When I got back [from a trip to South America] I made Two hundred and eighty two, a slice of an oak tree on which I drew all the rings with black ink. Through making TREE [commission for the Natural History Museum] I had developed this obsession with wood grain. In this work it’s possible to trace a line of grain from the root to where it ended in the tip of a branch. I feel that I had exposed the story or autobiography of this tree by making my cut through it.
The oak slice is from Longleat Forestry. They’ve been managing their woodland for centuries and have become an exemplary model of how to do this in a sustainable way. It was a real privilege to go for a walk in the woods with Rodney Graham, the Head Forester there, because there is so much woodland knowledge in him, all this stuff about how things connect. The thing about the jungle that made a really big impression on me was how things live at different heights within the environment and yet are all connected. It wasn’t until I was back in the woods walking with Rodney and suddenly someone was interpreting that landscape in a very similar way that I realised the woodland landscape is also all about connection. It wasn’t just about a specimen, an individual thing; it was also about how one thing effects another thing and I find that really compulsive in how I am thinking about landscapes and the natural world now.
With two hundred and eighty two, I didn’t know how old the tree was exactly. I knew roughly and the joy of tree rings is that you can actually work that out. The slice was taken from a tree that had to come down and Rodney said it was getting on for 300 years old. But that actual act of counting becomes another kind of obsessive act.
Being involved in felling a tree is like watching something die and it’s quite difficult. I know we fell timber all the time, is a farmed crop like any other, but the magnificence of this thing actually falling is another big moment in the life of the work. Time is important in these works, the idea of a life span, a beginning and an end, a kind of root and branch, there is that sense of a whole life in the work. The same with the rings: you know this is a lifeline of something. I don’t know if people will connect to that or not. I have no idea. And it’s so much older than us. We’re just twigs and branches but not anything like that – we’ll never make 282 years old!
Extract from conversation between Sarah Gillett and Tania Kovats in ‘On the Edge of the World’, 2010.
© The authors and British Council, 2010