Olga Kisseleva's art exhibition Trees Talking combines art and science

“Trees speak the same language,” she notes, “which is different from humans.”

Olga Kisseleva art exhibition Trees talking at Negev Art Museum (photo credit: MAYA OFFENHEIM)
Olga Kisseleva art exhibition Trees talking at Negev Art Museum
(photo credit: MAYA OFFENHEIM)
Anyone who has read Shel Silverstein’s timeless 1964 book The Giving Tree will identify with the sentiment behind “Listening to Trees across the Jordan River: Olga Kisseleva – Between Art and Science.” The exhibition-installation, which is currently on show at the Negev Museum of Art in Beersheba, and is due to run through to March 28, has much in common with the moral conveyed in Silverstein’s adorable “children’s” story.
If you are one of the few yet to lay your hands on the book, the storyline follows the life continuum of an insouciant infant through to old age, and the relationship between him and his ever-faithful arboreal pal. Simmering just below the narrative surface are clear messages of friendship, the need to be attentive to environmental equilibrium, and even the idea of lines of communication between humans and trees.
The second and third concepts are very present in Kisseleva’s work, as inferred by the exhibition title. The name also references regional political undertones, and Mother Nature’s total disregard for man-made national demarcation contours.
“Trees speak the same language,” she notes, “which is different from humans.”
The cross-border trees in question are both of the balm variety and have a strong, millennia-long presence in this part of the world, including during the biblical era. One is the Balm of Gilead, aka Commiphora gileadensis, associated with the Biblical afarsimon tree that grew in the Dead Sea region until about 1,500 years ago. The latter should not be confused with the modern-day persimmon fruit, which is called afarsimon in Hebrew. The essential oils extracted from the tree had great regional market value and, by all accounts, balsam is a most flexible substance. It was used for anointing the kings of Judah, with Rav Yehudah Bar Ezekiel, a second-generation Talmudic amorah, even devising a special blessing for its use. Balsam is also said to have been employed in a romantic context, with young women using it to seduce young men.
Meanwhile, the Christians used it, mixed with olive oil, in the rite of confirmation, while Arab tradition holds that balsam originally made its way from Yemen by the Queen of Sheba, as a gift to King Solomon. It is said that it was subsequently taken to Egypt by Cleopatra, and planted at Ein-Shemesh near Cairo.
Kisseleva was drawn to the genus due to its long tenure here, and because of its “relative” not too far away over on the Jordanian side of the border, a myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrah), also known as Mecca myrrh, which used to grow in the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia, spreading to the southern part of the trans-Jordan. The trees are located close to the Nabatean Spice Trail, with the ancient people operating camel convoys as they transported precious spices and oils across the Middle East, and also to ports from where they were exported to European markets, where they fetched high prices.
Therein lies the kernel of Kisseleva’s intriguing approach to the means of communication used by trees belonging to the same family, and growing in the same leafy neighborhood.
Tree huggers may believe they can sense the thoughts and emotions exuded by trunks, roots and branches, but Kisseleva prefers a more technologically quantifiable method of tracking “tree language.” The confluence between art and science lies at the core of the Negev Museum showing, as advances in science and technology have created opportunities for new encounters. Artists increasingly include computers, telecommunications and new media, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and research, in their creative processes, while scientists and technology specialists embrace historical, cultural and social knowledge. Kisseleva’s works feed off synergies with experts in many disciplines, and she engages in video, immersive virtual reality, the Web, wireless technology, performance, large-scale art installations and interactive exhibitions.
Kisseleva hails from St. Petersburg, Russia, and is a longtime resident of Paris, and founded the first science- and arts- based program at the Art Department of the Sorbonne University, in Paris, in 1999. The Art & Science Laboratory there has grown under her direction, offering full partnership to scholars from the humanities and the exact sciences.
The exhibition at the Negev Museum of Art forms part of an international ecological project that began in 2012 under the title of EDEN (Ethics, Durability, Ecology, Nature). The acronymic title suits on various fronts. The capitalized component fields explain the thinking behind the venture and, of course, there is the eminently appropriate biblical reference to the primordial paradise.
The project is based on the idea of continuing the restoration of the enchanted gardens of Eden and mythological Arcadia. That seemingly fanciful notion takes pragmatic form as a concerted effort to restore extinct plant species and prevent the loss of endangered ones.
That mind-set is central to the Ghost Forest installation, which is dedicated to the recreation of an extinct cultivar of the date palm. We see the waving shadows of branches of the reconstructed tree, a unique palm tree nicknamed “Methuselah” by the Israeli scientists, referencing the longest living biblical character. The tree was lovingly nurtured from a 2,000-year-old seed discovered in the ruins of Masada, and is now thriving thanks to the efforts of biologist Elaine Solowey, from Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava. Similar work is being carried out in collaboration with botanists and geneticists in various countries, with plants currently being revived in France, Chile, China and Kazakhstan as well.
RETURNING TO the arboreal communication facility, following studies that have pointed to the ability of plants to communicate among themselves, Kisseleva examines the notion of listening to the inter-tree conversation, and perhaps even participating in it.
“Trees pass on messages to their neighbors even if they are not from the same family,” notes curator Dalia Manor. “The information that is transmitted is not entirely dependent on the precise genetics of the species – you know, corn only talks to corn, and doesn’t talk to wheat. That’s not the case.”
That, she says, happens, for example, if a tree is dying from a disease. Its nearest neighbor will take that information on board and pass it on to the next tree, and so on.
“Within a certain period of time, the tree furthest away will also know there is a sick tree, and they will take evasive action.”
That, Manor explains, can involve the trees physically shrinking and withdrawing into themselves, to ensure they reduce the chances of contracting disease.
That is a fascinating notion to consider as you walk around the Beersheba exhibition, with its large-screen video clips of vegetation, and even actual trees, which are tended by the museum staff.
There are other subtexts to “Listening to Trees Across the Jordan River,” and it seems we have much to learn from the plants around us. For starters, we simply could not survive without the air filtering service provided by foliage, and we could also take our lead from trees on an interpersonal front, too, and without the aid of social media.
“If there is a sick tree, and the trees communicate that, other vegetation will also get that. They don’t have to be of the same kind in order to be included in the social communication network,” Manor explains.
The exhibition also conveys the value of patience in an era of technology-assisted instantaneous gratification. The centerpiece of the main display area on the upper level comprises small golden objects made from casts taken from olive pips and various seeds that hail from a bygone era.
Perhaps, if we take a more long-haul approach to the world and the delicate ecosystems around us we might become more alert to the ecological holocaust that is happening, with alarming gathering speed, on Mother Earth, and actually do something about. We might, for example, be moved to consider taking plastic or reusable bags with us to the grocer’s or supermarket, and foregoing the use of disposable plastic cups, plates and cutlery.
Now there’s a green, tree-friendly thought.
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