Andre Woodward’s Burghers of Cali presents a spirited portrait of the noble lives (and deaths) of trees

By MARRIE STONE

High in the White Mountains of Eastern California (near Bishop) stands perhaps the oldest tree on the planet. Methuselah, named after the biblical patriarch who is said to have lived to age 969, has outlived its namesake by thousands of years. Today the Great Basin bristlecone pine is estimated to be 4,855 years old, making it roughly 300 years older than the Giza Pyramids of Egypt.

Chances are, though it’s less than a six-hour drive to commune with this historic treasure, you haven’t done it. Neither have I. Andre Woodward wants to change that. His whimsical installation at the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) aims to remind visitors that our planet brims with ancient life, and setting down our devices to spend time with these soulful giants might change our perspective.

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Courtesy of Andre Woodward

Artist Andre Woodward takes a portrait of Methuselah, said to be the oldest living tree on the planet

Woodward created his own redwood forest inside LAM’s lobby, interspersing living trees among relics of wooden furniture he purchased from estate sales and fashioned into human-looking faces. These spirits, awakened from their slumber in 1970s ranch houses where they once served as coffee tables and footstools, now seem appalled at how much the world has changed and how little regard humans have for nature’s miracles.

“They’ve been absorbing human life, but in a den as an end table,” Woodward said. “They haven’t been exposed to the world at large. Chances are they came from homes that don’t have computers, where somebody’s parents passed away and the kids needed to get rid of things. So, these trees are waking up as physically rudimentary spirits who don’t know about the digital age.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Andre Woodward’s “Burghers of Cali: A Ballad of Redwood Spirits” is on display at LAM through February 4

The digital age, and its interplay with the analog world, is something that interests Woodward. “For me, wood was always intriguing,” he said. “Each one of those rings is an analog memory. Like a hard drive or record, it’s etched with the information of that time. Trees are like memory disks with analog etchings of the climate, what was around them, how much carbon dioxide they were getting. They’re like the original memory card.”

Step outside your people-centric perspective and consider the notion that humans are like destructive insects compared to the majestic longevity of redwoods. “We don’t acknowledge trees as [independent] entities. We see them as objects, as material to build with, or a design feature. Something that’s here to serve us,” Woodward said. “But some of these trees are older than Christianity. It’s arrogant to think we’re superior. We’re like mayflies with our short lifecycles compared to trees. And we’re so destructive. [Meanwhile,] trees support the entire ecosystem.”

The Burghers of Cali draws its name from Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (1884-95), a monument commemorating the heroism of six leading citizens (burghers) of the French city of Calais. The men offered their lives to the English king in exchange for lifting his siege of the city. Woodward saw these martyrs, selflessly willing to give their lives for the greater good, inside the trees.

When photographing the redwoods, he also thought about those iconic oil portraits of our Founding Fathers. Much of the wood he used was cut in the 1800s when those paintings were made. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Catholicism, representations of the saints and the Renaissance. About how we venerated the Founding Fathers and how portraits symbolized those larger-than-life beings,” he said. “I wanted to shoot these trees in that style, like Teddy Roosevelt standing on a cliff.”

Woodward said most of these trees lived until the industrial revolution when serious deforestation began. “Then the earth really changed,” he said. “We covered it with concrete and steel, [and laid] all these pipelines and cables under the ocean.”

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Concrete, Woodward argues, is the most devastating human innovation of all. It gave humans the power to reshape the planet. Note the cracking concrete pots where Woodward planted several trees. The trees keep growing and adapt to the constraints around them.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Woodward hopes his work functions as a narrative experience – a parable that transmits knowledge to the viewer. “Like a good song that strikes your soul because you relate to it,” he said.

Climb to the museum’s second floor and look down on the installation to appreciate its complexity from an aerial angle. Note the electric cables running along the base of the trees, symbolizing the invasion of technology on the natural world. Note the CMYK-colored floor tiles representing the four ink plates used in color printing – cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). “The trees are the mid-range,” Woodward said. “The gray.”

The mirrors, topped with crystals, represent the spiritual and metaphysical, Woodward said. “There’s unseen energy, and the mirrors reflect the physical world.”

Within the exhibition are small speakers that play a recording from the redwood forest. If you arrive at a quiet time, stand still and listen. “The sound resonators are compositions I made to mimic the life of the slab [of wood] in a human environment,” Woodward said.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Note the CMYK-colored floor tiles and other features that connect the digital to the natural world

Woodward hopes the installation acts as a visual symphony, with every element playing its individual role while working together to create the whole.

If nothing else, he hopes the work inspires people to take their own trip to a redwood forest and experience these magnificent titans first-hand.

“It’s really a moving experience,” he said. “And it’s so close. Take three or four days to walk through these forests. Spend a good amount of time there. It’ll change your personality. You’ll come back energized. And when you come back, returning to all the stresses of life, you can think back on that experience and realize, ‘That’s where life is.’

“Because people don’t see it, they don’t respect it. They don’t understand how important it is.”

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Courtesy of Andre Woodward

Andre Woodward hopes to encourage audiences to get back in touch with nature and spend time in California’s old-growth forests

Woodward will be holding an art conversation at LAM with art critic Shana Nys Dambrot on February 3.

Burghers of Cali: A Ballad of Redwood Spirits will be on display in the LAM lobby through February 4.

For more information, visit LAM’s website by clicking here. To follow Woodward’s work on Instagram, click here.

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