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The Grotesque Trees of London and Banksy’s Graffiti Turning Into Urban Land Art

A couple of months ago, as I walked down John Islip Street, I stumbled upon a scene that made me forget about my plans for the day. It was the main street to the right of Tate Britain, which was supposed to be my destination, lined with the most grotesque trees. Their bare branches held up what one might imagine a tree would have as a hand. Add the London mist, the odd lack of any humans in sight, and the spooky whistle of the wind in your ear, and this was the exact scene where every British fantasy-mystery novel took place. Those trees, with no leaves and cartoony branches, looked like they could come to life at any minute and warn you to leave this place immediately. With wishful thinking, rather than naively, I believed these were some unique British trees hidden from the rest of the world—something that must have inspired Alice in Wonderland after all. To keep my romance alive, I did not do any Google searches, which in a few months emerged as a rightful justification for my pessimism and allure to delusion.

These trees, out of a Tim Burton movie, turned out to be as made up as a father who tells you to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. It is the result of a process called pollarding, which is excessive pruning. As far as my research shows, it is very overwhelming and requires lots of energy and perseverance, so know that your council works hard. The reason for this process is to maintain the health of trees and protect them against high winds and growing out of control. In the streets of London, it prevents them from affecting telephone lines and other infrastructures like street lighting, according to The Tree Feller.

I am not an expert at all to talk about pollarding and why it is needed, but I have read a few who are. To be the messenger of one, Peter Wohlleben, for I know, trees have a solidarity and protection system beyond our understanding. When they are together in a forest, they warn each other against threats, release chemicals that will knock the brains out of your most vicious war strategists to fight predators, and together, they can even manage the heat and humidity of their environment. While doing so, they also protect and nourish the ill and even the cut-down trees because they know they need every one of them. So united they stand indeed.

Now, back to our subject. One of those pollarded trees, a 50-year-old cherry tree, made its way into fame and sat on top of London’s agenda recently with Banksy’s latest mural. Banksy, in his mural, gives this bare tree back its green in the only way he can—being Banksy. Through his signature stencil figure of a woman painting the wall behind the tree, here our passivity and silhouettes of our losses are dripping from an Islington wall in bright green.

The work itself carries its message so beautifully and is now the strongest candidate to be the hallmark image of our environmental concerns. But it is the following incidents that gave this work a robust stance, even more than intended. I have always been an admirer of land art, as the very idea and nature of it, and what started to happen to this artwork within 48 hours of its appearance is just a "in your face" magic for me.

Land art, in its direct definition given by Tate, is an “art form that is made directly in the landscape either by sculpting the land itself or by making structures in the landscape.” There lies a great romance behind land art; whatever the artist starts, nature finishes. The artwork planted in nature is left there to be transformed, altered, and possibly demolished by nature’s own metaphysical rhythm. And that is exactly what happened to this graffiti which I now call urban land art, with one minor difference: it is not nature that is altering and completing the work, but our ways of society that stroke a brush. Within 48 hours of its appearance, Banksy’s mural was first defaced with white paint thrown onto its surface, then a metal fence was placed restricting access. This was followed by covering the work with plastic strapping and wooden stalls and surrounding it with more wooden boards. It seems these trees brought another narrative well-accompanying their Victorian Gothic look: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

In land art, where its journey is carried out by nature, we might have seen the artwork scattered, losing its shape, getting covered with moss, dust, or leaves, decaying over time, or maybe even getting eaten by an animal—anything that could happen in nature. And what happens to this mural? It experiences society’s journey of shaping up things: first, it gets attacked, then to be protected, it gets trapped and loses its appearance, connection, nature, and meaning. An artwork about our toll on nature is now covered with plastic; an ode to trees is now “protected” by cut-down trees…

An absolute grotesque nightmare of an urban tale.

You know, sometimes we say things like “if these trees could talk…”, I think they are talking very loudly.


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