The Meaning of Trees
A Giant Wooden Kite That Can't Fly
Courtesy Open Satellite
Heather and Ivan Morison make relics from the future: ruins bearing tantalizingly incomplete information. Their latest is Frost King, a 60-foot-long by 20-foot-tall kite of charred wood—a kite of charred wood?—leaning against the concrete-and-glass architecture inside a high-rise tower in Bellevue.
Frost King was the name of the tetrahedral kite that first lifted a human in 1905. That Frost King was designed (and named) by Alexander Graham Bell. Its form, the tetrahedron, was eventually adopted by utopian architect/futurist Buckminster Fuller for his geodesic-dome home.
The torched wood slats of Frost King the sculpture are tilted along their vertical axis. They resemble the flappy airfoils of an airplane wing as you look out across it from your window seat. If a strong wind arrived, and if you hung on, you might lift right up and out of here on it, into a new future—and at the same time, you know it will not, and you will not. This kite, which resembles a splayed-open book, is grounded. What's happened has happened.
But your view as you flew: It would be determined by the direction of the airfoils, their tilt suggesting both motion and vision, vertical blinds drawn or opened, the promise of selective seeing and desired hiding. The long-short pattern of the panels mimics the pattern of the gallery's windows, as if this structure were the windows, just in another form (and, possibly, another time).
When you research a bit—and this giant sculpture fuels curiosity—you discover that these timbers are from trees felled on a construction site not far away in rapidly developing Bellevue, cut down by the same developer that owns the gallery that houses this ruin-kite. (The kite form was inspired in part by Seattle's Drachen Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the history and preservation of kites.) The gallery commissioned the artists; the artists responded by requisitioning materials the gallery owner was razing.
"We like to work with what's there," Heather Morison says. "And that's not about recycling and reusing, but it's about how people lived maybe a little while ago—the idea that if you've got a redwood and a flatbed truck, you've got a house. That you have skills for survival. That it's not about what you have, it's about what you know. And we're losing that massively. We have to know how to make our own works, and we have to know how to lead a team."
A crew of volunteers from various backgrounds built Frost King alongside the Morisons (including, centrally, two architects, ensuring the piece would be structurally sound, considering it would stand for a number of months on a base only six inches wide along its 60-foot length). The volunteers found themselves covered in soot from handling the burned wood. Its cracked, splitting surface gives the impression that Frost King could fall into ashes at any moment. Something has happened, something may still happen: The sculpture is as much verb (past or future tense: burning, flying, falling) as noun (screen, blind, quilt, window, book).
There's an antic psychology to the works of the Morisons, a double nod to redemption and collapse. In ominous photographs they've shown in other galleries, black rocks hang in the sky—withholding catharsis, remaining there suspended antagonistically. Their titles link economic, environmental, and self-help lingo: How to Survive the Coming Bad Years, for one. Escape is a constant companion: I am so sorry. Goodbye (Escape Vehicle number 4) was a survivalist hut constructed in a park in 2008, where a "guardian" with tea and a limited vocabulary welcomed visitors, who could talk to the resident of this other world, but not quite communicate. In I lost her near Fantasy Island. Life has not been the same., a sculpture is positioned yet again on the far side of an unnamed, ambiguous event: The work consisted of a jackknifed semitruck in the middle of a square in Bristol. The result of the "crash" was that the truck spilled out 25,000 freshly cut flowers for the taking.
The Morisons (a married couple with a daughter) own a piece of land in Wales they call Arthog. Arthog is their biggest project: It's a forest where they plant trees they've gathered from traveling the world to make art, trees from the western United States, Tasmania, Venice, etc. Arthog will develop into a United Nations of an arboretum over the years, each species fighting for its place. Meanwhile, the Morisons use the forest as a replenishable natural resource for their sculptures, or, as in Bellevue, look for resources already available.
The Morisons use land and the management of natural resources as a medium, and a canvas. Frost King—unlike Los Angeles artist Olga Koumoundouros's A Roof Upended, which used the roofing of a nearby home slated for demolition in a 2007 installation in the same Bellevue gallery—is not an outright critique, but something more flexible and diffuse, like the network of people who built Frost King. It's also a work of the imagination, like a prop lifted from a story. What does it mean to be concerned about the future of trees when we don't know how to chop one down and build a shelter ourselves, anyway? It's become an odd existence in the wealthy, worried West in 2010: Something has burned, and something will take flight. Meanwhile, this is art made of what's here.