THE Q&A: ANGELA PALMER, ARTIST

Angela Palmer  Ghost ForestA verdant forest is more beautiful than a razed wasteland; a tree grander than a stump. But in a certain context, the gnarled nether roots of an exposed stump can impress too. They convey a message of time and patient growth, and lend a sense of the towering giants that once stood on these empty pedestals. They are poignant reminders of something that once thrived and is now gone.

In seeking to bring awareness to the cause of deforestation,

Angela Palmer, a journalist-turned-artist, has brought stumps from destroyed rainforests to Europe. Called "Ghost Forest", the installation features ten stumps (seven different species) from a commercially logged rainforest in Ghana, Western Africa. Ms Palmer has displayed these massive natural sculptures in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2009 and then at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. The trees are now on the lawn in front of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where they will remain until July 31st.  

These stumps have come a long way, but they tell a story better than any article or painting. Ghana has lost 90% of its primary forest over the last 50 years. Ms Palmer hopes that by transporting this group 3,000 miles, she can convince people to save the rest.  

Why do you lay the stumps on their sides instead of upright?  

I originally wanted to display the trees upright, but when I saw their exposed roots at Tilbury Docks [in London]—having been cleaned by the Takoradi Fire Brigade back at the port in Ghana—I thought they looked like the nerve endings of the planet and really wished others to see them. I don't imagine anyone in the West has ever seen rainforest roots. Also the trees were found lying on their sides in the forest so in effect they were simply transplanted, almost untouched, from wild African virgin forest to the intense metropolis of the West. 

"Ghost Forest" aims to increase awareness of deforestation and its impact on climate change. Aren't there less arduous ways of doing this than hauling massive stumps all the way from Ghana to Europe?

I guess I wanted maximum impact, even if the logistics almost drove me (and my long-suffering family) to an early grave. I reckoned that very few people in the West have ever seen a primary rainforest tree and I wanted to confront people with the real thing. During the planning, someone suggested I should make the trees out of papier-mache instead, but I didn't want to create some Disney stage-set. Also, "Ghost Forest" is first and foremost an art installation; the natural beauty of these huge trees is key. I wanted to bring the raw ingredients to the table. People are then free to use their own minds and imagination to do with them as they will. 

The stumps, and particularly the intricate root systems, are indeed quite beautiful. How did you choose them?  

I found the huge great Denya [a species] lying by the roadside deep in the forest. Its root ball spanned nearly 30 feet. I knew immediately that if I could somehow haul this magnificent great beast to the feet of Nelson's Column in London it would be electrifying. I thought the roots looked like the nerve endings of the planet and if we could preserve them intact, all the way to Europe, then this would be a powerful symbol for man's wholesale destruction of our precious resources.  

Ghost ForestSo none of them were cut down? And were you worried about the carbon footprint from moving those trees to London?  

Seven were naturally fallen and three are buttresses from trees that had already been commercially logged. The carbon footprint of the project was of course uppermost in my mind, but I thought its impact would outweigh the 'spend'. Looking back, I think it was more than justified. According to one media report, over 173m people saw or heard about the "Ghost Forest" installation between November 1st and 23rd last year, and over a million people will see it in Oxford. We offset the project’s carbon footprint by investing in more energy efficient stoves for Ghanaian households, which in turn leads to fewer trees being needed for fuel.  

Being honest, Oxford seems a bit of a step down in terms of exposure. What do you hope to accomplish by having the Ghost Forest here for an entire year?  

The trees were only in Trafalgar Square for a week so the exposure would have mostly been through the media. The key in Oxford is that people can experience the trees first hand: see them, touch them, smell them. The brutal juxtaposition of the raw beauty of the trees with the urban man-made setting is crucial for impact, and it does seem to be disrupting peoples' senses. An estimate that one million will see the trees in Oxford is probably way too low: Oxford attracts 9.3m tourists a year, and besides its own population there are 43,000 students in Oxford—and these are the important guys as they'll be running the country in a few years. In fact the trees have become a new meeting place in Oxford, so maybe debate is sparked below the roots. I'm also inviting every school-child in Oxford—101,000 of them—to come and literally touch the rainforest. It's part of a six-month programme I've devised from next February to coincide with the UN International Year of Forests 2011. 

How would you like the narrative of the "Ghost Forest" to continue?  

I'd like the trees to continue as 'ambassadors' for rainforests throughout the world. I've had approaches from Federation Square in Australia and an organisation which wanted them in the Mall in Washington. Our Man in Japan thought they should go to Tokyo. Nick Clegg wanted one in the centre of Sheffield, his constituency, and the rest in other cities. They create by far the greatest impact in a city centre. But it's all down to raising funds. I'm currently approaching 'green' sponsors and donors to fund the project up to the end of July, and I'm offering an incredibly attractive package in return. I know it's a tough period, but the trees symbolise one of the most critical issues facing us today. When he was the Government's Chief Scientific Officer, Sir David King said climate change is a greater threat to humanity than terrorism. I think experiencing these mighty trees, which have been dragged from their forest home thousands of miles away, helps people absorb the enormity and urgency of the problem. When rainforests are gone, they are gone, and this is happening on our watch. I think our children will have every right to confront our generation and say 'you knew but you did nothing.' 

Ghost ForestThe trees come from Ghana, a country trying to get a grip on the rapid deforestation of the last few decades. Perhaps they want to do something with the trees?  

Absolutely. In the last decade [Ghana] has embraced responsible forestry, not through altruism but hard-headed, long-term economics: Ghana needs its timber industry. It's now become a model for other developing countries whose virgin forests are being eyed by predators, particularly Asian ones. The "Ghost Forest" installation had the blessing of the Ghanaian authorities, who could see its underlying message of hope and optimism. One idea is that I return the trees, literally to their roots, down through the Greenwich Meridian Line, which runs directly south from Greenwich to Ghana. The 3,000-mile route would take the trees through France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso and back to their home in Ghana. The trees would be transported like stately ambassadors, spreading the message of the importance of rainforests as they progressed. But this is a dream at the moment—I'd need to raise a huge amount to fund it.  

What else are you working on now?  

I'm currently inviting 'green' corporations to sponsor the project—I've put together a hugely attractive package in return, but it's tough. I sometimes wish artists had patrons, Renaissance-style. If I can't raise the requisite funds I shall offer the trees for sale. But I'd desperately like them to stay together as a group; they're like orphans who've come so far and done so much.

"Ghost Forest" is at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

~ ALEXANDER EWING

Picture Credit: Sue Macpherson