by Stefania Strouza
“This “architectonic soul” [Animism] has the capacity to arrange or derange all animate beings by “furnishing” them with desires, ideas, and passions. Such animate architecture finds expression in two main structures: the human body and the tree.”
~Spyros Papapetros, Animism, “Liquid Antiquity” Catalogue
There is a primal, uncanny link between trees and human societies. One preceding the other, forests were once endowed with agency, when they served as sacred sites of animist worship. Once humans start to expand and control territory, this relationship is overturned. Early architecture envelops the human body in a building, originally often constructed from timber. This is performed through a sacrificial act, that of the dismemberment of the tree. The vegetal organism attains thereafter a disembodied presence as cladding, ornament and spatial enclosure.
Despite their “transformation” from animated entities to tectonic devices, these arboreal relics do not seem to dispel their troubling effect upon the human soul. As James Frazer in his nineteenth-century anthropological epic “The Golden Bough” describes: “Even when a tree has been felled, sawn into planks, and used to build a house, it is possible that the woodland spirit may still be lurking in the timber, and accordingly some people seek to propitiate “him” with bloody rituals before they occupy the new building.”
Sacrificial acts thus remain connected with the idea of human settlement, using the dead bodies of trees. The violence, however, inflicted upon trees is also performed in reverse, on human bodies in the form of their sacrifice, in hope for reconciliation with the violated nature.
In the opening scene of “The Garden” a broken tree accompanies but also precipitates death. “Today of all days” utters one of the main characters. As the narrative unfolds, ideas of territorial conflict and boundary crossing are expressed within a setting occupied by trees. Under their foliage, acts of physical and psychological violence are being performed, in the form of family disputes or even deaths of individuals.
Bodies and trees, trees as bodies, in interchangeable positions of submission and defiance. Fragmented, dispersed and reassembled, these arboreal and human assemblages, are bound together by conflict over the settled spaces of human dwellings. The falling tree signifies empathy with the dead grandmother, but also revolt against its prescribed position in the order of things. By the end of the film, the domain of nature will claim its final victory over the project of human settlement, with the treehouse being the symbol of an arboreal upheaval.
In the work “Tamoanchan (Today of all days)” the above ideas are explored by means of sculptural form. As its title suggests, along with its role as a narrative device in the film, the image of the broken tree is revisited here through an external cultural association: the elaborate arboreal illustrations found in Aztec codexes. “Tamoanchan” is the depiction of a tree split in half, its parts in diagonal position and its roots fully exposed and bleeding. The unsettling anthropomorphism of its silhouette reminds us of the primordial link between trees and human bodies. In this link theorist Spyros Papapetros locates an “architectonic soul”. In the work, these three elements, the arboreal, the bodily and the architectural, are composed and restaged in a sculptural assemblage.
The tree structure appears as a ruptured cement-like object, its copper roots expanding in space. That space, the imagined territory of domesticity, is populated by abstract forms that resemble vessels, bones or spatial models. They serve as indicators of human society. Between the arboreal and the societal rest, however, the remnants of the sacrificial. Limbless hands and vegetal parts form a cluster, generating undecipherable gestures towards each other. In “Tamoanchan (Today of all days)” the uneasy corporeality of this set of characters and their fragile presence evokes tacit violence but also a sense of empathy towards them. Territorial conflicts thus establish a space where the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate are perpetually disturbed.