Deep in northern Turtle Island Canada, Amiskwaciwâskahikan Edmonton-based artist and writer Emily Jan encountered the trees and timbers held in Collective, an exhibition by the collaborative artistic duo of Miranda Bellamy and Amanda Fauteux at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie. Documenting human interventions with living and dying trees and bamboo, Jan explores the implications of these artworks, which position their arboreal subjects as protagonists in an entangled narrative.
In the ocean’s immensity, the truly deep age of the earth flares for an instant with the force of a vision. In the rhetoric of ancient Greece, the term for this irruption of clarity was enargeia, and it described a speaker’s capacity to peer beyond the present moment. … The same vision is available to us, too, if we choose to look with patience and care, and by it we can catch, as Shelley did, “gleams of a remoter world.” 01. David Farrier, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), 15.
In myth, the visible world of everyday life is always part of a larger whole. 02. Roy Willis, World Mythology (London: BCA, 1993), 20.
Memorial, Alice Oswald’s 2011 re-writing of Homer’s Iliad, does not deal in the familiar heroic narrative of the ancient epic poem. Instead, she presents an inventory of non-central characters; opening with an eight-page litany of their names, the poem then continues for seventy-three more pages to sing their deaths. One could say that rather than trying to ‘see the forest’, Oswald prefers to see each ‘tree’ itself as an independent, autonomous subject within a sea of individuals, whose living and dying form not a wash of background noise, but more a chorus of soliloquies, each the protagonist of their own life.
In the poem’s introduction, Oswald translates the ancient Greek concept of enargeia her own way, as, “something like ‘bright unbearable reality’. It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.” 03. Alice Oswald, Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.), ix. It is a term that comes to mind in contemplating artists Miranda Bellamy and Amanda Fauteux’s most recent collaborative body of work, Collective, which opened at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie in Treaty 8 territory on 5 October 2023. Living between Ōtepoti Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand, and within the traditional territory of Mi’kma’ki called Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, the pair have long investigated human entanglements with individual species, minerals, and environments.
The visitor, upon arriving, is greeted by the monumental work Gird (Maple, Kjipuktuk / Halifax). Gird depicts the trunk of a maple tree in five stacked photographs. Two storeys high, it stands sentry, reminiscent of a totem pole or a winged lion of Mesopotamia; protector of liminal spaces, guardian of the gates. The trunk stands tall and straight and larger than life, splotched with lichen, and bearing a section in its bottom third that is wrapped in burlap. Peeking above the edge of the burlap is the hint of a suture.
This word, gird, applies here in all three of its senses: to be encircled, as within a shroud; to have been girdled, or ring-barked, a method of killing a tree without felling it; and to prepare or brace oneself for something difficult to come.
Beyond Gird, the visitor enters a gallery of large photographic portraits all produced in 2023, hung densely like a room full of portals to elsewhere or a hall of ancestors. Their scale corresponds to that of the human body, reminiscent of the portraits of kings, queens and conquerors past, but what is framed here are the bodies of trees. Each image focuses only on the trunk and its bark; that with which we would engage if we ourselves were walking through these various woods.
To walk attentively through a forest, even a damaged one, is to be caught by the abundance of life: ancient and new; underfoot and reaching into the light. But how does one tell the life of the forest? We might begin by looking for drama and adventure beyond the activities of humans. … Can I show landscape as the protagonist of an adventure in which humans are only one kind of participant? 04. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015), 155.
Each portrait invites an encounter. To paraphrase the artists, in moving through the world, Bellamy and Fauteux are constantly trying to meet the plants as beings within a shared environment, to consider them within their various contexts, as well as within the present. 05. Miranda Bellamy and Amanda Fauteux, artists’ talk delivered at MacEwan University, Amiskwaciwâskahikan Edmonton, Alberta, 13 October 2023. In the human-centric Western and post-industrial worldview that the artists and I come from, trees are almost always relegated to backdrop, as supporting frameworks for the creatures who claim centre stage—us. But here they are the protagonists.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective (installation view), Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Miranda Bellamy.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective (installation view), Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Mohsen Ahi Andy.
Humankind is still present in the gallery, inescapably. The majority of the trees whose portraits we see in Collective were planted and/or tended by human hands. Whether as commodities, elements in a designed landscape, specimens in a Victorian arboretum, or lab rats in a vast and uncontrolled real-time experiment, they were planted and are being tended for their use value: to be harvested, to create a pleasing ground for the human drama, to stitch together empires, or to measure the unintended consequences of our age of follies.
Uncommonly for Bellamy and Fauteux’s oeuvre to date, these images and videos focus not upon a single site, but a scatter of locations around the globe. Through their travels across Turtle Island, Aotearoa and the British Isles, Bellamy and Fauteux have listened to the plants. Rather than take a deep dive into a single place, Collective delves into a query posed across latitude and longitude: how can we apprehend our impact upon the vast stretch of ecological time—the multi-species longue durée—from the point of view of the continuous single moment we inhabit? The question is posed through the lens of the mark: the commonality between all the trees pictured in the exhibition (or giant grasses, in the case of the Kawau Island bamboo, below) is that they have all been tagged, directly or indirectly, by the hand of humankind.
Though the nature of the marks varies widely, each presents a moment of intersection: here we confront two forms of sentience, and two (or more) timescales. Each also represents a moment in which ideas collide—between what is considered natural and unnatural, between the bounded individual and the boundless system, between hieroglyphics and a world without language. These intersections also collapse centuries and fold together multiple locations on the map through exploration, colonisation, industry and chance.
We are conjuring ourselves as ghosts who will haunt the very deep future. 06. Farrier, Footprints, 11.
Some marks are expressions of undying love or memento-making—hearts and initials, names, dates, such as are carved by tourists on the culms in Bamboo I (Kawau Island) and Bamboo II (Kawau Island). This is a gesture towards immortality—once we were here, and we intend that our mark shall remain long after we are gone—yet, ironically, as the tree or the bamboo repairs itself, these marks will vanish in an act of slow-motion disappearance, healing over and letting go. As it turns out, no one really escapes their own finitude.
Bamboo is not native to Aotearoa; this aged stand where Bellamy and Fauteux photographed Bamboo I and Bamboo II was likely planted in the late nineteenth century by Sir George Grey, twice Governor of early colonial New Zealand. Between 1862 and 1888, Grey lived on the island of Kawau, where the artists filmed their work A Wardian Case in 2021. Here, Grey created a Victorian botanical garden and menagerie by importing many exotic plants and animals as a kind of experiment, to see what would grow (and what could be harnessed by industry) on the islands of Aotearoa.
Over the past two centuries, the translocation of animals around the globe, particularly when introduced to fragile island ecosystems, has produced countless cautionary tales: from the dodo’s famed disappearance from Mauritius to Australia’s rabbit-proof fence and cane toad overload, to Aotearoa’s own loss of dozens of native bird species, many flightless and ill-equipped to withstand a plague of egg-hungry mammals.
Yet the movement of plant species arguably underpins globalisation and the colonial exercise on an even more fundamental level. By way of example, Bellamy describes the implementation of the fever tree (Cinchona spp.) by Europeans as a key piece of colonial weaponry: the tree was collected by the British in South America and exported to India, where fever tree plantations produced the quinine necessary to shield European explorers from malaria, thus enabling the invasion and ultimate colonisation of large swathes of Africa. The Wardian case, though bounded by its very nature, had unbounded implications. 07. In 1829 British doctor and amateur naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered that a sealed glass terrarium could be used to maintain a microclimate, which allowed live plants to be transported around the world.
Sir George Grey’s former homestead and surrounding lands are now held in a conservation reserve, which raises the question for the artists: ”conservation … of what?” Bellamy and Fauteux describe Grey as having “sculpted in his own image” an island-sized vivarium of introduced species. 08. Bellamy and Fauteux, artists’ talk delivered at MacEwan University. At the very least, it complicates the question of what we mean when we speak the word ‘natural’.
The human in the present imagines a subject who, long after humans are gone, reconstructs our era through what it will have left behind. Our detritus, to some hypothetical future and probably nonhuman geologist, will reveal a world that became increasingly “shaped by human activity but … also increasingly outside human control.” 09. Nils Bubandt, quoted in Mary Louise Pratt, “Coda,” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts of the Anthropocene / Monsters of the Anthropocene, ed. Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), G171.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the visitor witnesses further instances where tree species introduced to Aotearoa in the Victorian age have given rise to surprising intersections in the now: Australian eucalypts, as seen in Eucalyptus (Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington) and imported cedar, as seen in Cedar (Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington).
As these plantations spread, replacing native woodland, the populations of many local birds plummeted towards extinction. But in recent years, a handful of near-gone species have been successfully bred and reintroduced to the wild: the kākā parrot is one such success story. However, in the law of unintended consequences, the rejuvenated flocks of kākā have begun to attack and kill predominantly non-native trees, stripping them of their bark, in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. At present, no one is entirely sure why. Fauteux muses, “What makes them favour these particular trees? Perhaps they simply have no genetic memory of them, no mental blueprint for them at all?” 10. Amanda Fauteux, artist’s talk given at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, Treaty 8 territory Grande Prairie, 6 October 2023.
The idea is intriguing; the concept of time travel meets that of the cabinet of curiosities. The confluence of eucalypt and cedar with kākā would have been an ecological impossibility without human interference, which, to me, produces a kind of existential vertigo. Perhaps placing the kākā, the eucalypt and the cedar side by side, collapsing the distance between (like objects in an open-air Wunderkammer) causes the system to stutter, a glitch in the matrix. 11. Literally, a ‘room of wonder’, or cabinet of curiosities.
Either way, we are reminded that human influence does not end with human hands. Through a rhizomatic web that entangles many species, our actions cascade outwards. Pulling the thread in one corner of this universe causes ruptures at another, few of which we can predict, the wonder and the curse of complexity.
In the nineteenth century, when capitalism first became an object of inquiry, raw materials were imagined as an infinite bequest from Nature to Man. Raw materials can no longer be taken for granted. … In capitalist farms, living things made within ecological processes are co-opted for the concentration of wealth. This is what I call ‘salvage,’ that is, taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control. Many capitalist raw materials (consider coal and oil) came into existence long before capitalism. Capitalists also cannot produce human life, the prerequisite of labour. 12. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 63.
Pinus radiata, the Monterey pine, was also imported in the late nineteenth century as a farmed species. Its emotional history is complex; many New Zealanders grew up hating the non-native pine forests for being dark, gloomy and invasive, creeping across the countryside. There is a widespread perception that they outcompete the native forest ecosystems of Aotearoa. Though the artists point out that, while this can be true in some northern contexts, the pines grow most readily in open spaces so are a larger threat to fields and pastureland. Fauteux adds, “Ironically, farm-to-pine-forest conversions are increasingly common for the lucrative carbon-credit industry. It is all so complex.” 13. Amanda Fauteux, email correspondence with the author, 30 October 2023. Standing in front of Pine I (Tuatapere), she tells me the story of a pine plantation in the Southland region, planted as an investment towards the future by the local community, whose trees were drilled and injected with poison by a vindictive neighbour in 2022.
Peering into the shadows of the image, a sadness seems to wash over her; sympathy for the individual trees, who did not know they were transplanted from elsewhere, and whose untimely deaths may now render their bodies into waste or dangerous standing tinder. Nearing maturity, they would have been harvested soon enough, and Fauteux sees the act not as the underdog heroism for which it was taken by some in the area, but as an act of deep selfishness against the greater community, and a bizarre kind of cross-species xenophobia. Over 270 trees were poisoned, which turns a managed forest into a standing graveyard, haunted by the drifting and shifting layers of settler hopes and fears.
This is a story we need to know. Industrial transformation turned out to be a bubble of promise followed by lost livelihoods and damaged landscapes. And yet, such documents are not enough. If we end the story with decay, we abandon all hope—or turn our attention to these sites of promise and ruin, promise and ruin. 14. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 18.
In the closest nod to site specificity within this body of work, the portraits Trembling Aspen I – V (Sturgeon Lake) were taken in a research forest outside of Grande Prairie, where the impacts of climate change on the health of the aspen forest are measured and monitored. The fluorescent numbers emblazoned on each aspen glow against the late-winter woods, somewhere between blood and neon. Each identifies a tree for research purposes; from them, data is collected from year to year.
Though this research is being performed in the interests of the forestry industry of the boreal regions, the results represent a harbinger for all of humanity. Much of their work is, as the artists describe it, “industry adjacent.” The aspen forest is like a “canary in the coal mine,” in Bellamy’s words; it is hard to consider our world without considering the outsized impact we have had on its intricately interconnected living systems. Some forces tug on the strings more strongly than others; and capitalism has a particularly strong pull.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective (installation view), Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Miranda Bellamy.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Trembling Aspen I (Sturgeon Lake), digital C-type print, custom aspen frame, 41.5” x 61.5” x 2.25”, 2023, in Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective, Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Miranda Bellamy.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Trembling Aspen III (Sturgeon Lake), digital C-type print, custom aspen frame, 41.5” x 61.5” x 2.25”, 2023, in Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective, Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Miranda Bellamy.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Pine I (Tuatapere), digital C-type print, custom pine frame, 41.5” x 61.5” x 2.25”, 2023, in Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective, Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Miranda Bellamy.
Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Pine II (Tuatapere), digital C-type print, custom pine frame, 41.5” x 61.5” x 2.25”, 2023, in Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux, Collective, Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, 2023. Image: Miranda Bellamy.
“All cities are incipient ruins. The ruin is there already, beneath the shining street.” 15. Farrier, Footprints, 61.
Bellamy and Fauteux have placed the most elegant and perhaps the harshest truth front and centre, hidden in plain sight. At first glance, the casual viewer could be forgiven for simply not noticing the handmade frame that encloses each work, so understated and seemingly uniform are they. Some visitors will probably leave the gallery unawares, but others will catch on when they examine the works list and see that each piece in the main gallery is identified the same way: the tree’s common name, its location, the print process, and the variety of wood utilised in constructing the frame. From surveying the list, the viewer might realise that each portrait is framed in the type of wood that is harvested from its photographic subject.
A plantation is an ecosystem created to be harvested: individual trees become material, material becomes commodity. Commodities come home to us quite removed from the living beings they once were. There is a kind of violence in making the audience complicit, but, despite the discomfort, it is necessary to our humanity to acknowledge the violence inherent in capitalism itself, in which we all partake. When considering the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, Michael Mitchell writes: “When you think about it, there’s a big hole somewhere for every stone building on the planet.” 16. Michael Mitchell, quoted in Farrier, Footprints, 49. One’s awareness pulses between the tree as a material (timber), and the tree as a living being who was a part of an ecosystem. This is, of course, a truth that hides in plain sight all around us: chairs, tables, houses. Books. Photographs. Once begun, it’s hard to stop viewing our familiar, domesticated world quite differently: as all these lives stilled, all these bodies fragmented around us.
Perhaps, like the war survivors themselves, we need to tell and tell until all our stories of death and near-death and gratuitous life are standing with us to face the challenges of the present. It is in listening to that cacophony of troubled stories that we might encounter our best hopes for precarious survival. 17. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 34.
In July of 2022, an unknown person broke into the Halifax Public Gardens in the night. They ring-barked thirty-three trees with an axe, including some of the garden’s oldest. Ring-barking, or girdling, severs a tree’s vascular system, killing it by completely interrupting the flow of water and nutrients between the roots and the crown. The Halifax Public Gardens are a beloved community space, and the oldest of the trees have been non-human members of that community for over a hundred years.
A park is neither a wilderness nor a plantation; it is conceptually adjacent to a zoo but does not serve quite the same function of spectacle. It is fundamentally a fabricated environment, created in collaboration with other species. In a multi-species community, trees may become family. We try to take care of our kin.
In an effort that Bellamy describes as a last-ditch “Hail Mary,” the custodians of the Halifax Public Gardens decided to try to save the trees by creating bridge grafts—cutting small branches from each victim and using them to span the bark-less gaps, hoping to provide a conduit for flowing sap to bypass the wounds. The trees were then wrapped in protective burlap, as seen in Gird and also in the videos Oak (Kjipuktuk / Halifax) and Maple (Kjipuktuk / Halifax), where the human perspective is contrasted most vividly with that of the trees. Centred in each video’s vertical framing, a single tree on life support stands, while Sunday flâneurs pass by, barely registering on camera before they are gone again. One syllable of a sentence, half a laugh. This is mortality on different timescales.
But to take the photographs in the main portrait gallery, Bellamy and Fauteux worked with park staff who unwrapped their subjects, exposing their wounds, raw and viscerally painful to view. Are the bridge grafts analogous to our puny and awkward attempts to repair, to mend, to find a way forward on a broken planet? Though they are a gesture of healing, they look vicious. One way to view this is that these ravaged trees echo the insensate violence of our present moment of late-stage capitalism. But another way is that, across world mythologies, there are many, many stories of dismembered gods, and of their wives or siblings or acolytes trying to stitch the immortal body back together. Osiris, Orpheus, Ymir, Pangu, Tiamat; all primordial beings that were torn into pieces and reassembled by divine hands, whose rent bodies formed the bedrock for something new. Even that which is immortal is not free from transformation, and the gods are capable of mourning too.
At last accounting, the Hail Mary seems to be working. Most of the trees live on.
The ghosts of multi-species landscapes disturb our conventional sense of time, where we measure and manage one thing leading to another. Lichens may be alive when we are gone. Lichens are ghosts that haunt us from the past, but they can also peer at us from a future without us. 18. Tsing, Swanson, Gan, and Bubandt, “Introduction,” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, G9.
Above all, Bellamy and Fauteux ask us to slow down and witness, to take the time to be with these beings in our shared environment that are, in the artists’ words, “overlooked and undervalued.” Standing in the bright hall of the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, surrounded by a whirl of seasons, biomes, and colours that both praise and defy the natural world, a sense of stillness, of being in the presence of, emerges. The visitor wishes to see further, beyond the edge of the frame, to catch those “gleams of a remoter world,” which is still our world after all, but also just slightly unreachable. A moment, that “bright, unbearable reality,” is rendered eternal, or as eternal as the paper they are printed on and the frames that hold them—the body and blood of the trees themselves.