A climate scare in Trafalgar Square

Ghost Forest, a new art installation, wants to frighten us into changing our greedy, planet-wrecking ways.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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A twenty-first century tribute to the Royal Family? A satirical swipe at the Labour government? A mistaken delivery address? At first, it’s difficult to know what to make of the large hunks of dead wood currently cutting a dash in London’s Trafalgar Square.

That is, until you read the info-boards positioned around the installation or encounter the press-released promotional material. At which point Ghost Forest’s meaning, or better still, its message, will become all too clear: all this modern stuff, this industrial development, has come at an environmental cost we’ve been able to ignore for too long. Why? Because it’s always been over there, in Africa, in South America. But not any more. In the form of huge tree stumps it’s been brought close, dumped in our figurative backyard. To quote its creator, the journalist-cum-artist Angela Palmer, it is an awareness-raising, visual expression of the ‘connection between deforestation and climate change’.

Featuring nine huge tree trunks (plus one injured one) which have been dragged across, and then ferried over from the Suhuma forest reserve in western Ghana, Ghost Forest is perhaps not the most appropriate name. With each trunk assigned its own slab on which to lie, a more accurate one would’ve been ‘The Tree Mortuary’. Which is certainly how it feels to walk around it. The trunks are arrayed like a body parts, their angry tangle of roots straining out like the veins and capillaries of gigantic limbs at one end, while at the other end there is just a clean, surgical, lumberjack’s cut. It’s as if you’re being encouraged to look at the results of planetary surgery, to survey the casualities of man’s open-heart conquest of nature. Palmer is clearly not insensible to the effect, judging by her anthropomorphic language. The roots are like ‘nerve-endings’, she says, the rainforests themselves, ‘the world’s “lungs”’.

This isn’t to say unsuspecting visitors were entirely clear as to what the stumps mean. Speaking on Monday, Palmer seemed unconcerned: ‘Many observers will see the stumps as beautiful sculptural objects; others will perhaps see the installation as a scene of devastation, others may see the tree stumps posited in the no-man’s land between the past and the future. For others the installation may represent an overt piece of political activism – a call to arms. I am equally comfortable with all responses.’ Beautiful sculptural objects? A no-man’s land between the past and the future? The most common response, from what I could see, was to stand next to the planet’s ripped-out lungs, and grin for the camera. After all, it’s not everyday some kindly artist leaves nine three-metre wide trunks around central London.

This surely missed Palmer’s point. Because whatever Palmer says, there was a point, a big, blunt change-your-ways point to Ghost Forest. Little wonder those reporting its opening on Monday were in no doubt as to what Ghost Forest was saying. In the words of Art Daily, ‘Ghost Forest’ is ‘a powerful visual statement about climate change’. ‘[A]s a microcosm of planetary overconsumption of expendable resources’, concluded the Londonist, ‘it’s a powerful statement’. Hence this Sunday it will leave London and head to Thorvaldsens Plads in Copenhagen to ‘raise awareness’ before the start of the UN climate change summit in December.

The reviewers had clearly read the promotional material. And this was the problem with Ghost Forest as art. In clued-up reports, in interviews on the Ghost Forest website, and on the 300-word-long, on-site info boards, the meaning of Ghost Forest was all too articulated. If the installation itself was ambiguous, a selection of barely worked-up Ghanaian tree stumps, its message was clear and overwrought. In fact the message could have done without its truncated embodiment in the wooden sculptures – the content here had no need of its form.

Overtly didactic art is nothing new, but what marks a project like the Ghost Forest out is the extent to which the hectoring content is liberated from the material in which it was to be represented. Little wonder that the UK foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, John Ashworth, was able to praise it before it actually existed as an installation – after all it was the message, not its formal realisation, that was valuable. ‘We need to reach people in other ways as well’, he told Palmer. ‘Since the crisis we face is about who we are before it is about what we should do, the role of art will be critical. So I applaud what you are doing, and wish it success. You will in effect be confronting some of those who pass through Trafalgar Square with the consequence of their choices.’

Confront people with the consequence of their choices? This is art as behaviour-changing device. As Palmer explains on her website: ‘Its location in Trafalgar Square is key: it is one of the world’s most visited tourist sites and the epicentre of Western industrialisation over the past 200 years.’ In other words, for didactic purposes, plonking it in the centre of London allows it to tell as many people off as possible, from tourists to Christmas shoppers. It’s tricky to avoid The Message if you have to walk the long way round it.

Then there’s the element of juxtaposition, of bringing the distant near, of shoving the natural in the face of the social. In the midst of a developed society, ‘an epicentre of industrialisation’, the mortified tree stumps, symbols of the underside of industrial progress, exist to discomfit, to unsettle. They are signs that something is wrong. This is a gesture premised on the perceived complacency of the public, their selfish behaviour. And as if the distaste for the lives of modern citizens wasn’t writ large enough, Palmer is prepared to take her fetish for the primitive and animistic one step further: tomorrow, an Amazonian chief is going to bless the trees in a special ceremony.

Which does make you wonder. Perhaps Palmer is actually being subversive. After all, like Mark McGowan’s attempt to ‘raise awareness’ about water wastage by leaving the tap running in his London gallery, it took Palmer a large ship, and several tonnes of heavy haulage, to drag a symbol of excessive energy consumption to its current resting place. Add to that the power expended by the electricity generators to keep the lights blazing through the night, and Palmer’s carbon footprint must be at least the size of ten large Ghanaian trees. This must surely be one giant environmentalist wheeze, a satire of sanctimony, right?

Perhaps not: ‘The artist considered carefully the carbon footprint which would be incurred in the project’, the info-board tells us, ‘but felt its potential message to millions of people on the impacts of deforestation would outweigh the carbon “spend”. The carbon cost of “Ghost Forest” will be calculated and offset on a ClimateCare project which has introduced more energy efficient cooking stoves to Ghana, meaning fewer trees are needed to provide cooking fuel.’

This is straight-faced contemporary art all right. It is art for those who know the carbon price of everything and the value of nothing. And art without value is not really art at all.

Ghost Forest is in Trafalgar Square until Sunday 22 November.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black criticised the impulse behind David Miliband’s climate map. Elsewhere, Munira Mirza asked whether modern art was a left-wing conspiracy. James Heartfield said that while Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper put disability on a pedestal, it was not controversial. Josie Appleton decried the return of ‘statuemania’ and art for inclusion’s sake.Or read more at spiked issue Environment or Arts and entertainment.

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