The Undead Tree of Charles Ray

Charles Ray, “Hinoki,” 2007. © 2007 Charles Ray. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

The following essay was originally published by Art21 in 2012.

Charles Ray’s massive reproduction of a fallen redwood tree, Hinoki, fills one room in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. The room it occupies was built around the work. At 2,100 pounds and 38 feet long, it’s that big. The piece originated in California where the original tree died, sunk into the ground, and began to decompose. Allegedly the artist was so taken with the shape and form of the tree and its state of decomposition, he wanted to preserve it somehow. Without permission, Ray removed the tree to his LA Studio and cast it. The resulting cast was sent to Japan where traditional woodworkers spent four years carving a replica out of Japanese cypress (Hinoki). Ray describes his interest in pneuma (Greek for breath or life) and admits a desire to try and transfer that life from one body to another via sculpture. The dead log was resuscitated like a zombie maybe, or a benign vampire, to be formally and forever persevered in the canonic halls of a national institution. According to museum text, Hinoki will remain, unchanged and unchanging for 400 years, at which time the work will go through a period of crisis (during which it will crack and resettle for 200 years), after which point it will carry on, post-crisis without changing for another 400 years. Only then will it start to decompose. It’s hard to imagine anything extending so far into the future, let alone a fallen tree, or the museum that flanks it. Or even, perhaps, the “natural world” we know. Placed on a wall behind the tree, adjacent museum text provides a narrative, through which one can conceive an otherwise impossible expanse of time, a time beyond the life of America thus far.

Hinoki has a seductive, tactile presence. It boasts impeccable craftsmanship with an ornate and varied surface where original impressions of bark have been translated into an expert vocabulary of descriptive lines. As such it is constantly shifting, depending on your vantage, between a carved surface and a trompe l’oeil reproduction. Up close, the human hand is evidenced in those lines: they sit like hatch marks on a charcoal sketch, some are deeper, others thicker, still others more worm-like; nevertheless each stroke, though varied, belongs to the same family of strokes. It is therefore cohesive. As a literal translation, the redwood was physically transformed from a corrupt (i.e. rotten/rotting) body into a new, pristine one. One could imagine the original tree contained a history in its form: the width of the trunk for instance, is evidence of its life, just as certain areas were more exposed to moisture and thus more decomposed. Footprints of termites have been similarly transferred and lay alongside jointed inlays and Dutchman. The physical tree is a replica that takes pleasure in its own fabrication.

Nevertheless it is not an entirely accessible. One can peer through its hollow center as one might a tunnel. In peering you’ll try to see the mid-section, where the tree is most dark. Because everything leading up to that point is consistently ornate, you will assume without being sure that this center contains all the same precision and detail as its exterior surface. And yet there remains a mystery, because one cannot be sure what lies in the middle of that tree. Furthermore, the carved strokes of this interior space are slightly different, as they recreate a different aspect of the tree’s life. Material conditions were different underneath the bark, and thus the translation of that interiority must also be different.

The tree’s physical presence is further accentuated by its museum placard—as significant as the physical work, it activates a viewer’s imagination, telling you another story not immediately evident in the tree’s physical form: where the work came from, how it was made and how long it will last. The text illustrates an otherwise intangible network surrounding the piece, adding a mythology in which the artist is largely peripheral. Ray discovered the tree and orchestrated the processes by which it was reproduced, but did not reproduce the work himself. While he visited Osaka to check in on the work’s progress, he relied heavily on the master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoshi, a man trained to take Buddha sculptures that are too old to salvage and recreate them, perhaps in a similar attempt to transfer pneuma.

At this point, this is the very moment where things get complicated. Because all of that is sort of enough, and yet there is still more to consider: for instance, what is this tree’s relationship to its photosynthetic origins? Surely they are the same: one might even imagine this replica to be a three-dimensional photograph of its source material: an object caught in time, halfway decomposed. Yet that redwood has been replaced by an exotic, new wood. It has taken multiple tree-lives to make this single representation of one. Does that make it any less natural? Would we consider this an artificial tree? Certainly it is better suited to survive the environment than most other, living trees. With that in mind, Hinoki becomes undead—because it is both perpetuating the original, while also belonging to something different. It is an organic material that could ostensibly live longer than the Roman Empire — certainly it would outlive most of America’s suburban condominiums. And what does it mean to say the work is an imitation of nature? What is nature?

In Canadian landscape painting, there is a traditional motif of the lone pine. It is the one tree that has survived and thrived in adverse conditions, towering above other trees all the more scruffy for its exposure. Something about that image captures a relationship between humanity and its idealized nature. In Rays’ case, however, the tree is fallen. It is beneath humanity. Yet also it affords a point of access to the sublime, perhaps even more so after it has been intentionally refabricated. In truth, nature doesn’t really exist. It never existed. We used to conceive it as a kind of boundless energy, outside the human sphere. We drew a conceptual line and occupied one side of it, placing the rest of the world on the other side. This Frankenstein will outlive us. It is both of nature and of human kind. A product of networks, it remains nevertheless autonomous, extending decades into the past when, one might assume, the original redwood grew from a seed to a system of branches and roots that broke the horizon. That first tree collapsed, maybe after a winter or a terrible storm, or maybe because of a beetle. It decomposed for another extended period of time, was consumed and inhabited by various insects that were in turn eaten by other animals who might have pulled off pieces of the tree to reach the grubs it held. And then an artist comes along and essentially translates that first form into a second one. A second one that will outlive us all.