Exhibition unearths silent witnesses to history

From the iconic Australian gum to the introduced jacaranda, the trees that characterise the landscape around us have often witnessed more history than we could ever imagine.

A ‘one-day-only’ exhibition today (January 31) at the Museum of Economic Botany will explore this concept of trees as record-holders of history, when students from the University of South Australia and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) present their creative interpretation of living trees in Adelaide and the history they’ve seen.

The exhibition is a product of the Witness Tree Project, developed in the United States 11 years ago as an immersive course for students which combines the disciplines of furniture design, history and social sciences and ran in Australia for the first time this month.

Peter Walker from UniSA’s School of Art, Architecture and Design says the project is about the historic exploration of living trees and what key events, trends, and socio-cultural developments they have witnessed.

“Students from a wide range of disciplines participate in a joint history seminar and creative studio focusing on history, place and public memory. What results from this exploration is new cultural perspectives unique to our history,” he says.

“For example, when European settlers arrived in the area that is now Adelaide, Australia, home to the Kaurna Aboriginal nation, they brought with them ideas about the environment that literally altered the landscape and the fate of the Kaurna people and culture.”

The project focuses on selected trees of South Australia located in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, from the ancient red gum used by Aboriginals for canoes, bowls, medicine, and marking to the English oak and other non-native species introduced by settlers to shape the controlled aesthetic of Adelaide’s many parks and gardens.

Through research, field work, and the making of artefacts, students have created objects for the exhibition that examine the changing indigenous and settler conceptions of the environment, historical dialogues about land, and competing ideologies of place, borders, roots, and movement.

One of the 20 students taking part is Jasmine Gutbrod, a Furniture Design major from RISD. She says the study of living trees has been “eye-opening” in her understanding of Australian history, particularly in relation to conflict between European settlers and the Aboriginal population.

“What this project revealed is that trees in the Adelaide area can be used as a record of history and European invasion,” she says.

“In Adelaide you have native species and then the species that are located in places like the Botanic Gardens, for example, which are from all around the world, representing this European, Victorian-era obsession with collection and exploitation of exotic goods.”

Jasmine’s contribution to the exhibition is created from printing with seed pods from a variety of tree species including sheoak pods, banksia pods and gumnuts. By using them as drawing tools she hopes to provide new ways to look at ecology and plant species and a different way of recording information about them.

The Witness Tree Project is the brainchild of Dale Broholm and Daniel Cavicchi from RISD. Broholm says the Australian version has expanded on the original concept, where RISD works with the United States’ National Park Service on a single fallen tree, which has been identified as significant because of its presence at key moments in American history.

“It’s an experiment that’s working out. For our first Australian adaptation, we decided to centre it around various different trees as living artefacts and what they have witnessed in the events of South Australia,” he says.

All objects at the exhibition are informed by the study of the living witness trees in Adelaide but the creations on display will vary widely, from animation and soundscapes, through to prints and bronze jewellery.

The Witness Tree Project exhibition is open to the public today from 10am to 4pm at the Museum of Economic Botany located in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

/UniSA Release. View in full here.