Artist / Associate Professor Emily Carr University

The Tree Corset:

Unnatural Nature and the Uses of Failure

It's not uncommon for artists to draw inspiration from their surroundings and to incorporate local materials into their work. Indeed the entire site-specific Land Art movement in the nineteen seventies was driven precisely by this impulse to transcend the commodification of the autonomous object, and in so doing reintegrate the artwork into the context of its own making. Out of this impulse came such works as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a macrocosmic interpretation of a salt crystal’s growth in Great Salt Lake, and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels whose viewing corridors mark the seasons through the movements of the sun in the American desert. More recent examples include Andy Goldsworthy’s land lines made variously out of sheep’s wool, stones, and leaves floating downstream.

In this spirit of making art, my studio partner and I began experimenting with bark from the white birches that grow in abundance in the boreal forest around Lake Superior’s north shore near Thunder Bay. We had been inspired by a visit to the canoe shed at Old Fort William where replicas of the great fur trading canoes are still built from birch bark, spruce root, and pitch.

But my partner was not interested in making canoes. He thought we should do something about all of the naked trees in the boreal forest. The extent of indecent exposure amongst trees in northern Ontario was virtually complete. Clearly something had to be done. The trees needed clothing. He wondered what would a fashion conscious tree choose as clothing? Birch bark, of course. What dull gray tree would not want to wear snazzy white bark?

Carrying this logic forward he proceeded to make a birch bark “corset” for an old spruce. Working with a curved sheet of bark whose ends had holes punctured for lacing, he attempted to wrap the bark around the trunk. Unfortunately, the protruding stumps of pruned branches made wrapping difficult. The birch bark would not sit flush against the trunk. He put the project aside, and for several weeks the corset sat in the corner of our shared studio.

Not wanting to see the project abandoned, I picked up the bark and tried wrapping it around the tree. Encountering the same problem with the protruding stumps, I cut a ten-inch diameter hole in the bark to accommodate the stump. This time the wrapping worked and the string lacing held the corset firmly in place. Realizing I had a leftover circle of bark I cut another hole in its center, and pushed the ring onto a pruned branch on an adjacent tree. Now two trees were partly clothed. Then unexpectedly the whole project began to shift beyond the limits of our intention.

tree corset

Standing back to look at the corset, we suddenly realized that the meaning of the birch bark had changed in a way neither of us had anticipated. The branch stump that stuck out of the cut hole looked like a giant, sap-oozing nipple. Combined with the lacing at the back, the work took on a strangely lewd, pornographic character. Where before there had been an unremarkable stump of a pruned branch, now there was an arboreal breast. A thing with no sensual or sexual connotations had suddenly acquired both through an accident of art-making

The oozing nipple protruded at exactly the right angle for passers-by to encounter it directly in their line of sight as they walked past. Our first indication that the corset might offend community values came when a neighbor, an acute care nurse with several children, gave the piece a sly smile and described it as “cheeky.” We left the corset in place over the winter, returning the following summer to find it lying on the front porch of the cottage. A friend coyly admitted someone had found the piece “disgusting” and had removed it, although he had respectfully salvaged the remains. I was surprised that a piece of art made of such common materials, the archetypal stuff of canoes and campsites, could so inflame local reaction. Surely it was fairly mild compared to the photos of silicone-enhanced celebrities that fill grocery store stands.

While this story raises questions about the proper place for sexual references, it offers some suggestions for art making. First, the initial concept of dressing a tree was carried beyond its original intention when the practical limitations of doing so forced a re-design of the piece. In other words, the abandonment of the piece led to a better work, one we hadn’t imagined in the first instance. Such are the opportunities presented by failure, which is more profitably understood as the first phase of an ultimately successful project. Evolved from a simple concept to provide clothing for a tree, the piece generated readings from a public unprepared to make distinctions between common natural materials, simple design elements, and pornography. Working with the bark I hadn’t any idea this convergence of materials and meaning would produce such strong reactions.

We know from polls and auction results that in the realm of art, the Canadian public prefers landscape painting devoid of people. This piece went one step further, bending actual elements of wild landscape toward the dark side of human existence. From this perspective, it should come as no surprise that the work was amusing to some and disturbing to others. But isn't this what art should ultimately be doing: engaging a broader public by unsettling conventions and tidy categories that keep our notions of reality fixed within neatly defined boundaries?

Below: The truly obscene tree ring elicited no reaction.

tree ring