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Esther Shalev-Gerz is an installation artist who divides her time between Paris and a remote Canadian island. In the video below, we meet her near her studio overlooking a rugged cove on Cortes Island, British Columbia. On a walk through the forest, she takes us to the fallen giant that affirms the timeliness of her monumental new work, which will be inaugurated this week at a public event at UBC.
The Shadow, is a provocative meditation on trees. Its roots are entrenched in memory of the scale of the trees that once existed in the lands around the University of British Columbia and the vast changes that have taken place in a relatively short period of time. It is the portrait of the shadow of a tree, frozen in time, simultaneously absent and present. It will be inaugurated at the University of British Columbia next week.
The Shadow was commissioned with support from the Burrard Arts Foundation, Rick Erickson and Donna Partridge, Brigitte and Henning Freybe, Phil Lind, the Morris and Helen Belkin Foundation, the Rennie Foundation and UBC’s Matching Fund for Outdoor Art through Infrastructure Impact Charges.
The installation is placed in the brick laid Commons Plaza at UBC in front of the Nest. Strategically replacing 24,000 monochromatic pale beige bricks with different shades of black, the silhouette of a 100 metre long, 25 metre wide “first growth” Douglas fir tree stretches out, like a monumental symbolic mosaic earthwork.
Contemporary urgencies and memories led Shalev-Gerz to the creation of her newest public installation The Shadow, she said. “The Shadow presents an absence as a hovering memory beneath our feet and inside our minds. It summons the memories of those forgotten things that populate our collective and individual psyches. Losing touch with the materiality that created it, we are compelled to give it the meanings of that which we see instead of acknowledging the erasing or denial that caused it to disappear.”
The installation is located at one of the busiest spots on campus. Its massive size makes it inescapable. At 100m in length and 25m wide, it takes well over a minute to walk from end to end.
"The idea of what is unconscious or conscious in our memories is fascinating," Shalev-Gerz added, "because we don’t really know how that works. Did we really experience this memory, or did someone tell us a story that became our memory, or did we reinvent it? What is our memory really made of?”
Shalev-Gerz is no newcomer to British Columbia. She has been spending her summers on the island since the nineties. She was working at her studio on Cortes Island as wildfires were storming across B.C. and the west coast of North America, and, she reflected on how The Shadow "asks us to reflect on our relationship with nature and the construction of the history of the place."
"One of the interpretations of The Shadow is an invitation to imagine that the trees all over the world got together with the lightening and wind and started to burn all at once. Just to let us know what outcome to expect if we continue to ignore the consequences of the way we are living. In that sense my work is about an invitation to reconcile with nature," she said.
The video above was shot by Bill Weaver in August on Cortes Island at the peak of British Columbia's wildfires. It captures the artist as she reflects on her work and asks what a tree can teach.
The installation's opening moment will be on September 16 between 2-4 p.m. at UBC.
Video: Interview by Linda Solomon, shot by Bill Weaver. Drone footage by Hassan El-Sherbiny. Text: Michael Ruffolo.