david edward allen
work
texts
documentation

Ultra-humanity

The work Pear Tree consists of four living individual wild pear trees; two Pyrus pyraster and two Pyrus betulifolia. For Several years I have been exchanging branches from the two species with each other to create two sets of inter-species pairs. Using traditional techniques, the young branches are cut from one tree and grafted directly onto another––the living tissue naturally joins together and continues growing––in order to compose, through this gradual process, a sculpture directed in form by the tree’s own growth, the weather, soil, climate, and most violently the grafting process itself.

The four trees were about five years old when I received them in December 2009, and the first grafting was done in March 2010. I am tracking the growth and changes of the trees by periodically making drawings and photographs to show the past processes and the parallel possibilities in form and shape and orientation that each branch and tree could have taken, against those which were, in fact, actually taken.

 

David Edward Allen

 

The nineteenth-century English nature writer Richard Jefferies used the term “ultra-humanity” to describe the sphere of nature that exceeds human perception. In the age of the Anthropocene, where the distinction between nature and culture is blurred beyond recognition, any attempt to grasp what lies beyond seems to impose human categories. As we develop further into synthetic, virtual realities, our relationship towards nature becomes increasingly paradoxical.

For John Fowles, who reflected on Jefferies’ idea of ultra-humanity, the only species on Earth that comes close to ultra-human life are trees. Silent, powerful and so alien to our life form, Fowles compares trees to a quasi-deity that allows only for religious encounter. In such an encounter, any wish for symbiosis with the trees is futile; an essential distinction between the human and the tree is always maintained. In the process of grafting, the artist is both brought closer to the trees and kept at a distance as a strange and parasitic entity. In acknowledging this distance, Allen does not aim for an exchange of knowledge or a joint mission with the trees. When shaping, drawing and photographing the pear trees, Allen is rather looking for this border between the human and the ultra-human in the oscillation between control and submission: this oscillation brings to light paradoxes that emerge not only in the material but also in the methods and spaces Allen chooses. Thus, the trees are both tools and symbols, familiar and strange, his approach both pragmatic and melancholic, the settings both cultivated and wild.

As it makes up the shaky nature of Allen’s enterprise, the oscillation between these contrasting spheres can never be halted without shattering the delicate setup. And so, Allen’s work operates on the processual level where we are faced with experience rather than results. The necessity of a processual experience is yet another of those paradoxes Allen has invoked, like ancient spirits––drawings and photographs of the pear trees are artifacts, whereas trees and the forest are living entities. In making the artifacts, Allen brings the process to a halt only to then be conquered by the trees, which grow beyond the captured shape. When faced with Allen’s works, the viewer is invited to trace the phases of an encounter with the sublime; to first throw themselves into sensual experience, subsequently regain control, and finally disappear in the vastness of nature anew.

The shaping of the pear trees requires a plan, a set pace, an embracing of repetition. And yet, Allen is not a craftsman; the skills he has acquired along the way keep failing him as the living sculptures develop and confront him with new challenges. But as well as a full imposture, a withdrawal from the trees’ recalcitrance, a romantic detachment by allowing them to become symbols and clichés, would equal failure. In this difficult balance between two impossible paths, Allen becomes an alchemist foregrounding the beauty of impossibility. The conditions of submission, control and abstraction count more than the meaning of the phenomena produced or encountered. Allen’s alchemy does not intend a distillation of purity but disclosure of processes in the crooked mirror of the forming artist.

As arboreal-human hybrids, the pear trees are Allen’s self-portraits. Through the detour of proto-scientific exploration, the artist faces what is ultimately the human condition, for the subtle system set up to control the chaos of nature is never subtle enough to gain actual and ultimate control. As for Tarkovsky’s stalker, sentimentality and nostalgia are toxic for the encounter with the ultra-human, and the portrait must remain indirect. The trees are at the centre of the work manifesting their strangeness and their familiarity, but the human is always implied as the inevitable perspective of what lies beyond it.

The various steps required by the grafting of the pear trees are increasingly risky and thus sharpen the dichotomies between grafter and material to the point of cutting the connection altogether and losing the meticulously assembled trespass between the human and the ultra-human. Giving in to growing powerlessness, the grafter endangers not only his experiment but also the trees themselves. By any means, the process of grafting is a violent one. The seeming subtlety of it is misleading and yet telling about the ways we perceive what is intrusive or radical. The grafter constantly risks the life of each tree; a calculated risk the culmination of which will bear fruit only if, the trees are planted as planned in the forest in Mecklenburg, Northern Germany.

In the Mecklenburg forest, Pear Tree’s antithetic entanglements will reach their ultimate phase. It is not certain that the trees will manage to survive in the wilderness. The vast strangeness of the setting decisively intensifies the paradoxes raised by the work that began in a garden. The forest is a paradigmatic destination for the existential encounters of Allen’s work. The European woods, although planted, structured and maintained by man, present the visitor with a strangeness and anarchy that exceeds any prior calculation. With its tall and densely planted trees, the forest absorbs light and sets borders for the human field of vision. Here, the anarchic autonomy of the ultra-human holds a bigger mystery and is much more difficult to manage without giving in to either symbolist romanticism or raving, indiscriminate tree felling. The human and the artist must hold out in order not to disappear once and for all.

 

Maria Buzhor