The Artist that Looks Like a Tree but is Not a Tree
13 August 2014 . By João Bento
I believe that it was in 2008 that The British Journal of Photography featured an article which included a photograph of a colourful bird resting on the branch of a small tree. On closer inspection, it became clear that this seemingly quiet bird was in fact a fake bird. What! Photos of fake birds in the landscape, who did this? The answer – Paula McCartney.
Last year I acquired the artist’s latest book called ‘Book of Trees – Both Native and Introduced.’ I was curious, what should I expect from this – fake trees? Well, yes and no…
McCartney has always been interested in the natural landscape. Her work is either about natural landscapes or about partly natural landscapes. One of her early projects, ‘Bronx Zoo’ (1998), shows caged, exotic birds surrounded by walls painted with foreign landscapes and treescapes. More recently, the project ‘A Field Guide to Snow and Ice’ (2011), gives us an account of snow and ice formations that might not be what they seem. The work of Paula McCartney is invested with illusion and some humour too.
Humour is not particularly popular with photographers and curators. In spite of this, in ‘Book of Trees’, McCartney appears in the photographs minimally dressed like a tree – with brown trousers and green top, or brown trousers and red top (in the autumn). The wooded landscapes are accompanied by captions that absurdly describe Paula as “Evergreen”, “Deciduous Tree”, “Tree with Sapling” or “Tree with Burl”.
In the book, McCartney’s images are evenly interspaced with short texts written by Andy Sturdevant, such as:
They had a word in the old days for people that hung around forests, looking like trees. Often they were also described as being covered in bark and leaves. “Woodwose” was the best-known designation in medieval Europe for the so-called wild men of the woods. But there were types of wild ladies of the woods, too. In German, these wild ladies were called “Fange.” or “Fanke.”
Another text reads:
It is worth taking a closer look at the Victorians if we’re going to discuss people dressing as trees. A Victorian would not dress like a tree. This isn’t conjecture; it’s a pretty well documented fact. The Victorians had many opportunities to dress like trees, and passed on every single one of them.
The texts provide a broad cultural background that speaks about our changing perception of, and attitude towards, trees – through changing time and in different places. Viewed on their own, the photographs and captions confirm what we already know – McCartney is not a tree.
‘Book of Trees’ is the first time Paula McCartney appears in front of the lens. The book projects the image of the human as a failed construction, incapable of fully integrating into the natural landscape (as a tree). This raises questions about the definition of what is natural, what is a tree and what is to be human?
In the last photograph of the book, McCartney exhibits an injured arm. The caption says “Tree with Broken Limb”. Do you think McCartney really had a broken arm? I know the answer… but I am not telling you!
This text was also published on Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, a journal written in Portuguese and English dedicated to ecomedia and ecocritical studies: animaliavegetaliamineralia.org
Please visit Paula McCartney’s website www.paulamccartney.com