Seeing through wood: the tree of life

Across diverse environments trees achieve fantastic feats of persistence in the face of tidal and freshwater inundation, drought, fire and cold. In benign situations trees, supported by wood, reach massive proportions and are the largest living creatures on Earth. Wood, if carefully stewarded and harvested, is renewable and provides an enduring storehouse of accessible solar energy as well as a material of unrivaled diversity in terms of strength, durability, malleability, resilience and buoyancy. As a result of these remarkable qualities wood has always been prized for a myriad of purposes ranging
from implements and weapons, to dyes and poisons and to structures and fuel.

The achievement of trees in harvesting sunlight, water and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis is critical to life on Earth. As well as producing oxygen for us to breathe, the capture of carbon in wood is a critical element of climate security. The 2000 Global Forests Resources Assessment estimated the Earth’s forests contained 422 billion tonnes of wood. Wood represents about half of the total carbon stored in forests-taken together with the leaves and branch-wood, leaf litter and carbon in soil the total carbon stock of forests is in the order of 670 billion tonnes and is greater than the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Trees and wood represent key elements of our relationship with environment generally and place specifically. The peculiar challenges of the stewardship and cultivation for trees that might take generations to mature and the strategic importance of wood sees trees as central to many of our historic and contemporary narratives.

The expressions of wood and our relationship with this embodiment of harvested sunlight provide the basis for an exhibition opening at the JamFactory and the Santos Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Garden on Friday, February 15. WOOD: art design architecture, co-curated by Brian Parkes and Elliat Rich, is an incredibly important (and bizarrely rare) opportunity to celebrate and explore the significance and beauty of wood and our relationship with forests, trees and wood.

WOOD: art design architecture includes the work of 28 contemporary artists, designers and architects whose work addresses wood respectfully to embrace a broad range of perspectives of wood’s beauty, utility, diversity and significance.

Brian and Elliat have effectively navigated an immensely diverse and complex terrain ranging across diverse vistas for the utilisation of wood in buildings, furniture, sculpture and objects to our relationship with woodlands and forests, trees and wood.

As a botanist I’m immediately engaged by the botanical diversity on view. The wood explored extends across plantation species such as hoop pine and eucalypts, recycled limbers including kauri and presumably huon pine, salvaged timbers such as Cupressus macrocarpa from farm windbreaks and driftwood, and incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) in the form of pencils as the substrate for Lionel Bawden’s requiem (spirit of the beehive). Peter Walker’s hollow surfboard of Paulownia wood with a marine-ply internal skeleton decorated with Gerry Wedd’s hand-painted cherry-pink imagery of the wood anatomy of the Paulownia also explores the nature of wood as a material.

Brian and Elliat haven’t shied away from significant elements in this diverse and complex terrain because they don’t fit neatly into a display space. For example, Brian Hooper and m3architecture’s Tree of Knowledge Memorial at Barcaldine in Queensland finds a place in WOOD: art design architecture as, ‘equal parts landscape architecture, public art and political shrine‘. The Ghost Gum (botanically this is Corymbia aparrerinja, formerly known as Eucalyptus papuana var. aparrerinja) that shaded the beginnings of the Australian Labor Party during the Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891 was killed by vandals in 2006. Hooper and m3architecture’s subsequent commission reflects the importance of the so-called Tree of Knowledge. The evocation of other places is also apparent in Gary Warner’s Wood Worked that provides the soundscape for the exhibition.

The partnership between the JamFactory and the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide through the inclusion of exhibits in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany continues Brian and Elliat’s consummate navigation. In the 1860s and 70s the wood collection at the Adelaide Botanic Garden was so large and important to the Garden that even when the new Museum of Economic Botany was constructed in 1879 the Rustic Temple remained a timber museum until 1894. The timber collection now resides in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany flanking Fiona Hall’s working forest-Grove, with the Museum itself surrounded by the Garden’s rich tree collection. Brian and Elliat have also co-edited a beautifully designed and accessible catalogue that explores both the exhibits and the exhibition’s themes in text and images.

WOOD: art design architecture has been supported by Forests & Wood Products Australia through their Wood. NaturallyBetterTM campaign. The exhibition will also tour to Mount Gambier and nationally through the Commonwealth Government’s Contemporary Touring Initiative.

WOOD: art design architecture
JamFactory, GalleryOne, and Santos Museum of Economic Botany
Friday, February 15 to Sunday, April 7

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 February 2013.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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