david edward allen



The works by the Berlin-based artist David Edward Allen examine notions of space, contrasting wilderness with managed terrain. Following the period of the Holocene, a time when human beings were largely subject to natural processes, we enter the Anthropocene, when the environment is essentially fashioned and controlled by our actions.
    In Civil, Nautical, Astronomical (2014-2015) a fixed camera records a densely wooded scene at twilight, filmed from a vantage-point located high up above the forest floor in the canopy. Safely positioned in their hide, the artist and a hunter wait for the arrival of a stag. Close to dusk, and following a sustained period of waiting a single shot rips through the wood. The viewer is left with no certainty of whether the game has been hit. The hunter is licensed to cull a number of animals each year to control the population of deer, and to limit the damage to the tree bark, denting the profits of the wood’s owners.
    The distinction between the natural world and cultivated land is reprised in the video harvest (2004-15), which shows silent footage of a wood in which a large tree is being cut, and eventually felled. As the screen fades to black the sustained howl of the chainsaw, produced as a separate audio-track, fills the gallery space.
Its tone is aggressive and relentless, rising and falling as it encounters knots of resistance – it upsets the human ear, fraying the nerves; Finally, the noise is cut, the great tree tumbles over, evacuating the air, as if drawing a final breath.
    We attach little sentiment to harvesting corn, but we reserve special affection for trees, whose loss is mourned. Allen, by contrast, explains the recordings
as a ‘kind of reversed sculptural process by removing
material from the space in which it has formed.’1
   The wood is in fact a managed resource. Trees are grown in a sustained manner to be harvested and sold, to be turned into furniture or pulp, as required. Shorn of its object status, a tree becomes simply wood, reduced to materiality. A tree is cut, a stag is culled; the alliterative terms ‘cut’ and ‘cull’ are short and perfunctory, acting as practical tools in a chain of capital.
    The pragmatism of the approach is echoed in the tradition of grafting; the homophone ‘graft’ introduced as the title of the exhibition offers two distinct readings; the first refers to tree propagation, where by a small branch cut from one tree is added to the rootstock of another; the second is a colloquial term referring to work or labour.
   The poet John Fowles describes his father’s dedication to the work of grafting fruit trees; this process, designed to improve vitality and yield in trees is a simple form of engineering, but one that requires personal and emotional investment. He writes that these ‘cunningly stunted trees...were more than trees, their names and habits and characters on an emotional parity with those of family.’2
    For pear tree (2009-2015) Allen acquired a number of small pear trees and began the action of grafting as an aesthetic process. The trees become artworks whose growth he determines through the activity of pruning and grafting, a kind of living bricolage. Periodically he photographs the trees, and each winter makes sketches plein air from which he prepares a number of painstakingly precise drawings. Allen wrote:

‘The trees are also part of this process of spatial addition and subtraction. The drawings, photographs, and video images show the manipulation of three-dimensional space as abbreviations or translations into two-dimensional formats. The reduction of a body of matter to image.’ 3

    Although each tree, photograph and drawing is unique, they bear the marks of duplication. The Doppelgänger is a key figure drawn from the
    Although each tree, photograph and drawing is unique, they bear the marks of duplication. The Doppelgänger is a key figure drawn from the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann by Sigmund Freud in the discussion of the uncanny. The notion of a return, of something repressed from an earlier traumatic moment might be applied to the genetic doubling taking place in the work of Allen. Each tree is at once different and the same. The sense of a continuous action is also reminiscent of the repetitive nature of work. Here, labour is less concerned with an economic model than with the submission to a process of
waiting and a patient acquisition of horticultural and indeed sculptural skills.

‘Practice beds in making the skill one’s own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination – which the push for quick results cannot. Mature means long; one takes lasting ownership of the skill.’ 4

    Allen’s work points to a symbiotic relationship between nature and culture; moreover he appears to give equal weight to different cultural aspects: aesthetics and economics. Here, the world as a poetic, unknowable entity exists side-by-side with a prosaic and managed eco-system sustained by the human hand and guided by the twin principles of aesthetics and capital.
    Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley
1 David Edward Allen, email discussion with the authors, October 2015 2 John Fowles,
The Tree, Vintage
, 2000, p.8-9.
3 David Edward Allen, email discussion with the authors, October 2015.
4 Richard Sennett,
The Craftsman
, Penguin Books, London, 2009, p. 295