Artist’s Statement

The alarming rate at which we are destroying our natural resources was the driver behind the Ghost Forest installation. Like most people, I am turned off by the endless bombardment of mind-numbing statistics on climate change, and even more so when they turn out to be contradictory.  But when the scientist Andrew Mitchell told me that an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is being destroyed every four seconds, it stopped me in my tracks. That rate equates to an area the size of England being wiped out every year. And when they are gone, they are gone. Simple as that, he said. With his words ringing in my ears, I began to research ways of visually expressing the issue.  I finally returned to him with a concept:  to present a series of rainforest tree stumps as a ‘ghost forest’ – using the negative space created by the missing trunks as a metaphor for climate change, the absence representing the removal of the world’s ‘lungs’ through continued deforestation. In addition to the impact on our climate, deforestation directly affects wildlife, plants, soil through erosion and of course the livelihoods of indigenous people.

I made several field trips last year to a commercially logged primary rainforest in Ghana where we eventually sourced a group of 10 tree stumps, most of which were naturally fallen in storms; the others had been the subject of selective logging. The ensuing operation to bring the trees to England turned into a gargantuan task of logistics. Somehow the trees reached Tilbury Docks in East London, and they were exhibited in Trafalgar Square in November 2009, courtesy of the GLA. They then moved to a site outside the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, Denmark to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference, and from last July they have been sited on the front lawn of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.  Their exhibition in Oxford coincides with the Museum of Natural History’s 150th anniversary and straddles the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity 2010, and the UN International Year of the Forest, 2011.

All three locations provide a powerful stage for the Ghost Forest: Trafalgar Square is one of the world’s most visited tourist sites and the epicentre of Western industrialisation over the past 200 years. Nelson’s Column stands over 50 metres (169 feet) tall, the approximate height many of these trees would have stood. In Copenhagen, Ghost Forest was located at Thorvaldsens Plads, a magnificent historic square next to the Danish Parliament. More than 12,000 delegates from 193 nations attended the Conference where the future of rainforests was a key component of the talks. Ghost Forest is in a world famous location in Oxford, and many hundreds of thousands have the opportunity to see the trees. Oxford is a natural location for the trees as the installation is a collaboration of many university departments, including Engineering Science, Plant Sciences, the Environmental Change Institute and the Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests.

Seven indigenous species are represented – Denya, Dahuma, Danta, Hyedua, Mahogany,Wawa and three varieties of Celtis – all with a rich and varied ecology and all with equally diverse uses by man.

It is important to explain the source of these particular trees: Ghana. The tropical rainforests of the Congo Basin are the closest to Europe, just 3,000 miles due south from Trafalgar Square along the
Greenwich Meridian. Having lost 90% of its primary rainforest over the past 50 years, Ghana now exercises strict regulations in sustainable and responsible forestry. Last year it became the first country in Africa to enter the VPA (Voluntary Partnership Agreement) with the European Union in an effort to outlaw illegal logging. Its remaining concessions are all selectively logged, which means the retention, crucially, of the forest canopy; the natural regeneration of the forest; and a viable and sustainable timber industry for the local workforce: the installation therefore carries a message of hope and optimism.

The Ghost Forest tree stumps – most of which fell naturally in adverse weather conditions – come from the Suhuma forest reserve in Western Ghana, a selectively logged concession run by John Bitar and Co, one of the largest timber producers in Ghana. They operate under license from the Ghana Forestry Commission and run a Chain of Custody tracking system. Ghassan Bitar, who runs the company, has been enormously helpful in realising the Ghost Forest project. Together with his nephew Sebastian Houweling, they are keen to promote sustainable forestry and work in collaboration with WWF, Ghana’s Wildlife Wood Project, the EU, and the Zoological Society of London on various conservation and community programmes. Ghassan Bitar has spoken on issues relating to illegal logging at Chatham House in London and was instrumental in designing the agreement for Ghana’s VPA with the EU. This year he began one of the world’s largest private reforestation programmes, which involves planting 25 million trees on degraded land over the next five years. The VPA agreement follows several years of attempts by Ghana to halt deforestation: in 1994 Ghana banned the export of raw logs, encouraged reforestation in degraded areas and put 15 per cent of land under protection.

Zafer Adra, the forest manager and Ntim Gyakari, a botanist and former curator of the Herbarium in Kumasi, Ghana, have played a key role in helping me identify the tree stumps and overseeing their removal from the forest. Ntim co-wrote a book on Ghana’s rainforest trees with Dr William Hawthorne, a botanist at Oxford University.

Like all art, Ghost Forest can be appreciated or interpreted in many ways and on many levels – no response is right or wrong.  During its showing in Trafalgar Square and more recently in Copenhagen, the Ghost Forest reached people on many different levels. For many the confrontation with the trees not only drove home the destruction of these mighty and majestic trees, but it went even deeper. Some were visibly moved, and said the trees helped to ‘reconnect’ them with the natural world which they had long forgotten. One woman said: ‘I grew up in a forest in South America but now I live my life surrounded by concrete. I realise I don’t even look at trees any more. These trees have taken me back to nature. I feel I am walking in a forest again this morning.’ Others said they appreciated for the first time the raw beauty of natural forms, a beauty no sculptor could achieve. In both London and Copenhagen, artists, professional and amateur, were inspired to bring sketchbooks, canvases and oils. For some visitors, the Ghost Forest generated deep and personal associations geographically, culturally and politically. Many were solely drawn to the ecology and botany of the trees; others were fascinated by their commercial uses by man, from sauna linings to coffin making and heels for ladies’ shoes. Whatever the underlying interest, almost all observers wanted to touch the trees and smell them. One blind man visited Trafalgar Square with his parents, and spent a lengthy period feeling his way along the roots of the mighty 20-ton Denya.

A journalist from the Guardian wrote: “The Ghost Forest – dinosaur-size stumps lit up in the Copenhagen night, the unexpected aroma of fresh cut wood – unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes.”  In Copenhagen, some of the roots of the Ghost Forest Denya tree (whose roots were cut to allow it to travel on British and Danish roads) were used to create the awards of the UN Conference’s Earth Journalism Awards, (http://files.internews.eu/eja/photos/). The 15 awards were presented by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and Marina Silva, the former environment minister of Brazil.

Nearly 1,000 journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters from 148 countries entered the awards. The winning reports included a Kenyan group who spread environmental information to their peers in the Nairobi slums through a hip hop video filmed atop mountains of trash, a compelling account of a small Pakistani community adapting to climate change, and an investigative report on disturbing business practices in Papua New Guinea’s carbon market. (Full details http://awards.earthjournalism.org.)

If you have any thoughts or suggestions for future locations or events surrounding the Ghost Forest please contact the website.

During its showing in Trafalgar Square and in Copenhagen, the project had the support of Deutsche Bank, the main sponsor; Arts Council England; and several other trusts, foundations and companies. The Oxford installation received in-kind support from Arup, Brookfield Europe, Byrne Brothers, Keltbray and T Clarke. The Garfield Weston Foundation also made a generous contribution. In addition many passionate individuals gave very generously, both financially and with their time. We are now in Phase 3 of the project, and we are continually trying to raise funds. Ghost Forest Art Project is a registered not-for-profit company and I’d be incredibly grateful for any contribution, however small. You may make a donation by writing to me at: angelaspalmer@gmail.com or through the contact details on this website, and you will be duly acknowledged unless you’d prefer to be anonymous.

My interest in Climate Change began two years ago when I had a dream that I went to the most polluted place in the world wearing a floating white outfit. I then went to the cleanest place on earth wearing an identical white outfit, and exhibited both in a stark white gallery. When I woke I resolved to do just that. I spent a week in the most polluted place on earth, Linfen in Shanxi province in China, a city in the heart of China’s coal mining region, which according to official surveys has the world’s most polluted air and water. I then visited the cleanest – Cape Grim in the North West tip of Tasmania, which benefits from the cleansing blast of the winds of the Roaring Forties. In both places I wore an identical white outfit, and brought back film, photographs, water and air samples, all of which I juxtaposed for my final show at the Royal College of Art in London. The work was exhibited over three months in a solo show entitled ‘Breathing In’ at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London. The flasks containing the air from both places will be exhibited again at the Wellcome Trust in 2011.

Many people have commented that at the core of my work is a desire to ‘map’; the work is almost always accompanied with a narrative, often the result of months of research involving many specialists. In a way it is old fashioned story-telling, perhaps largely informed by my background in journalism. A common theme running through all my projects is the collision between art and science, and almost without exception the work is the result of collaborations with scientists in every conceivable discipline, from engineers specialising in bio-fluidics, to dust-mite and spider experts, radiologists, veterinary scientists, paediatric dentists and specialists in ancient Egyptian dyes.

Before becoming involved in the world of climate change, I had been making work based on details derived from MRI and CAT scans which I engrave or draw onto multiple sheets of glass, layer upon layer. This technique allows me to use the scientific anatomy of the human body stripped of its recognisable features. Most of my work is based on MRI scans of myself – rebuilding the body, slice by slice, to create a self-portrait. While the works may not be instantly recognisable as a portrait, they are objective representations – removing the familiar to expose the extraordinary architecture of the internal human form.

The inspiration for this work came from an exhibit in Oxford’s History of Science Museum, constructed by the Nobel Laureate Dorothy Hodgkin in the mid 1940s. She drew the electron density contour images of the penicillin molecule on horizontal sheets of Perspex. I adapted this method by drawing details of the scanned human form on multiple sheets of glass, presented in three dimensions on a vertical plane.

A recent project involved a child mummy in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The wrapped mummy is an unnamed child who died nearly 2,000 years ago. The Ashmolean Museum agreed to take the child to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where it underwent over 2,500 CT scans, performed by one of the world’s leading radiologists, Dr Stephen Golding assisted by his colleague Dr Chris Alvey. The doctors, who revealed the child to be a boy, prepared a detailed medical report which showed the boy probably died of pneumonia and had dysplasia of the hip, suggesting he almost certainly had a limp. Using details from the scans drawn on 111 sheets of glass, I was able to recreate the child three-dimensionally without disturbing his bandages. Scans of his teeth were also analysed by Oxford orthodontist Lars Christensen, who established the child was around two years old. This was confirmed by Dr Mary Lewis, a bio-archaeologist at the University of Reading. Dr Christensen also discovered the child was ‘rather special’ as he was missing his two front side teeth – an occurrence in only 0.4per cent of children born today.

In addition to creating sculptures of the child, I visited and documented the burial site in the Faiyum in Egypt where the child was removed in the winter of 1888 by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie, before being presented to the Ashmolean Museum. My exhibition at Waterhouse and Dodd last year featured a film of the child’s homeland, the place he knew during his short life. There were also informal photographs of local boys – the mummy’s ‘brothers’ some 2,000 years on. In addition I brought back sand from his burial site to ‘reunite’ the boy with his home.

A previous project involved raising awareness about asthma and this led me into the world of dust mites. On this, I collaborated with Professor Tadj Oreszczyn and Dr Marcella Ucci at University College London; Dr Barbara Hart, a world authority on dust mites; and Professor Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at Oxford University. The resulting installation won the Polly Campbell Award at London’s Jerwood Space.

For further information on my other artistic works, please visit www.angelaspalmer.com