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Tue 17 September 2019
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Caroline Davidson explores the philosophical underpinnings of an installation by Peter Fluck and Tony Myatt showcasing a beloved tree that was cut down.


An enormous piece of a Monterey cypress, a species of tree native to the central coast of California, was lying on its side in a gallery in Cornwall.

In the middle of the room, centre stage, many of the people who had come to see it headed straight to the gallery walls. Here, photographs of muscular, arid forms hung alongside close-ups of cavities, rifts, and ripples reminiscent of sand. Charcoal and conté drawings were lyrical. Beneath hard black lines soft strokes appeared to move upon the page. Bearing a resemblance to dance notation, the drawings resisted a single form, hinting at time, movement and change.

In essence, a tribute to the loss of an important, living thing, the intention of the work is humbly that people look and see.

At one end of the space, a roll of 100 further photographs was projected onto a screen – every one of them a close-up of a different part of the trunk-piece. Some of the images could be mistaken for aerial shots of deserted territories or parts of the anatomy. Even where what was pictured was obviously wood, the material was rendered different. It twisted and zigzagged, jutted, wrinkled and curved to mimic fabric, stone, earth, metal and bone. The pictures varied in light, density and sinuousness, but they had in common shades of ochre, silver, gold, black and white. Every image was unmistakably created with an abstract eye. 

The sounds of birdsong, woodpeckers, gusts of wind and a thunderstorm whistle, knocked, rasped and howled around the room. Played in layers through eight speakers, each sound was selected for being as close as possible to the sounds native to the environment in which this particular tree was felled. What was left of it demands another look.


ALIVE IN DEATH

All That’s Left was Peter Fluck’s response to the felling of a tree near his home on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula. An artist and caricaturist best known for his founding role in the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, for more than 20 years Fluck would regularly pass the centenarian cypress, observing its seasonal changes in colour.

Standing tall on the roadside of a sparsely wooded region, it was an arboreal landmark hard to miss. When, out driving, Fluck first saw the tree in its reduced form – marked with the slashes of a chainsaw – it held for him an instant power and significance. The six-foot lump of timber lying on the ground looked fantastic. Moments later he realised what it was. By the end of the same day, the tree’s remains were in Fluck’s garden, hauled there by a crane. 

Over the course of the following year, as the bark fell off the tree, metaphor clung to it. Its pale bones gradually became exposed – their smoothness emphasising the chainsaw-wounds. A different sort of sculpture emerged. The colours and textures of the bare wood refined its beauty. The visible interference to the tree’s patterns of growth and experience elevated its tragedy. Fluck, the astute observer, trained in alighting on those things that make a subject interesting, began creating his photographic impressions. 

Fluck’s obsessive fascination with this piece resulted in hundreds of digital images taken over the next three to four years. He approached Tony Myatt, professor of sound at the University of Surrey, and someone with whom he had previously collaborated, to produce an audio reimagining of the tree. Myatt, a specialist in spatial sound reproduction and recording, created an ambisonic track that drew the listener directly into the life of this Monterey cypress.

By the time Fluck embarked on his drawings of the trunk-piece, his knowledge of it was so intimate he did them from memory. Jettisoning his former, studied approach to drawing, Fluck responded freely to his subject. The drawings developed their own expressionist aesthetic. Fluck has been drawing in this unrestrained, calligraphic way ever since – artist and subject continuing to change one another. 

What began as a project without a plan became a multi-faceted work of connected layers. In essence, a tribute to the loss of an important, living thing, the intention of the work is humbly that people look and see. 


A NEW PERMANENCE

In the Tremenheere Gallery, in the grounds of a sub-tropical sculpture garden filled with beech, oak, holly and sweet chestnut, the visitors returned to the central exhibit. It was October 2018 and the first time All That’s Left was shown.

People arrived unsure of what they had come to see. Now, in the familiar company of two-dimensional images and prints, they looked again at the piece of trunk that was lit like an old actor in a Beckettian play.

People spent time with it. They touched it. They were asked not to climb it, but children started to. Something happened to this tree. Something was happening to it still. 

Today, the trunk is back in Fluck’s garden, between his house and studio. He still photographs it when the light is good and it has provided the inspiration for yet more drawings and paintings. He is using its surface to make some rubbings and he has taken moulds from it, which will form the basis for some ceramics – to make the tree permanent in a new way. Maybe it could be a hologram. 

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