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Even Trees Can Be Political

The anonymous narrator of Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall” wonders why his neighbor insists upon having an artificial barrier between their properties. “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines,” he says. But all his neighbor does is echo, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

It’s easy to envision borders as templates imposed on nature from without, often in a manner that disrupts the landscape, but in art, nature has frequently been represented as itself delineating space — both sacred and secular.

Supernatural trees, such as the Edenic Trees of Life and of Knowledge, have long indicated holy spaces. A blinding light banishes the original couple from an idyllic garden in Thomas Cole’s 1828 “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” for example, in which the difficult path ahead of Adam and Eve assumes the form of gnarly, dying trees — a sharp contrast with Eden’s perfect symmetry and lush growth.

Cedar and cypress trees frequently suggest the enclosed garden of the Immaculate Virgin in art, and appear alongside depictions of sealed wells and the Tower of David, notes Barbara von Barghahn, professor of art history at George Washington University and author of the 2013 book “Jan van Eyck and Portugal’s ‘Illustrious Generation.’” “Frequently, leafy bowers appear in Renaissance manuscripts to encase a narrative subject. Paintings are encased by frames of wood, so in a sense, trees serve as portals to higher knowledge,” she says.

Against this larger art historical and religious backdrop, the exhibit “Encounters at the Edge of the Forest,” on view at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400 until June 14, explores trees as political entities, which are “standard-bearers of nationalism” and are “burdened with soldiering on behalf of the nation state.”

“The original idea grew out of and is an extension of my interest in mapping in contemporary Israeli and Palestinian art. Trees are themselves powerful lines of demarcation,” says Rhoda Rosen, an adjunct associate professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and curator of the exhibit.

Trees can both provide roots for a population — as with Jewish National Fund tree certificates — and uproot others, according to Rosen, who says that 40 percent of the land claims in the West Bank are about trees. Forests also conceal military bases and hide remains of destroyed villages, she adds.

“Sometimes Palestinians determine the boundaries of where their property was by looking for surviving tree roots in the remains of destroyed villages, because trees themselves were used to demarcate property,” Rosen says.

The exhibit traces the story of the nationalistic forest back to the 18th century, when modern scientific forest management emerged in Germany. British colonial governments established forest preserves as part of a land-grab strategy, Rosen explains.

London-based Tim Knowles’ “Fraxinus xanthoxyloides — HMNVS” confronts viewers immediately when they enter the exhibit. Knowles, who was embedded in Afghanistan in 2009 with the Royal Marines, photographed a tree on the military base using night vision goggles. It was, he said at the exhibition’s opening, “nature being photographed through military technology,” and the eerie green color of the goggles signals danger.

The show also features a half-dozen of Canadian photographer Andreas Rutkauskas’s stunningly beautiful photographs of the unnatural gash cut through forests on the U.S.-Canadian border. For Ariane Littman’s 2011 video “The Olive Tree,” the Switzerland-born and Jerusalem-based artist wrapped a tree at Jerusalem’s Hizma checkpoint with medical gauze. And several works from Californian artist Ken Gonzales-Day’s series “Hang Trees,” offers mesmerizing views of landscapes that were previously lynching sites.

The picturesque further masks the horrific in Israeli artist Ori Gersht’s film “The Forest,” which is set in a Ukrainian forest where 2,108 Jews were murdered in 1942, and in Houston-born Steve Rowell’s series on abandoned Nazi and Soviet structures in the Brandenburg Forest in Germany.

Many artists, such as David Maisel and Ed Burtynsky — neither of whom appears in the show — depict landscapes whose beauty is the product of the presence of toxins, Rosen notes. The works in the exhibit “ask similar questions about the impact of history on beauty,” she says. “What do we do with the beautiful trees that Ken Gonzales-Day photographs, but which we later come to find out are trees on which men were once lynched? Is there an ethics of seeing that refuses to shut out this historical legacy?”

There is also something else at play in this exhibit, which circles back to Thomas Cole (who painted the Edenic expulsion) and the Hudson River School. Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and the other painters of the mid-19th century nationalistic movement were more focused, no doubt, on the almost spiritual natural beauty of America. If postmodern meditations on trees were on any of their minds, they would have been prophets. But these artists certainly wanted to displace the human figures as the center of all things.

In Cole’s paintings, Adam and Eve are dwarfed and almost engulfed by the enormous landscape, as are the human figures in virtually all Hudson River School paintings. One’s mind wanders to the report of the biblical spies, who in Numbers 13:33 informed Moses and the Israelites that the fruits of the land and its giants were so large that humans “were surely, in their eyes, like grasshoppers.” At the exhibit, too, it’s impossible to not sense the fragile nature of one’s scale when compared to nature. There is not only good logical sense, but also a lot of humility that accompanies the realization that man may have Genesis-mandated dominion over nature (whatever that means), but that nature is master in other domains. Trees, as the exhibit posits, have been manipulated by powerful regimes, but they are also powerful and majestic in their own right.

Menachem Wecker is co-author, with Brandon Withrow, of “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education,” forthcoming from Cascade Books.

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