“For me, the Natural History Museum is like a vast encyclopedia of the natural world that you can walk around in. My practice is sculpture-based, and various objects in the museum have been a repeated reference for me: like the enormous meteorite or the petrified tree stump. TREE will take its place as a slice of another real thing inserted into the collection.
I have thought a lot about Darwin’s sketch of a tree-like form he made when he began to conceptualise his theory of evolution. The idea for TREE emerged after spending time in the beech forests of Patagonia. I see the work more about the endurance of the tree than its fragility. It symbolises both connectivity and dispersal. The actual tree came from sustainable woodland on the Longleat estate where good woodland management has been in place for centuries. I worked with forestry people there to find a tree at the end of its working life, and we have planted 200 oaks throughout the estate as gesture to the future. It’s a loaded and emotive issue, cutting down a tree, but sometimes I think people forget where their kitchen table or floorboards come from.
After finding the tree, it was felled and the root excavated. The root alone weighed over 22 tons and took a lot of work to clean up. There was a complex mapping and numbering of each piece as it was taken apart and put through the timber-making process: planked and sawn up. All this material was turned back into a tree, matched together and pared down to a thickness of about 4mm. I am turning a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional version of itself: asking the tree to draw itself.
The wafer-thin, longitudinal section of the structure, like a vast botanical specimen, is to be inserted into the museum’s ceiling. Inspired in part by the building’s Victorian architecture, teeming with animal and plant sculptures, TREE symbolises how we organise and disseminate scientific and cultural thinking.
I am making an earthworm-related piece for Baltic, Gateshead, in a Darwin-inspired show in April. In the autumn, a show for doggerfisher, Edinburgh will be based on drawings. I’ll be ready for that work to come out of a period of slightly more managable and private activity!”TREE, Natural History Museum, on view from 20 March