A popular colloquialism is that one “can’t see the forest for the trees.” And yet, can we even see a tree for what it is? “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in 1799. “Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” At the origins of the capitalist era, Blake opposed imagination to the Enlightenment project, where a deformed nature was to be demystified and corrected. No more deep dark woods of the Grimm fairy tales; in this utilitarian world that we have inherited, trees are meant for harvesting. Forests have been uniformly managed into columns of statistics.
In this exhibition, Toronto collective Public Studio (Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky) asks us what we lose in such metrics, in turning forests into standing reserves for commodity exploitation. What has been given up and what needs to be recovered—and regenerated—in this pragmatic notion of the natural world in which we all participate? For millennia before we began to cultivate forests, they conditioned us psychologically. The word “forest” has come to mean a large wooded area, although etymologically it can be traced to the Latin word foris, meaning “outside.” Thus begins our complex relationship with the forest—something that is at once “outside” ourselves and something that sustains us. Metaphorically, the forest symbolizes the part of our psyche that is unknown and stands in darkness until we come to the “clearing”—more than fall upon the devastation of a clear-cutting. Given this lack of understanding of our place in the natural world, Public Studio speculates whether there is a possibility of alternate cosmologies of nature.
We enter the exhibition through a tunnel as if a path into the woods. It is dark but dappled with light, like the forest of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon. At the end, already deep within, lies a cabin. Have we walked into a nightmare or a forest idyll? Within this cabin, to a soundtrack (designed by Berlin sound artist Anna Fritz) that hovers just at the level of our anxiety, or premonition, a cascade of images falls through the forest, all in black and white and collaged together in rapid pursuit of each other: Apocalypse Now, Rambo, Bambi, Avatar, Rashomon, and more. They are evident, through all their genres, of the pervasive and profound symbol of the forest as a place of refuge or of ambush, of evil or enchantment—of hunter or hunted.
Just behind the cabin awaits the video game The Path, which rehearses the route we just followed. The journey begins again, this time in digital form, traversing the towering forest along what may be a logging road. This forest is imposing yet familiar, its image just shimmering out of stillness. In the distance, another path beckons and leads to two video games, The Witcher and Dragon Age Inquisition. Have we figured out that we too are advancing in the stages of a real-life video game? But are we hunter or hunted?
We leave these screens and travel on. A clearing lies ahead, filled with the blazing light of a giant LED screen, the type found beside freeways. Advertising no product, instead it proclaims a Rights of Nature. Cleverly detourned, the screen is also now a giant grow light. The scent of fresh foliage fills the air, coming from a grove of saplings nurtured in the gallery, preparing them for their biodiverse planting after the exhibition concludes.
We are safely through. In our passage through these dreaded woods, perhaps we have recognized the reserve of deep memory the forest stands for—a psychic and symbolic archive we all share.
Commissioned and produced by the Art Gallery of York University