Since first creating a walk-in camera obscura installation in a remote forest near Abbotford BC in 1981, Vancouver artist Rodney Graham has revisited the relationship between perception, memory and the photographic image through numerous Tree Portraits created from the late 1980s to the present. These images – shot by the artist with a regular field camera – are installed upside-down and recall the premise of the camera obscura, an ancient technology for accurately, though inversely, representing the natural world. The tree portraits also allude to the scientific nature of human vision that records the world upside-down, a necessary distortion of reality occurring in the retina and “corrected” by the brain. Visibly disconcerting, Graham’s trees defy the principles of gravity and call into question the hereditary rules of nature as a stable benchmark for perception and empirical study.

In this year’s CONTACT festival a selection of 15 of Rodney Graham’s upside-down tree photographs have been printed in large format and affixed around the columns of the Gardiner expressway at Spadina and Lakeshore Blvd. For his images Rodney Graham selects trees growing in isolation and steeped in the history of place as captured in their titles: Welsh Oak, Flanders Trees, Napoleon Tree, or Stanley Park Cedar, the latter a rare tree portrait from Canada in this oeuvre that calls attention to the deforestation of British Columbia, but that also has added significance following the devastation of this Vancouver park by a windstorm in 2006. Under the Gardiner, viewers will encounter the uncanny sight of inverted old knobby trees populating this residual urban area, replacing the footings for the grey concrete highway above. Returning these trees to an outdoor location becomes an improbable ode to Graham’s earlier Camera Obscura project that inspired this ongoing series of works. In their unsuspecting and decidedly “unnatural” location for CONTACT, Graham’s inverted tree portraits task our perceptions with an immediate awareness of the forces of gravity, while asserting the importance of history and place to discussions over the fate of the busy arteries of the Lakeshore currently slated for major redevelopment.

Rodney Graham is an internationally acclaimed artist whose interdisciplinary practice combines photography, film, video, audio, performance, installation and text-based works. Born in Abbotsford, Canada in 1949, Graham has been closely associated with other prominent Vancouver-based artists including Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Ken Lum. Rodney Graham has exhibited widely throughout North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s, including at Documenta IX in 1992, and the Venice Biennale in1997 Rodney Graham lives and works in Vancouver.

Presented in partnership with the National Gallery of Canada.

Curated by Emily McInnes & Jonathan Shaughnessy