Baobab I (Three trees with shadows), 2001
|Photograph | B/w photograph on fiber paper|
|95 x 130 cm|
As with several of Tacita Dean’s works, the 16mm film Baobab (2002)—and the related photographs Baobab I and Baobab III (2001)—is the result of a serendipitous encounter. The artist was in Madagascar because she wanted to film a total solar eclipse (a project which became the work Diamond Ring, 2002). Here she became enchanted by the island’s gigantic Adansonia trees, commonly known as baobabs or monkey bread trees, six species of which are native to the country. “They are grand, and proud, and supremely special”, the artist has described, “merely stranded for an eternity, amongst the flies and the grass and the indifferent cattle.” (1) The film which followed is a formally precise compilation of black-and-white footage which encompasses abstract close-ups of the trees’ elephantine bark, their extraordinary forms silhouetted against the sky, and distant views of their sentinel-like presence on the African plain in a series of meditatively sparse static shots. A temporary counterpoint to the imposing stillness of the monstrous trees is provided by the movement and noise of the herd of cows which roams across the purview of the lens’ gaze.
The baobab is the subject of several anthropomorphic myths which attempt to account for its bizarre shape—its spectacularly bulbous trunk and root-like branches. Legends tell of a mischievous ancestor who is torn up and is condemned to grow upside-down, for example. Indeed, their forms seem to demand the assignment of human personalities: “they stand about, frozen in animated posture, hands on hips, arms to the sky, bending one closer to the other to hear its talk … they appeared lost from their prehistoric kinfolk, turned to a breathing stillness”, Dean has written. (2)
The artist has referred to the popular children’s novella Le Petit Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in which the baobab becomes implicated in a philosophical predicament which suggests a reflection on endurance, temporality, extinction and material obsolescence—themes which have long concerned Dean’s practice. In Saint-Exupéry’s allegory about humanity, the wisdom of youth and the folly of age, the tiny asteroid-planet inhabited by the little prince is populated by baobabs (“trees as big a castles”) which threaten to overwhelm it. The little prince must continually uproot small baobabs before they grow too large to be tackled: the tree becomes a metaphor for a problem which is best addressed at once, rather that left to take root.
In their consideration of the symbolic and structural qualities of trees, Dean’s Baobab works could be conceptually linked to Canadian artist Rodney Graham’s Oxfordshire Oaks (1990). Graham’s photographs, inverted views of isolated trees, similarly create a form of arboreal portraiture. Shots stand both as iconic optical images—something akin to an encyclopaedia illustration, a universal signifier of tree-ness—as well as character studies of personable individuals. Yet as Dean has described, she sees the oak and the baobab and distinctly different souls: “No two oaks look similar, but they become the same. Baobabs can never be swapped one for another. No, they are their own tree..” (3)
1. Tacita Dean, artist’s statement, Frith Street Gallery. 2. ibid. 3. ibid.