Part of a 40-ton tree has been framed in the ceiling of a gallery at the Natural History Museum after Tania Kovats won a competition to design a permanent installation for the centre.
Early last year, Tania Kovats was leaving for South America when the Natural History Museum asked her to enter Darwin’s Canopy, a competition seeking a new permanent artwork for one of the gallery ceilings.
“I got a phone call just before I left asking me to put in an idea,” she recalls. “I made the proposal from the back of my camper van in Patagonia, and the idea very much came from spending time in certain environments down there. I had taken Voyage of the Beagle with me, so Darwin was a kind of travelling companion.”
TREE, the resulting proposal for a 17-metre section of a 200-year-old oak built into the wall of the gallery off of the NHM’s Central Hall, was the unanimous judges’ winner from a shortlist including the likes of Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread. Kovats chose Longleat’s ancient sustainable woodland to find a “pretty magnificent” candidate to realise her blueprint.
“I wanted to work with an oak tree because they’re a very symbolic tree in our culture and they’re also king of the woods in terms of biodiversity,” says Kovats, who spent two days eyeing up the forest with her husband and son.
“It was about trying to get the tree to belong in the space. Seeing the room was one of the last things I did before I left. It’s a long gallery space with very beautiful windows and flowery motifs in the glass, and it’s a bit of a crossroads within the museum, dividing front and back and east and west.”
Head Forester Rodney Garton and experts ranging from surgeons to fabricators helped Kovats on her way. “I had to look at the tree as if it was a sculptural form, thinking about it basically as a 3D and 2D thing, imagining a line drawn down through the tree and what sort of shape it would be making once you followed that line.
“Rodney agreed the one which was my first choice. There were a few other trees on the shortlist but I knew the one that I wanted to work with the most.”
Tree, courtesy Natural History Museum
Gently dropping the 40-ton frame to the ground before painstakingly labelling and stacking its individual sections for shifting to London, Kovats attributes a spiritual quality to dislocating this living giant from the Earth.
“There was something quite uncanny about the root ball, it just felt like it’s not a visible bit of the tree – you know, it’s hidden. It felt like some weird hidden metaphor. Just the amount of earth it was pulling up with it…all the rocks and stones, because the roots kind of suck up rocks as they’re growing…that proved quite problematic as a mass of monstrous stuff to move around.”
A sculptor by reputation, Kovats had to build upon her increasing forays into drawing to analyse and rebuild the tree. Inspired both by the museum (“this massive encyclopaedia of the natural world that you can walk around in”) and Darwin himself, the physical world she encountered was a critical influence on the finished product.
“There were things in the NHM that directly related to what I was looking at - they’ve got a beautiful bit of petrified wood in there, changed to stone through a kind of geological catastrophe, but when I was in Argentina I could actually go to a whole landscape full of it.
“Just seeing some of the landscapes that Charles Darwin wrote about and really understood very well, how he could read the formation of the Andes or how he understood the plains of the pampas – the land itself doesn’t change that quickly, so his interpretations are still very valid.”
Of all the artists who could turn an enormous tree into a permanent artwork worthy of the NHM, Kovats stands in good stead. She transported a meadow between Bath and London via a canal for 2006’s Meadow (“which was all about keeping that blooming and beautiful, so I did a lot of watering”) and migrated a landscape museum to a converted shoebox in 2007’s Museum of the White Horse, although this is one of her first permanent projects.
“Knowing that it’s there forever means that this moment where it arrives is quite small in its timeline, because you know that the work will exist as part of the museum like another specimen,” she reflects, comparing it to "a great big pressed flower on the ceiling."
“It makes you feel quite small sometimes as an artist, knowing how small I am compared to Darwin. The scale of the tree itself has been quite overwhelming. The scale of Darwin is even bigger.”
A wafer-thin approximation framed in the ceiling, Kovats has ultimately reversed the way in which trees are seen. You can lie on a bench and gaze up at the wood, aiming for an experience which “puts the tree at the top of the order of things,” she explains. “It is quite immersive and fairytale – I think we’re quite used to sort of walking on wood, standing on a wooden floorboard, but we’re not necessarily used to it flying over our heads.”
Her starting point, she says, was the contrast between artistic and scientific imaginings. “I like the possible fantasy trigger that the work can have. I think Darwin had a huge imaginative range to generate the platforms for the starting points of biology and all these other sciences that he’s been able to set on a particular path.”
As someone who has spent a year paring a tree the size of a house into a miniature piece of art which maintains the awesome beauty of its prototype, Kovats gleans from Darwin’s innate ability to concisely deconstruct infinitesimal themes.
“Even for some of the most complex questions we can ask – where did we come from, who are we, what are we – he managed to give a simple answer,” she observes. "Something in them has to remain simple and communicate directly to people.
“We can spend half an hour talking about a tree, but it is still quite simple when someone encounters it, and that seems quite an important model to try and borrow from Darwin. You know, it’s just a tree.”