"Living Material" was a solo exhibition at the Eli Marsh Gallery at Amherst College, on view from October 24 - November 19, 2022. It featured an interrelated group of artworks from my ongoing investigation of the complex relationship between humans and trees, and chairs as “social sculptures.” This body of work considers chairs and other wooden objects as intimate partners in our domestic lives, closely associated with the human body, and representing a direct material legacy of our forests.
Many of the materials in this exhibition came directly from the Smith College MacLeish Field Station forest, where I have spent the past three years as an artist-in-residence. Other wood used in the sculptural chairs came from logs gleaned from fallen trees found in forests in the Connecticut River Valley. Bark, cones, and seeds from the forest floor and remnants of the woodworking process have been turned to charcoal, or pure carbon, through a special burning process, in contemplation of one of the most common elements in living organisms. Carbon is central to climate change, released by human activities and absorbed and sequestered from the atmosphere by trees and plants. Juxtapositions of organic and synthetic materials in the exhibition highlight the complex and sometimes paradoxical aspects of contemporary human relationships to land and nature.
At the MacLeish Field Station site, I have been observing a selected red oak tree and its immediate forest surroundings, working to deepen my understanding and knowledge of the forest ecosystem, the tree, and its interactions with other organisms, in a project titled To Understand a Tree. Videos in this exhibition featured the red oak tree which is the focus of that project. Concurrently with work at the forest site, I have learned the traditional art of greenwood chair construction, a technique used for building with unseasoned wood using hand tools, which allows me to avoid resource-consumptive industrial processing while critically engaging the history of American colonial furniture. Alternating between contemplating the tree in the forest, and splitting, hewing, and shaving fallen red oak logs into chair parts, I work closely with wood as both a structural material and embodied evidence of a tree’s life.
photo by Stephen Petegorsky
All images and text copyright 2006-2023 Gina Siepel. All rights reserved.