perception of those Olympic Games is filtered through Leni Riefenstahl’s remarkable and highly charged film Olympia. The beauty and majesty of the film is underscored with deep sadness, however. Her camera lingers lovingly on the sculpted bodies of healthy young men and women, oblivious to the fact that soon the competitive urge that fuels them will be refocused into desperate and bloody battle.

Shelton’s photography creates an archive, mapping and detourning the trees across Europe, America and Canada—even to New Zealand. In doing so, in a forest creates a new form of memorial that can be read as counter to official monuments. Taking as her subject “trauma, anxiety, violence and failure”2, she uncovers the obscured or lost histories of oddities of nature, individual trees that are deeply connected through history but are now largely unknown outside of their immediate surroundings. For thousands of years and in many cultures, trees have been used to commemorate events and memories—to celebrate the birth of a baby, or as the scattering place for human ashes. War memorials have more often been built from permanent materials such as concrete and stone seeking a monolithic status, leaving trees as a more porous container for history.

Trees are also unlike stone obelisks or museum displays (even contemporary ones such as the Jüdisches Museum Berlin) that actively direct the viewer, endeavouring to produce a prescribed sensation or experience. Liberated from the official duty of speaking truth to history and even from the obligation of remembrance, the trees, quite simply, focus on growing, and could keep on doing so for hundreds of years.

The story of how these trees came to exist is simple but intriguing—each of the 130 Gold Medalists at the Berlin Games was awarded a one‑year‑old oak sapling along with their medal. While they fitted into the vocabulary of Nazi propaganda, the trees also referred back to earlier mythologies around laurel leaves and the original Olympic Games, making deliberate connection between contemporary German self‑mythologising and a deep romanticisation of the classical era.

Back in the athletes’ home countries, ‘Hitler Oaks’, as they are sometimes known, were planted in a variety of public and private sites, from civic parks and squares to stadiums, schools, and private gardens. Many of the individual stories of the trees and their recipients are etched with loss and hardship, reflecting the shifting borders and geo‑political trauma of WWII and the following Cold War. Athletes were killed or displaced—like Márton Lőrincz, whose oak could not be planted in his home in Transylvania and instead ended up in his adopted home of Szentes in Hungary.

The placement of other trees tells us more about different political pulses at play—for example the less than official location of the tree received by African‑American athlete Cornelius Johnson (which was planted in his mother’s backyard) suggest an inhospitable climate of race relations.

Ann Shelton’s photography is the result of detailed and intensive research over many years, peeling back layers of history and building up new strata of meaning. Of the 130 trees originally awarded, Shelton’s series comprises over 35 at the time of writing. With no comprehensive archive detailing their presence, the trees were difficult to locate, the artist trawling libraries and the internet for the scant sources available, and making frequent use of Google’s online translator.

Arguably the most famous recipient of an Olympic Oak—African American sprinter Jesse Owens—was awarded four trees. One is generally acknowledged to be sited at the high school in Cleveland where he trained, but the locations of the other trees are more mysterious. Canada’s only Olympic Oak, awarded to Ottawa paddler Frank Amyot, has also disappeared from public memory, despite the recent efforts of local historians. The lack of an official historical record for the oaks reflects the ambiguous and uncomfortable provenance the trees have developed—are they to be commemorated or repudiated?

When shown in New Zealand, in a forest is nuanced by our relationship to the first photograph, taken in 2005 of the only oak planted in New Zealand, awarded to Jack Lovelock for winning the 1500 metres and growing still in the grounds of his Alma mater, Timaru Boy’s High School.

Shelton had heard vaguely of the tree as a teenager growing up in Timaru, with its colloquial reputation both as ‘Lovelock’s Oak’ and a ‘Hitler Oak’. Lovelock’s tree is now 76 years old, with an urban legend grown up alongside it, part of the larger fibre of Lovelock’s legacy, yet still largely unknown outside of Timaru.

Lovelock’s tree was not planted until 1941, having travelled to New Zealand in the care of fellow runner and teammate, Cecil Matthews, as Lovelock himself no longer lived here. By the time Matthews arrived home the seedling was in poor health, and required nursing by the curator of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens, James McPherson, before it could be permanently planted. Lovelock himself never saw his tree in‑situ, returning only once to New Zealand on a government sponsored tour immediately after the Games.

Of his Olympic win, Lovelock wrote in his diary, “It was undoubtedly the most beautifully executed race of my career, an artistic creation.”3 As a hero Lovelock is complex, resisting reduction to a simplistic nationalistic icon. He provides an almost subversive counterpoint to the straightforward stoicism displayed by New Zealand sporting icons of the 1950s and 60s such as Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads or Ed ‘We Knocked the Bastard Off’ Hillary.

A man whose cheerful grin was so capacious it seemed it could swallow his face, Lovelock fought a bleak inner battle with depression and in later life experienced a brain injury that led to insomnia and bouts of extreme dizziness. His death, hit by a subway train in New York at a still youthful 39, remains a tragic mystery—either suicide or inexplicable accident. In a contemporary society where more recent symbols of sporting masculinity like John Kirwan can speak freely about mental illness, Lovelock continues to be re‑examined culturally as a highly mysterious figure, onto whom fictionalised narratives and conjecture are still projected.

Shelton’s work operates as a series of projections—of Lovelock, the other recipients, and the ghosts and echoes of the past. Unlike conventional documentary photography, which purports to tell a single truth, the works are exhibited as a series of diptychs, or inverted doubles, a format that allows us to experience the trees as a series of abstracted shapes. This process, which Shelton has termed “stammering”, refutes a singular narrative, hinting at the constructed and uncertain nature of history itself. Stammering, suggests Shelton, “might change the cognition or reception of images conceptually—suggesting an uncertainty, violence or a kind of duplicity.”4

If one of photography’s key responsibilities is to bear witness, what then, does stammering do to how we understand this archive’s power to communicate? Photographed quite plainly, capturing each site just as Shelton found them (to the extent of including parked cars in front of trees), the images provide us with a wealth of factual information, while simultaneously revealing little beyond the immediate. In researching the accounts of Holocaust survivors, philosopher Giorgio Agamben came to the conclusion that “all testimony contains a lacuna”5—a gap—making the nature of testimony simultaneously necessary and impossible. It is in the repetition of Shelton’s images, their mirroring, in which we glimpse the lacuna, the cut that reopens a historical wound.

  1. Žižek, S. (1991). For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso, p. 272‑3.  

  2. Shelton, A. (2010). Doubling, www.annshelton.com, retrieved April 20th 2012. 

  3. Colquhoun, D (ed.). (2008). As If Running On Air: the Journals of Jack Lovelock. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, p 241.  

  4. Shelton, A. (2010). Doubling, www.annshelton.com, retrieved April 20th 2012. 

  5. Agamben, G. (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books, p. 33.