The most profound and beautiful art installation of recent years in Cincinnati — an inspiration for what public art here can be — was Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s 2010 “Hanging Garden.” It continues to have an afterlife.
Inside the empty, deconsecrated and well-worn Holy Cross Church in Mount Adams, a live birch tree still bearing green leaves was suspended in mid-air so one could see its thick tangle of roots from below. Underneath it, upside-down so its own bottom intertwined with the live tree’s, was a dead birch with empty branches pressing against the floor like a dry mop.
The work that went into the project made the result seem miraculous, an effect strengthened by the location. As one pondered it — and “Hanging Garden” encouraged the kind of devoted attention that a James Turrell light projection elicits — one also thought about more: the interconnectedness of life; the way nature can resurrect and inject meaning into dead architecture.
Poetic, ecological, metaphoric … the piece worked on so many levels that I regret everyone couldn’t see it during its short time on display.
The work also created, essentially, an important new local art space. When Doug and Mike Starn arrive in Cincinnati next month to install “Gravity of Light” for FotoFocus — an installation they describe as “part-sculpture, part-scientific experiment” and appears to aim for transcendence — they chose Holy Cross Church as the site. I have been told they first saw “Hanging Garden” photos.
Now, more people can see those photos — as well as ones of some of the other remarkably nature-sensitive, labor-intensive projects that Turner-Yamamoto has been doing elsewhere — from Mongolia to Grand Rapids; Kentucky to Finland — in his new book The Global Tree Project. His work takes him to deserts, mountains, forests and gritty urban post-industrial sites.
The book is from Italy’s Damiani Press and grew out of “Hanging Garden.”
On the occasion of the publication, I talked to Turner-Yamamoto at his Hyde Park studio apartment about his work to date … and what’s next.
The artist, who grew up in Osaka and studied art in Bologna and Kyoto, speaks carefully — with perhaps a touch of the mystic — when explaining his art. In a way, his is a case of what can happen when do you hear a tree fall in the forest.
He explains how he got started working with trees: “I saw this tree uprooted and it was so strange, nearly dead, but the root system was solidly connected to the ground. So it had beautiful green leaves, quite alive, and looked like it was calmly sleeping. I think in the next day or two, it was gone. There was a big hole and huge mound where the roots were. And after that, every time I go to a mountain and see a mound, I (often) noticed a new tree growing from there. So I started to draw this image.”
Overlapping with “Hanging Garden,” Turner-Yamamoto also created a subtle, mesmerizing show, Disappearances, for the Contemporary Arts Center. It was related to “Hanging Garden” in that it used plaster fragments, paint chips and dust from the church, but it also used new marble dust, gold leaf and other materials for wall and floor displays.
The book includes photos of that, as well as an important related piece — “Disappearances: An Eternal Journey” — that won the International Juried Award at last year’s ArtPrize exhibition in Grand Rapids. There, using ancient fossilized material such as coral and gypsum fragments, he created a “primordial sea” along the concrete floor of an abandoned downtown commercial building.
Now, he is busily preparing for his 2012 ArtPrize installation, which will be on display Sept. 19-Oct. 7 — one of 1,517 entries at 162 venues. Working with his sponsor from last year, an organization called Site:Lab that puts temporary art in vacant spaces, he is taking over the Rocks and Mineral Gallery in the old Grand Rapids Public Museum, which hasn’t been used since 1994. His project will be called “Sidereal Silence,” for which he traveled to a Pacific Northwest forest. He says the piece in some way will use waterfalls as inspiration. (He will also have a show at Phyllis Weston Gallery Nov. 9-Dec. 14, De Rerum Natura.)
It would be nice if we could capitalize on Turner-Yamamoto’s great gift to us by making the old Holy Cross Church an ongoing art site. We have an organization something like Site:Lab, parProjects, and maybe it (or another entity) could use the old church — which now is part of Towne Properties’ Mount Adams complex.
Then Holy Cross would have a new and important public purpose.
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