What is a tree? This is one of those incredulously obtuse questions that would, ostensibly, seem to have a pretty straightforward response; maybe something like: plant-like things with wooden trunks and leaves. But, like most queries that present themselves as almost too obvious, the answer is far from simple. It turns out that many of the oldest known tree groups, such as the Cladoxylopsida (an extinct species from around 380 million years ago), were actually leafless.
What is more, ‘trees’ – or what we typically classify as such – do not belong to a traditional monophyletic group. That is, the common ancestors of many trees are things which are not trees – the maple and mulberry tree are two such examples. This is similar to the more widely known phenomena of carcinisation, which sees crustaceans evolving into crab-like forms. In an instance of convergent evolution, different groups of plants – in some cases, both geographically and temporally dislocated – keep turning into trees. Yes, trees exist, but the category of ‘tree’ can be thought of as an abstraction; a theoretical model that provides some semblance of order to a network of vast complexity.
Thinking of trees as symbolic abstractions is useful when considering the exhibition, ‘Shadow Forests’, by artist Angela Gilmour and writer Beth Jones, recently presented at The Lord Mayor’s Pavilion in Cork. Because although it’s about trees – things which are so omnipresent as to be taken for granted – the distinction here is that these models are extinct. The various works function like aesthetic ‘time machines’, offering viewers some kind of momentary glimpse into an atavistic past. Like the convoluted ancestry of the category of ‘tree’, the presented artworks outwardly articulate another kind of institutional ambiguity, drawing upon exhibition-making genealogies, both within the art gallery and the natural history museum.
The exhibition was developed from field research undertaken by Gilmour and Jones at different sites that contain tree fossils from ancient forests, including the Catskill Mountains in New York State and Svalbard in the Northern Arctic. The various pieces on show – acrylic paintings, 3D-printed fossil casts, ink drawings, and video – present themselves as the empirical results of these studies, with the most successful examples being those which more overtly lean into that tendency.
The five paintings on display here channel the formality of Romanic landscapes, wherein, historically, nature became the site of an aesthetic sublime. The most interesting of these, Borehole through deep time (first forests – 383 Ma Gilboa, US) (2022), eschews this tendency, adopting an almost kitsch, Sci-Fi demeanour, with the scene of extinct Cladoxylopsida trees claustrophobically framed by a borehole that exists as a portal into an era, so unfathomably removed from our own that it becomes impossible to adequately comprehend. This jarring juxtaposition can also be observed in the delicate ink drawings, which depict various species of long extinct trees.
Upon confronting these artworks, I am immediately reminded of the human past; between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, botanical illustrations abounded in journals dedicated to the natural sciences. Hand-drawn illustrations eventually gave way to photography, and so paintings like these automatically conjure pre-industrial histories, but measured in the more manageable hundreds of years, rather than hundreds of millions.
The conceptual thematic of the show is the idea of ‘deep time’, which armed mankind with scientific knowledge of timescales that existed beyond traditional temporal understandings. The vast current of recorded human history, spanning roughly 5,500 years, collapses into the seemingly infinite unfolding of a terrestrial chronology that extends backwards millions, hundreds of millions, and billions of years.
As the video works, Shadow Forests (2022) and Dreaming of Trees (2022) inform the viewer, the coal deposits that were instrumental in kickstarting and then accelerating the industrial revolution – the precursors to our own post-industrial, information-societies – formed over millions of years. We are set to strip them all from the Earth in less than half a century. Any solutions to the problem of ecological destruction are rife with complexities, but perhaps the motivation for finding a way forward is a substantial understanding of the deep past.
Laurence Counihan is an Irish-Filipino writer and critic, who is currently a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the History of Art department at University College Cork.