Branching out of the Pitt


By Claire Davis

When travelling in Oxford, you would expect to cycle past numerous spires, museums and libraries. However, many of you will probably have been surprised to see a dilapidated rainforest in the midst of our student city, resting on the lawns of the Natural History Museum.

This installation, which is called Ghost Forest, consists of ten tree stumps shipped over from the Suhuma rainforest. Whilst it is particularly eerie when lit up at night, we see the roots of the once magnificent specimens without their trunks, remaining shadows of the trees they once were. Alarmed by deforestation statistics, ex-Ruskin student Angela Palmer uses the absent trunks as a metaphor for climate change; I caught up with the artist to find out more about this remarkable installation.

“My interest in climate change began after a dream where I went to the most polluted place in the world wearing a white outfit,” Palmer began: “I then went to the cleanest place wearing an identical outfit, and exhibited both in a gallery.” Waking up, Palmer resolved to fulfil her dream and exhibited the results at her final show at the Royal College of Art.

The idea for Ghost Forest itself was sparked by scientist Andrew Mitchell, who told Palmer that an area of rainforest equal to the size of a football pitch is destroyed every four seconds. “It stopped me in my tracks”, Palmer recalls: “That equates to an area the size of England being wiped out every year. With his words ringing in my ears, I began to research ways of visually expressing the issue.”

Without the help of forest reserves, managers and Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science, the project would not have been possible. “As Albert Einstein said: ‘all religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree’”, Palmer explains, commenting on the “collision between art and science” that runs through all of her work. “And by ‘collision’, I mean a happy marriage of two disciplines,” she adds.

“It is the time and generosity of scientists that give artists like me the opportunity and technical capability to experiment and move forward; they offer their own perspectives and creativity so that every project really is a team effort. We recognise in each other a common need to explore, a shared curiosity to find new ways of looking, of seeing, of explaining, and of representing ourselves and the world around us.”

This fascination with the link between art and science was evident during Palmer’s time at The Ruskin, where she studied Fine Art at Exeter College. Working from MRI scans and anatomy lessons, Palmer engraved features of the human body onto multiple layers of glass. “Many have commented that at the core of my work is a desire to ‘map’; the work is almost always accompanied with a narrative and months of research. It’s an old fashioned story-telling, perhaps largely informed by my background in journalism.”

Her artwork is the result of collaborations with scientists from several disciplines, ranging from bio-fluidic engineers to radiologists, and even ancient Egyptian dye specialists.
In my opinion, congratulations are in order to the artist. When I ask if she is proud of the final installation, Angela answers: “If art is about provoking an emotional response, then Ghost Forest is fulfilling that goal.” The installation effectively conveys its message about climate change by bringing the truth about man’s destruction into our lives. However, it can still remind us that there is hope for change.
Even when the artist Antony Gormley told her that her project was “impossible”, Palmer persevered and completed it. These tree stumps have been removed from their rainforest to shock us into seeing what would fall onto deaf ears. A visually haunting representation of what Palmer would call “an endless bombardment of mind-numbing statistics” makes Ghost Forest a remarkable show.

Ghost Forest is on display outside the Natural History Museum until 31st July 2011

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