dan nuttall

Winter Spin Around fieldwork

fieldwork, land art

Took a quick tour on skis around fieldwork a couple of days ago and here's what things are looking like (click here to watch a short video).  Winter is a great time to come out with snowshoes or skis! 

Knowledge of the Flesh

fieldwork dan does design surreal art sculpture land art trees bewilderness

 "These things, because they are false, are closer to the truth"  Baudelaire, in "Salon of 1859" (Paris)

So many things die without a sound. What if every living creature could scream at a volume commensurate with its importance to the continued existence of humans? Or shriek at a volume positively correlated with its mass? Would we stifle all the smallest screams? Or adapt as a species so that minor sounds fall below our threshold of hearing? Would the screams of trees and blue whales be heard around the globe while the cries of the bee become a background hum that scores our daily existence? As Jung believed: hurt instructs. Are we hurting enough yet? Can we be instructed?

The body of my academic work has tended to focus on non-human animals as "other" and their interaction with human animals. Overarching all of this work is a series of "simple" questions: What are our intertwined fates? What kind of world do we want to occupy? What can be learned from nature? How do we put it into practice?

According to Landscape Architect, James Corner, the profession of Landscape Architecture has tended to align with two arenas of ecological practice: one which is conservationist/resource management (more knowledge leads to better management and control) and the other, which is restorative (heal or reconstruct based upon ecological knowledge). As both a professional and academic involved in landscape architecture my work has tended to reside within these arenas. According to Corner, major criticisms of this type of work are:

1. the environment is still being manipulated to maximize rates and value of resource extraction (result: dominion, rationalized exploitation, analytical detachment, instrumentality).

2. the view of nature is romantic (wild, perfect, harmonious, stable) at the expense of predation, disease, parasitism, violence. 

My ecocentric artwork is an attempt to broaden my own horizons, to acknowledge the "deficiencies" in my academic work and to move beyond my "knowledgeable" self while entertaining the same questions about the intertwined fates of human and non-human animals. My artwork attempts to explore phenomena that seem more inaccessible in academic work: wonder, fear, lyricism, emotion, bewilderment, activation of the imagination and senses - humanity as human animal ("humanimal"), cultural animal, embodied and directed nature, ecologically driven but aware and manifesting the capacity to reflect upon the notions of "self" and "other". 

Participating in fieldwork has been an opportunity to take the profession of landscape architecture and explore the relationship between these two arenas of ecological practice. On the one hand, the plantation speaks directly to the issue of resource maximization.  Row after row of trees, waiting for death, while a real forest is excluded. Within this resource driven array, the tree (via the culture of art) is presented not as romantic, but as carnal, exhibiting a knowledge of the flesh. The bridge between these arenas allows for a new sense and sensing, activating new reactions. Is it only in our dreams or unconscious that we can imagine a more fleshy and sentient world? is there a way to re-annoint people with a visceral sense of nature and in some way "borrow" from the empathy that we feel for other fleshy vertebrates and transfer this to trees?

I am not suggesting that trees are animals, but rather using art to question what might lie beneath within and beneath our perceptions of "benign" nature. At the core of the dream? Not nature idealized (romantic) or inert (unitized resources) and perfected but nature revealed as raw and sensing, fleshy, peeled and limbed, a freshly skinned and utilized version of an "other", of our self. 

The Fear, The Love: Seeing the Forest and the Trees

fieldwork, dan nuttall, artist, trees, ecology, landscape architecture sculpture

Dendrophobia:             the fear of trees

Nyctohylophilia:          the love of dark wooded areas

Silvaphobia:                 the fear of cutting trees

Xylophilia:                     the love of wood objects

Some of our deepest fears are ecological. As with other fears, humans often deny or resist becoming conscious of their ecological fears because they threaten the "self".Moving into the darkness to confront our ecological fears may be a step on the path to sustainability. If it is true that our separation from nature is one of the contributors to our current state of un-sustainability then we must devise various and new means of annealing the rift. How do we not just get closer to nature but actually re-stitch human animal culture back into the larger fabric? Is it by considering all living entities as vital and invaluable partners to work with as we secure our coincidental fates?  What living entities are of merit? In our hierarchical world with its arrogant and lethargic attitude to the conferring of rights, how long will it take and how malleable is our capacity to recognize the value and necessity of both the "self" and "others"?.

What is our greatest ecological fear? I think our biggest fear is that we've gone too far. That we are no longer able to control what we have created - the oil spills, forest fires, biodiversity loss, habitat loss, famine and suffering. The fearful thing we have created - the ecological crisis - is coming out of hiding and is beginning to read its book of revelations.

Recent work by landscape architects and artists is questioning the future of our planet, and our relationship to nature, using the tree as a focus. Do these works, as a group, suggest a "broadened" acknowledgment of what we might consider as "other"? Or are these works just further examples of our romantic and resourcist views of nature? Is each and every form of life some kind of barometer corresponding to a deeper ecological value or a meaning that we may not be able to sense or have yet to plumb? Is it appropriate for us to use simulacra to meet needs while displacing "originals" which might provide a broader suite of ecological resources? What about the social and cultural impacts of simulacra? Overall, the body of work expresses novel revelations that help diversify perceptions and create new connections within, across and between the political, economic, socio-cultural and ecological strands of our lives. Check out the fear and the love, and see both the trees and the forest, in the following works:


  • Claude Cormier, Landscape Architect - BLUE TREE, 2004, the surface of a denuded tree festooned with sky-blue Christmas balls, the whole acting as an environmental barometer; LIPSTICK FOREST, 1999-2002 bold use of color and form immerses passers-by in a hand-cast simulated forest in the Winter Garden of the Palais de Congres in Montreal, Quebec. Please see www.claudecormier.com 
  • Don Maynard, Artist - FRANKEN FOREST - at the Agnes Etherington Gallery at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, until August 8, 2010. Maynard asks us to examine the utility of simulacra in our lives while focusing, in part, on the tree. Please visit: www.don-maynard.com

  • Roxy Paine, Artist. Recent works such as ERRATIC, 2007, in Prospect Park, CONJOINED, 2007, in Madison Square Park, and MAELSTROM, 2009, on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art - all in New York City - have underscored natural phenomena with "substitutes", many of which are dendritic and made of stainless steel. Represented by: www.jamescohan.com 
  • Robert Hengeveld, Artist - FORGERY ISLAND, 2005 - Like Maynard, Hengeveld fakes us out to get real. Rich brown trees with pink felt linings make a sensuous foray into our consciousness and invite new forms of contact.  You can see more work at: www.roberthengeveld.com

  • Juniper Perlis, Artist - Like Paine, Perlis goes hard to underscore things soft. A recent visit to SISTER TREE, 2008, in Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, New York, showed spring-time robins happily engaging with the welded steel and vinyl needled evergreen, underscoring the fact that all creatures can be attracted to simulacra if life history needs are being met. Fake is real if it meets a need. For more information on Perlis's work please visit: www.socratessculpturepark.org

  • Chico McMurtrie/Amorphic Robot Works - A TREE FOR ANABLE BASIN, 2007 - a floating island with a stainless steel tree that can be mobilized and inserted into the shoreline, this site-specific installation references the ongoing dialogue between ecological and industrial dimensions of the New York City waterfront. See: www.amorphicrobotworks.org


If You Go Out In The Plantation Today...

fieldwork dan nuttall bewilderness art trees forest flesh surreal dream

...you're sure of a big surprise. Cause today's the today I received a call from Susie Osler, a member of the fieldwork Collective, to tell me that sometime during the night my raven installation has been attacked!

Is this a political act I wonder? Or the work of a vandal? On the one hand, this could be a good sign. A lot of great art has been attacked over the years: The Mona Lisa; The Pieta in the Vatican; Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" (1996). Susie goes back to the scene of the crime and sends me an image of the disfigured raven, including a close-up showing a small patch of fur stuck in the tar surface of the raven's back. Dark fur. Black fur. Hmmm… Black Bear? I now have to re-align my theory regarding this act of desecration: clearly the piece has been attacked due to its realism. This could be taken as another good sign. A seal of approval from nature herself? Or perhaps, in staging the unconscious human mind, I have tapped into a greater unconsciousness or id, where primal nature is exerting its forces. The bear has finally subdued the intelligent and mischievous raven that can no longer act as a guide or talisman. On the other hand, maybe the bear just didn't like my work. I am on my way back to Brooke Valley to repair the damage. Somewhere out there is a bear with tar on its paw.


Seeing the Light... Getting Death Right

fieldwork dan nuttall bewilderness art trees forest flesh surreal dream
fieldwork dan nuttall bewilderness art trees forest landscape architecture

 "I tend to create work and push it slowly into the darkness. Sometimes it is obliterated. The trick is to have it exist in both lights - accessible to all. Always close to salvation and tragedy."   Louise Bourgeois

Despite all my preparation, sketches and proposals I am only now just coming to terms with site context and the feasibility of my proposed work (see "Bewilderness" below).  There is much to consider including the logistics of implementing various ideas and the availability and cost of materials. There are other practical matters as well. How much can I lift? How far can I carry? Where is the electrical outlet in the plantation? How difficult will trail making be? How much time with the deer flies, black flies and mosquitoes can I stand? I decide that my first task is to understand where natural clearings occur in the plantation so that I can choose those that will best fit each installation.  The natural light that occurs in each space will also affect what I do. I course back and forth through the plantation on my hands and knees, dragging fluorescent flagging tape with me as I go, in order to trace my path. I know that I want to stay away from the edge of the plantation, that I need to spot naturally occurring corridors of movement to reduce the amount of clearing I have to do, and that I need a loop to create a surreal dream sequence, with installations fairly evenly spaced along the path. From some perspectives I can see how the trails of fluorescent tape relate to each other and to the clearings. Some of the clearings are elliptical while others are square and seem cathedral-like. I find a nave and apse in one clearing and one installation clicks into place. As I get a better idea of the plantation overall, I start connecting spaces and thinking about how sequence and progressive realization of installations will build narrative. At the same time I am finding that the use of local materials and resources integrates the rural and adds additional layers of meaning into my work. A number of cedar rails from split rail fences have been piled near the slopes of an abandoned gravel pit; an old galvanized wash bucket sits behind the barn; wire mesh with pigeon feathers and excrement sits as a soiled tense sheet atop scattered hay in an old animal stall. I begin integrating these found materials into my work.

Knowing that I want to introduce trees and flesh into my project I take a series of color samples ranging from a bruised plum to bubble gum pink and tack them to a tree under what I feel could be average lighting conditions (see first blog entry below). By photographing these samples and examining them later I start to develop a color palette that I feel might work. Working with the colors of flesh can be challenging, though I have explored flesh in two-dimensional media before (see "The Meat of the Day"). I also have Louise Bourgeois's quote, above, in mind.  In the open, the colors I am working with look incongruous and bright - a carnival of pinks, red and blue. In the forest they look submerged. I think about how blood looks green/black when something bleeds deep in the ocean. The introduction of death in the installation acts as a harbinger for all of the trees; the absence of skin takes away any possibility of mediation or variable sensing; dismemberment expresses a nostalgia for the whole. 


fieldwork dan nuttall bewilderness art trees forest flesh dan does design

In fairy tales and folklore the deep dark forest is a forbidding place where witches and wolves wait to prey. In the late 1800's and early 1900's psychoanalysts believed that the forest represented the unconscious mind and contained things that we fear or aspects of ourselves that had been rejected or neglected. They also believed that something good could come from going into the forest and confronting the darkness - an opportunity to confront our fears and anxieties and to triumph.

This installation seeks correspondences between human life and nature via the psyche and imagination, primarily by cultivating a sense of bewilderment in regard to trees. Bewilderness evokes the familiar and the new, prompting wonder and imaginative recognition, eliciting new relationships. By providing the double presence of tree and flesh we are challenged to reconsider how we relate to trees, and by extension, to other beings and nature. 


fieldwork dan nuttall bewilderness art trees forest flesh

 "Life is found in animals and plants; but while in animals it is clearly manifest, in plants it is hidden and not evident. For before we can assert the presence of life in plants, a long inquiry must be held as to whether plants possess a soul and a distinguishing capacity for pleasure and pain."

Aristotle, "On Plants".

My time in Brooke Valley Ontario has been preceded by a considerable amount of time in New York City. So while my initial experiences in the pine plantation are still resonating with me, other experiences are also affecting my perceptions of the plantation. In New York City my feelings of separation from nature, and my work in landscape architecture has underscored the importance of trees. Trees in New York City seem to fall into two primary categories; street trees and trees in city parks. Nearby Prospect Park, with its gently rolling landscape designed by Vaux & Olmsted, is a haven for me. In a city like most, where non-human forms of life seem under-represented, the massive park trees that we take for granted come into sharpest focus when they die. Recent spring storms have left Prospect Park littered with immense fallen trees that were quickly moved off roads and paths and cut into pieces over several weeks. A walk through the Park during this time reveals a scene of scaled up truths - trees lie like beached and dismembered leviathans. Where the trunk has been sawn in cross-section, expansive pale wounds glow with rawness while adjacent sections of trunks and limbs seem to tell the story of a giant creature felled mid-stride. The life-full-ness of these dismemberments seem to exist in paradox to the lives they lived. Not full of muscle, sinew, blood vessels or a spinal cord, they did not flail, bleed, twitch or scream. They fell and were severed into sections silently - no quivering and steam in the cool spring air. And if they could? If the removal of bark revealed glistening pink flesh? If there was a gentle shuddering as one last breath was exhaled? How would this have changed our world? Can we kill things just because we cannot assess their sentience? How far, ultimately can we extend our notions of "other"? Of the living? Of life? 

For more images like fleshtree please visit: www.dandoesdesign.com

The Woods Are Dreary, Dark and Deep

fieldwork dan nuttall bewilderness art trees forest nature sustainability

"…the woods are lovely, dark and deep…" Robert Frost, "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening"

This is no place to wander. From the outside, looking in, for as far as my eye can see, interlocking branches preclude any kind of upright movement. Safety goggles are a must as every branch presents multiple opportunities for poking one's eye out. My goal is to understand the site, so there's only one choice. I drop to my knees and begin my journey. After crawling about for several minutes, I find a small clearing, and stand up. I am in the middle of a white pine plantation. Where the canopy allows, light sifts down to the still and silent floor. An ever-shifting patchwork of sunlit islands floats in the vast sea of shadow. The complexity I usually associate with a forest is absent here. I see only pine trees with thick and bare low-hanging branches that narrow as they ascend.  The needles that have fallen from these branches have accumulated in a thick reddish mat on the plantation floor. The trees are all one species, all of the same age, the same form and diameter, and are planted in a grid pattern. Something about the endlessly repeating pattern disappearing into the shade induces a kind of dream state. Off I go again, on my hands and knees, to pop up in spaces where I can. Everything is looking the same. I begin to lose track of direction and my starting point. There is also something peaceful about this place and a gentle amnesia sets in as I thread my way through this house of mirrors. What lurks within this dream? And what has been forgotten in a place like this? Though I cannot see the sky above me, the weather must be shifting. Is that the creaking of branches against each other from some unfelt breeze? The islands of light suddenly disappear - a bottle of ink tipped into water. The plantation is steeped in a murky and somber darkness, the dreary woods of fairytales and fables. More creaking from a different direction. Thank goodness there is nothing alive in here. Or is there? The trees are suddenly looking different. I am without breadcrumbs. I get back on my hands and knees and crawl to the edge of the plantation.

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