Reforestation: how to make a tree from a chair

23 May to 22 June 2013

Ashley Eriksmoen

A CraftACT curated exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery

Reforestation, installation views. Ashley Eriksmoen. Photos Art Atelier Photography

Reforestation: how to make a tree from a chair by Anne Brennan

I am standing in an unlikely grove. The branches of one tree are raised stiffly skywards, sprouting rigid, spear-shaped leaves at regular intervals. The elaborate ridged bole of another tapers upwards to terminate in a crown of heavily stiff and formal-looking foliage. Yet another looks like a spindly, unstable tower of untamed growth, its branches sprouting from unexpected places, as though it has been badly pruned or attempting to regenerate after a bushfire.

The most remarkable yet obvious thing about these trees is that they are assembled from dismantled pieces of furniture, and no attempt has been made to hide this fact. The branches, leaves and trunks plainly bear the evidence of their previous lives as spindles from a bedstead, the arm or seat of a chair, or the turned base of a dining room table. Even the limed paint and cheap varnish with which they were originally dressed has been left intact.

This little grove is the fruit of Ashley Eriksmoen's recent obsession with the Green Shed in Mugga Lane, where Canberra's unwanted items go to be recycled. Her focus has been on the most abject items in an already abject collection: the furniture that has been discarded because it is broken and is therefore unsellable even in a secondhand market. The damage to these items is often slight - nothing that couldn't be repaired with a screw or a dab of glue. However, they have been designed to hold together just long enough to reach the limit of their fashionableness, so no-one has bothered to fix them, because why repair something that will no longer fit in with a new décor?

One hundred and fifty years ago, the value of a piece of furniture was invested in its utility, so that its life might span several human generations, or eighty to a hundred years. This would be long enough for the tree that replaced the one the item was made from to grow to full maturity. These days the life of a piece of furniture may be as little as ten to fifteen years, not nearly enough time for the regeneration of the trees that have been sacrificed for it.

This waste is multiplied further when you consider the size of the manufacturing enterprises that feed our appetite for novelty and change. So, at a time when global warming preoccupies us, and the watchword for designers is sustainability, Ashley Eriksmoen proposes a question that brings these issues to the forefront of our consciousness: rather than harvesting trees to make furniture, what would happen if we were to harvest furniture to make trees?

In this project, the processes of a furniture maker and a gardener become analogous. Ashley assembles and archives her repertoire of furniture fragments with all the care of a fine cabinetmaker gathering and itemising a collection of rare timbers. At the same time, these fragments stacked in an orderly fashion against the wall of her workspace remind me of a collection of rootstock in a nursery. Each tree requires complex joinery techniques to unite the constituent parts into a new whole. But in her careful cutting, splicing and joining it is also possible to read an analogy with grafting, the nurseryman's painstaking union of rootstock and introduced plant or scion.

The purpose of grafting is to introduce new genetic material to the host plant for some kind of advantage: to create a more vigorous and fruitful plant, for example, or to hasten the production of a hybrid combining desirable aesthetic properties, or to reproduce plants which cannot easily be propagated by other means.

Grafting is also used to create curiosities – a sort of virtuoso exhibition of the nurseryman's art, in which a plant can be made to bear both potatoes and tomatoes, or several different plants can be spliced together in complex ways to create a trellised effect. Such exhibitions of skill always seem to have at their heart a desire for human mastery of the unpredictable and organic ways of the botanical world.

There is something of this at play in Ashley's trees, underscored by the ways in which craft privileges skill for its own sake and ascribes to craftsmanship a particular form of aesthetic pleasure. But for all the skill and labour Ashley has lavished upon bringing these objects into being, they remain awkward and ungainly, more remarkable for the unlikeliness of their state than for any inherent beauty they may possess. Ultimately, then, the intensively laboured nature of Ashley's project exists solely to gesture towards the intrinsic impossibility of its fundamental proposition.

Indeed, there is something unsettling and uncanny about her artificial grove. The trees appear to be in the process of an ambiguous transformation, but exactly what the nature of the metamorphosis is remains unclear. It is as though the graft has failed in some way, and the characteristics of graft and rootstock are struggling for supremacy: are they trees in the process of becoming furniture, or is the wood from which the furniture fragments are made remembering and attempting to return to its previous life as a tree?

Ashley has called this exhibition Re-forestation: how to make a tree from a chair. In this collection of darkly witty objects, she demonstrates exactly how, with an expense of time and skill, such a thing is possible. But in doing so, she poses another unspoken question: why would we want to make a tree from a chair in the first place? Is this a demonstration of human ingenuity, a good news story about the pleasures of restoring unwanted and unloved items to a new life and purpose? Or is this an altogether more ironic and dark parable about the future, in which our appetite for change brings us to a tipping point and we are confronted with the biggest change of all: one where the only forests we are likely to see are those we can fashion from the tide of discarded objects we have left behind?