by Malgosia Halliop
I was fascinated when I first saw notice of the Mark Dion: Life of a Dead Tree exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). What an unusual subject for an exhibit in an art museum! A huge dead ash tree to be displayed in the museum and carefully excavated as an ecosystem, with particular attention to finding, preserving, and documenting all the small species (insects, lichens, fungi) who make their home within its enormous body. I was doubly intrigued, because my first knowledge of the exhibit was through a schedule of art classes being offered by a skilled and engaging local botanical artist and teacher who I have taken some classes with over the years, Nellie Sue Potter. Ecology and art - one of my all-time favourite intersections of topics - and an opportunity for hands-on interaction and drawing practice. I signed up for two linked afternoon workshops on nature drawing and journaling, and took in the exhibit at the same time.
The exhibit itself is both impressive and stark. A dead white ash, cut and transported in large segments - including the massive root ball, but absent the smaller top branches - and displayed within a concrete pillared space. A fallen tree this size is always an impressive sight, but in this incongruous space with no other trees around it, I was particularly struck by its dimensions, and by the challenge of moving it into this building. There is some interpretive signage in the exhibit, and some large-scale images of the minute creatures who were found within the bark of the tree. There is also a large window into a laboratory, which is both part of the display and a working space. But what's most compelling here is the dialogue between visual display and ongoing scientific research and interpretation, the real-life interactive aspect of it. No iPads to swipe (although I concede those have their place in museum exhibits), but instead the opportunity to engage at many levels with a complex ecosystem, both dead and living, both contained and also - on some level - unpredictable.
The white ash on display was killed by an infestation of the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), whose galleries tunnel all around the inner bark of the ash tree and girdle it, cutting off its access to nutrients and water. One of the central questions of the exhibit is the management of invasive species - species who arrive into a complex ecosystem from elsewhere, with no natural predators to keep them in balance - in our increasingly fragile natural world, inside cities and out of them. In my mind, this also brings up the disturbing question of humans as an invasive species who, like the beetles who killed this tree, are destroying the very ecosystems that we depend on for our survival.
These are big topics and bleak questions. But here, looking up at the large-scale photos of tiny arthropods found in the tree's bark, there is also a window into the incredible abundance and diversity of every square centimetre of the living world. Sitting at a table with a group of other adults who had all decided they were excited about engaging with this exhibit through drawing, I felt the sustained focus and immersive joy of looking deeply and closely at things that are often too easy to overlook, until we commit to make paying attention a habit: graceful leaf shapes, the delicate pattern of lichen on bark, the brilliant iridescence of a beetle. The workshop went by all too fast, and I look forward to returning to take in more detail, do more drawing, ask more questions, and engage more deeply.
More information about the Mark Dion: Life of a Dead Tree exhibit, including the full program of talks, workshops, dead tree walks, etc.:
More information about nature art courses and workshops with Nellie Sue Potter: http://www.natureartstudio.ca