Hinting at a silhouette, a shape of reality defined through relationships (Part 2of 3)

Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke (Adolfo Ducke Forest Reserve). Watercolour, mud, bark and amazon foliage rubbings on paper. 22cm x 36cm. 2018.

3. Biotic and Mechanical Impression of Landscape

In autumn of 2018 I returned to Amazônia, this time on the Brazilian side, to be part of the LABVERDE residency. I was excited for the opportunity to share ideas with a diverse group of professional artists and scientists about ways art can communicate understanding of our relationship with nature.

Looking for tangible examples of physical processes shaping the landscape I was immediately fascinated by transpiration and the Biotic Pump theory. According to the theory large forests like the Amazon use transpiration to create conditions for attracting and absorbing moisture coming off of the ocean, then cycling it much further inland than is possible in areas without forests. Forest move trillions of liters of water through the atmosphere this way by regulating temperature, humidity, wind and pressure. Listening to the lecture by Philip Fearnside[1] on “The Vulnerability of the Amazon Forest in the Face of Climate Change” it was quite jarring to learn that continuing deforestation will likely trigger a feedback loop leading to Amazônia’s desertification and the destabilization of the global watercycle. I tried to imagine what could replace such a complex network of systems. I thought about transpiration and the ability of a single large tree in the Amazon to daily transpire up to a 1000 liters of water into the atmosphere. Given our cultures focus on technological progress at the expense of ecological systems I imagined “Mechanical Trees” strewn about a desertified landscape clumsily performing transpiration. Thinking about possible technological analogs for mimicking the biotic pump proved an interesting thought experiment because it made me consider the economic, cultural, technological and logistical dimensions of trees and forests. Thinking about how much energy is needed to evaporate 1000l of water daily was a tangible and fascinating way to explore landscape as an expression of many overlapping processes that I was looking for.

Meeting of the waters, Rio Negro and the Amazon. 2018
Exploring the flooded forest on the Rio Negro. 2018

The second thing that had a lasting impact on my art making happened when I joined Stig Marlon Weston on a hike to collect photographic paper. He had left it overnight in the jungle as part of his camerless photography process. I was struck by how the images were created through the interaction with what little light penetrated the canopy, the object pressed against paper and the chemistry present in the environment. Seeing the physical use of landscape contributing to the photographic representation of itself inspired me to incorporate the process of making work about landscape as part of its narrative. The next day on the way to the outdoor cafeteria I rubbed a sheet of watercolour paper on bark, moss and wet foliage not sure of what to expect. With the breakfast finished and most scattering to peruse their projects I spread out on the bench and started painting the surrounding forest incorporating the marks and stains into the “Reserva Florestal Adolfo Ducke” piece seen above. For my second experiment I partially buried a sheet of watercolour paper into the Amazonian clay. It had a stencil of 3 Leaf Cutter ants on it and it was buried right on a path to one of their nest entrances. I was hoping that the ants would activate the stencil by dotting the page with their tiny feet overnight. It didn’t work but liking how the clay stained the paper I smudged some of it in a way that would make the stencil work. Once the clay dried I brushed off most of it off. Holding the print which retained physical evidence of the place it represented made the art work feel special. Having the part of the landscape used in its representation made the work feel real in a way none of my art felt like before.

Leaf-cutter Ants. Amazonian clay on paper. 22cm x 36cm. 2018

Primed by my experiences at Labverde I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentine for a month long Proyecto’ace residency to create work about the connection between the Amazon and the city through the watercycle.

Thinking about transpiration and the biotic pump I started by creating a series of water stencil prints using water from Rio de la Plata. Applying multiple layers of water resulted in a subtlety defied silhouette of a tree by water residue. Having removed the stencils carefully I created a second set of works which represented each of the trees using manufactured products: tape and artmask.

Transpiration trees. Water from Rio de la Plata on watercolour paper, tape, artmask. 22cm x 36cm each. 2018

In a series of postcard size watercolour paintings I imagined what places in Buenos Aires might look like having to rely on technology to support/replace ecosystem services. In selecting an area I inserted silhouettes of “Mechanical Trees” into the landscape basing the design either on a tree/bush they replaced or on an architectural features of the area.

My next project was a triptych illustrating Amazon as a biotic pump and its potential mechanical version. The first painting depicts the Amazon outstretching into the horizon with pillars of moisture rising into the sky. The sky’s colour was achieved by applying layers of water from the Rio Negro as a direct reference to atmospheric rivers and lakes that are fed by the forest. The second painting is broken up into three panels representing the transition from a biotic pump to a mechanical pump, and, its subsequent failure and reclamation by nature. For the mechanical version of the Amazon I designed different types of Mechanical Trees that I felt would be necessary to perform the action of transpiration (pump, vaporiser, power source, water storage, etc.). I took inspiration from various industrial structures and green technologies. The third painting shows a desertified landscape covered by neatly spaced out cylindrical, tree-trunk-like shapes — a Mechanical forest. Working on this piece made me think about the huge logistical scale and incredible cost of creating, installing, powering and maintaining a mechanical forest, that at best might only provide a fraction of the benefits of a regular forest.

Transpiration show installed at Proyecto’Ace, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 2018

Alicia Candiani, the residency director, having seen how I was using projection to lay out the larger watercolours, encouraged me to consider using projection in the sculpture installation I was thinking about. This thoughtful nudge led to the creation of “Biotic/ Mechanical Pump” sculpture installation. The installation consisted of 5 paper tubular forms about 3 meters high. These silhouette-like forms were animated by a projection of a video I cobbled it together form my footage of canoe excursions into the flooded on Rio Negro during Labverde. Editing was tricky because I had little experience with editing and when I shot my videos I had no real plan of how they were going to be used. Finding enough usable footage wasn’t easy, mainly because most of it had people talking since it was shot while we were exploring areas together. The video loop turned out to be 3 min, unevenly split between what is meant to represent a biotic and a mechanical system moving water.

“Biotic/Mechanical Pump‘‘ installed at Proyecto’Ace, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 2018

The night of the opening I was still thinking about Mechanical Trees performing ecosystem services as an absurdist thought experiment. When I got back to the apartment unable to sleep I started watching YouTube. Within a few minutes the algorithm lined up a month old Vice video report about a carbon sequestering plant in Squamish, British Columbia harvesting carbon from the air to create carbon neutral fuel.

A deck on the RIo Negro. Digital photographic collage. 2018
Adolfo Ducke Forest Reserve. 2018

5. Broken Trees

Broken Tree #4. Etobicoke creek water, art mask, tape on paper. 36cm x 22cm. Spring, 2019

Arriving from Proyecto’ace, I picked up where I left off with documenting a particular curve of the Etobicoke Creek ravine that I started after my time in Ecuador. Looking at the suburban park through new ‘filters,’ the ravine became a fascinating place of discovery where very different flows of time interwove. The area I picked centred on a wall of compressed sediment layers, holding 250 million years of deep time. The creek is nibbling at it continually, you can hear tiny rockslides swish down into the creek remaking the shape of the wall. A quiet drama unfolds on top of the ravine with trees that once grew on horizontal ground, slowly find themselves clinging to increasing verticality. The inevitable tumble below opposed to the very last unseen moment.

Wadopikang (Etobicoke) valley — wall, 2017 03 19. Digital photographic collage.
Wadopikang (Etobicoke) valley — wall. Digital photographic collage. 2019 06 23

Travelling to this spot on a regular basis I became interested in individual trees, especially the broken ones which were scattered throughout the ravine. They felt sculptural, with a beautiful range of shape and personality and I wanted to capture them as water prints, continuing my experimentation. On one of my regular outings to photograph the wall I collected a jar of water from the frozen over creek. A few days later when the temperature was closer to 0 degrees Celsius I prepped a page of watercolour paper by covering it with tape. Getting to a particularly violently broken trunk I drew it out and walked back to my studio to cut it out. Having applied multiple coats of the water to the exposed paper I was surprised to find the result to be the faintest I have seen so far. Wanting to capture some of the force contained in the stillness of the breaks I left parts of the stencil to highlight different aspects of the tree. This ended up becoming the direction for the series as each of the following 28 prints had elements of the stencil as part of the composition. The work in retaining some of the process of its creation, its ‘un-finished’ state, complemented that it was representing a landscape still changing.

Wadopikang (Etobicoke) valley — Broken Tree. Digital photographic collage. 2017 05 23

Working on this series I thought about how secondary succession is a mechanism of an ecosystem in transition. Having read a city of Toronto study on the ravines health I pondered which broken trees were a result of the negative impacts our presence had on this seemingly vital area and which were simply part of the natural order of things. Looking at the broken trunks I thought about the role failure plays in growth, environmentally and in my personal life. How a fallen tree can open up a new area of growth with the rotting trunk serving as a source of nutrients. I thought about resilience, seeing new shoots fanning out from dramatically contorted and broken trunks. Sitting at a base of a particularly impressive husk — its sharp spikes of broken branches crowning a thick Maple trunk whose top half broke off years ago — I thought about the spirit of the forest and how differently people can relate to their environment. And then a time came when the work helped me to think about my mother and the cancer she was enduring.

Wadopikang (Etobicoke) valley — Broken Tree. Digital photographic collage. 2018 12 07

Before the cancer became a known quantity, in the spring of 2019 I had an opportunity to visit my sister in Barcelona. This time around I was looking to create a few Impressions of places where natural and human systems shape landscape. My first “Impression” was of a breaker wall. Using salt water from the Balearic Sea I was able to get a faint print with a bit of salt crystal sparkle. For the second piece I decided to hike over the hills to Rio Besos, a river bordering the east side of the city. Walking high enough to admire Barcelona’s design and placement, I came across a wild outcropping of the Opuntia cactus (Prickly pear). It’s beefy geometric peddles formed a complex sculptural structure, crowing the sun baked ridge of red clay. I stopped for a minute admiring the view.

Opuntia (prickly pear cactus.) Red earth and Opuntia on paper. 20cm x 25cm. 2019

Pushing forward on my mission to get to the river, it occurred to me that I just left a great spot for an impression. Returning, I sat down finding the ‘right’ angle. With the city spread out below, I drew, cut and pealed tape off the paper to reveal a stencil of the cactus. Thinking it a clever idea I used a chunk of the cactus pad, smearing its wet innards around the stencil. This left a light green residue. On a whim I stuck a piece of red clay into cactus jelly and began to rub with it. Right away strong vivid marks like those of an oil stick covered the page in a red earth colour which came to define the series. With each additional work I started to bring in other elements I found near where I was sketching and rubbing them into the page.

Broken Tree #22. Chlorophyll, Etobicoke creek, dirt, bark, art mask, tape on paper. 36cm x 22cm. Autumn, 2019

Returning to Toronto, for the rest of the “Broken Trees” impressions I started using everything that I could get my hands on as a medium: bark, mud, leaves, shale, flowers, etc. Over 12 months I created 29 works with roughly five for each season. Now that it is completed, the art work, in a small but interesting way contains a sample record of what could be found at the sites portrayed. Made at a place where deep time is so accessible these prints speak to the present version of the Etobicoke Creek valley as on a continuum of interacting natural and human processes.

“Broken Trees” installed at YYZ Artist Outlet Toronto. On display September 18 — November 27th, 2021

Finishing the series, I took a detour inspired by John Riley’s “The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History.” I was blown away by the changes illustrated by quotes from people who observed it at their present. Seeing the place I live in through their eyes gave me another set of filters I wanted to make work about. It made me sad for how much was lost but it also made me realize the potential of this place, of what it could be like, that because of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome I was not aware off, but more on that in the next instalment…

[1] Biologist working on “issues of tropical agro-ecosystems, deforestation, environmental degradation and their impact on society (since 1978)” (Wikipedia)

Polish-Canadian artist interested in the connection between value systems, change and perception; the idea of nature defined through relationships and processes