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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Barren Tree

This is one of the rare posts on this blog not written by me. This is by my wife Carol Green as a journal entry for her Supervision class at the MCLA Leadership Academy this past summer. Tomorrow would have been my father's 82nd birthday, so its inclusion here is prompted by that fact.

Visitors to MassMoCA’s Badlands exhibit might notice that many works appear to be set off by themselves. Yet one piece stands out in its aloneness. Jennifer Steinkamp’s 12-foot video tree, Mike Kelley, is projected on one entire wall at the end of a long room, its trunk, limbs, and finger-like twigs rhythmically twisting to an inaudible beat. The image of the tree appears as a giant black-white line drawing set against a russet-brown background. A slight hesitation in the tree’s movement informs us this is not a real tree, but a digital one. If you are patient enough to watch the projected exhibit’s entire five-minute cycle, you will see the tree changes to represent each season: it bursts with beautiful blossoms of pink, orange, and coral for spring; it sprouts green leaves for summer; it displays orange and rust-colored leaves for fall; and it bares its branches for winter, except for a few scattered red-brown leaves.
I first encountered the tree at the same time a docent was introducing a tour group to it. The group was discussing "scary" trees, such as the trees in Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, and the Harry Potter series. Far from scary, I found the tree breathtaking in its vivid spring colors and just as striking in its winter nakedness.
Later, when I returned to the tree, sitting on the bench in front of it and studying its cycle and rhythm, another visitor sat down next to me. The tree had captured our imaginations. She commented on the tree’s "lyrical quality." I told her I could feel a cool, refreshing breeze from the swaying branches. She told me about her life: she was on an Elderhostel week of visiting Berkshire art galleries and theatres; she lives in New York City and loves to take guided tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; she longs to take her grandsons to the Met this summer but is disappointed that their sports seem to take precedence; and finally, in her next life, she wants to be a curator at a contemporary art museum. There we were, two strangers, communing with nature and each other. After a while, she said she would leave me alone and "let me meditate."
What did I see besides the digitalized, projected tree? The twisting and undulating branches are a crowd of people, seemingly random in movement, yet with a predictable cycle, not unlike visitors to the art gallery. Look again—now a ballet troupe in a precisely choreographed work. Look again—now a representation of the fluctuations of so many cycles in our lives—the changes of season, the peaks and valleys of our economy, the ebb and flow of our relationships, the alpha and omega of life and death.
Whom did I see in the tree? Les Green, my father-in-law, was present in that space. He was a fellow lover of trees, and we bonded over his painting of barren trees the first time I met him, shortly before I married his son, Roger, nine years ago. My own work of a barren tree, a pencil drawing from my teenage years, still hangs on our dining room wall. Les and I somehow understood each other’s attraction to barren trees—and how something that others considered dormant or even frightening would engage us enough to give it another life in a work of art. A talented, outgoing, and dynamic pillar of his community and church, Les nevertheless felt singular, alone, and sometimes lonely, Roger later explained to me. Les died a year later, and I often think of how I learned about the importance of relationships from him.
Steinkamp’s Mike Kelley, the video tree, represents the paradox we often encounter in our lives: movement in things that are not alive, constant change in a repeated cycle, social connection and loneliness in the same person, and vivid memories of someone no longer on earth that still enliven our days.


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