Where the trees tell the Bronx tales

Clockwise from main: an aerial view of a section of Katie Holten's The Tree Museum in the Bronx, 'Tree Lady' Katie Holten, and a section of The Tree Museum. Photographs: Katie Holten, Robert Melee, Ken Gobel

Clockwise from main: an aerial view of a section of Katie Holten's The Tree Museum in the Bronx, 'Tree Lady' Katie Holten, and a section of The Tree Museum. Photographs: Katie Holten, Robert Melee, Ken Gobel


Irish artist Katie Holten seemed an unlikely candidate to make a piece of public art celebrating 100 years of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. But her ‘museum without walls’, telling the area’s story, has proved a winner

TWO YEARS AGO, in the middle of winter, Dublin-born artist Katie Holten spent weeks wandering along the four and a half miles of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, looking for a way to make it speak. The Concourse, built in 1909 as a speedway out of Manhattan (and modelled on the Champs Élysées, no less), was approaching its centenary, and Holten, along with two other artists, was in the running for a commission to commemorate it through a public artwork. “I really didn’t think I had much chance of winning,” says Holten, “because the other two artists had really strong connections with the Bronx, and I’d been to the Bronx once, to a Yankees game.”

But Holten won the commission with her proposal for a “museum without walls”, comprising 100 street trees on a route through the Concourse, each tree linked to an audio recording of a Bronx tale, providing 100 invisible windows on to 100 vivid stories of a borough about which, too often, only grim stories are told.

“When I told people I was working up there,” says Holten (who made herself a temporary studio in one of the Bronx’s oldest buildings, a 1920s palazzo), “they were really worried. They said ‘be careful, you’re going to get mugged’ – all the cliches, all the negative stories, that was all I heard. And I went up there, and it’s not like that at all. Everyone’s just so warm and open, and that’s what really took over. When I started talking to people, it was all about positive energy, the great things that people are doing, or looking at, or trying to make happen there. And over the weeks, I realised that I needed other people to hear these stories I was hearing.”

What started out, then, as background research – a way to learn about the history and the culture of the borough by talking to as many of its residents as possible – became the spine of the project itself. Holten made recordings with teenagers, with pensioners, with local business people and with some of the borough’s more famous offspring, including architect Daniel Libeskind.

A commission for a public artwork could have produced a sole sculpture or an installation in a local park, but Holten wanted to think bigger, to reach wider than that. Twining stories into trees (and vice-versa) became a way to imagine this grand vista – this elegant old boulevard and this misunderstood old borough – on the scale it deserved.

This turned out to be a scale rivalling some of New York’s most talked-about recent public artworks, including Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gatesand Olaur Eliasson’s city waterfalls. The Tree Museumran to more than four miles in length, while at the same time being almost invisible, given its large audio element, and it was a hit not only of the summer but of the autumn and winter in New York (the show was originally scheduled to close in October but was extended until early January).

Holten had some interesting responses from Bronx locals when she told them that her project was centred on trees. “One group of people said to me things like, ‘oh yeah, there used to be trees along this boulevard, but not any more’,” she says. “And this was as they were all sitting on their canvas chairs around one of the big trees, under its shade.”

It was important to her, she says, that the project served as a reminder that trees were actually living, growing things, not merely complements to lamp-posts and parking metres, “not just another part of the street furniture. There was just this strange disconnect between something that you see every day and it’s under your nose and you don’t get it. And that it is alive, that it has roots, and all these different layers.”

TREES HAVE BEENpart of Holten’s practice for some time now. Several recent solo and group exhibitions have seen her sketch, photograph and even recreate them from scratch. At the entrance to the Manhattan loft she shares with her boyfriend is a replica tree constructed entirely from waste materials left in the apartment by a former tenant. It is enormous, reaching almost to the high ceiling, and it is starkly beautiful, black and skeletal in the bright December light.

Similar trees, also created from found waste, have been have been the centrepieces of solo shows in Germany and the US. And Holten has worked, too, with other growing things – before she became known as the “Tree Lady”, she remarks wryly, she was the “Weed Lady” because of her fondness for working with weeds and other vegetation. Having had a gardener for a mother as she grew up between rural parts of counties Longford and Louth, Holten earned her weeding stripes at a young age and, to her, the green rejects have always been beautiful, “just plants growing in the wrong place”.

In projects and installations, including the work with which she represented Ireland at the 2003 Venice Biennale, she has drawn and documented weeds, planted them and transplanted them, created for them new homes and new value. If her materials are not literally growing, they are recycled or re-purposed, as in her Gran Bazaar in Mexico City in 2006, which saw her create – and sell – an entire bazaar’s worth of goods out of trash (“I set up a mini-factory in my hotel room”). The offerings were not intended to be functional, but were a reflection on Mexico City’s informal economy. Holten knew that her lumpy jewellery, clunky utensils and misshapen paper globes – painted with imperfect, remembered cartographies – could not compete with the city’s constant flood of cheap plastic junk.

What interests Holten is the environment, and our engagement with the environment, how we impact upon it, how we use it, how we experience it. She’s fascinated by life’s systems, and by the organic processes through which we, and other living things, inhabit the earth, and to that end, much of her art emerges from collaborations, with historians, botanists, physicists, ecologists, architects and others. But the monikers – “Weed Lady”, “Tree Lady”, “Eco Lady” – frustrate her, because they’re part, she says, of a larger tendency within the art world to marginalise and narrowly categorise work which engages with and reflects on notions of nature and the environment. Eco-art is a buzzword for the present, but Holten worries that the label of eco-artist does more to stunt than to stimulate environmentally conscious work.

Besides, she’s still wary about the notions of ecology or environment which exist in the American art world. She came to the US on a Fulbright scholarship in 2004, interested in what “nature” and “landscape” meant within an urban context, but found that they were generally considered to be things which existed elsewhere – upstate, or in Connecticut, or in the Adirondacks, or wherever people dreamed of spending their weekends and their holidays. At the heart of Holten’s work is an insistence that nature is not some place else, and an interrogation of the associated idea, the belief that nature can be bought, boxed off, visited, by anyone, including artists.

“I’m thinking historically, rather than of artists now, but think of the land artists and the notion of man controlling nature and making it do what he wanted,” she says. “Robert Smithson, for example, with his bulldozer, making Spiral Jetty. Whereas in Europe, you have someone like Richard Long, and it was actually seeing his piece, A Line Made by Walking, which first brought a lot of things together in my head, when I was in college.”

Holten was an unhappy student of painting at the National College of Arts and Design when she first saw Long’s work, and it was his photograph of a line he had walked into the turf of a Wiltshire field which made her realise that she did not have to be “stuck indoors”, as she puts it, with an obligation to produce saleable canvases. Instead, she could go outside, engage with the physical world, and make her mark in a different way from anything she had previously thought possible.

HOLTEN WILL HAVE a new show in Dublin this month, her first solo show here since 2002, when she’ll present an installation as part of the Hugh Lane gallery’s Golden Bough series, curated by Michael Dempsey.

The project is still in progress, but she knows it will incorporate an idea drawn from astronomy. Breaking out of her usual palette of black and white, she’ll use the colour which has been named the average colour of the universe, a creamy beige shade dubbed Cosmic Latte, deduced in 2002 through a survey of the light in the universe. Though it sounds like an April Fool’s joke, it’s a real phenomenon, one which took a couple of tries to get right (Holten will also use Cosmic Turquoise, the colour first revealed by excited John Hopkins astronomers before they realised their calculations were a little off).

Cosmic Latte and four miles of talking Bronx trees may seem a long way apart, but not in Holten’s eyes. “I think a lot of the time an artist is understood as someone who does pretty much the same kind of thing, over and over, multiplied,” she says. “And to an outsider, all of the projects I do might seem totally disconnected. One minute I’m constructing a tree, and the next minute I’m going for a walk. Then I’m making a little animated drawing, and for the Dublin show I’m thinking about these colours, and about text, and about the idea of bubbles . . .

“But all of these things I’m trying to do are part of the same process, trying to solve the same problem, of how systems work, of how people connect to each other, and to things. And maybe it’ll never be solved, or just go around in circles, but I know that there are these questions. And I’m not worried about trying to fix the planet. I’m just looking at it. With optimism.”

Katie Holten: The Golden Bough, is at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, from Jan 28 to Apr 2