‘The ghost of Prometheus: a long-gone tree and the artist who resurrected its memory’ by Carolina A Miranda

MY PICK FROM ART NETS TOP 10 LIST OF THE BEST ARTICLES OF 2015

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/best-art-essays-of-the-year-2015-393426

Who is Prometheus?

A Greek Titan , the creator and greatest benefactor of man (and women) kind. A poor sod who made the lousy choice of stealing fire from Mt Olympus. An action that turned Zeus so irate that the powerful sky god chained him to a rock so an eagle could peck away at his liver each day. Great for the potters who relished the delivery of fire, not so hot for Prometheus and his liver.

Long-gone tree? What is this talk of a long gone tree? Where has it gone and how did it get there?

The Bristlecone Pine used to be found on the Eastern fringes of the Great Basin (Eastern California). It was the oldest living thing on earth, having grown roughly for around 5000 years, that is before a sneaky wee scientist chainsawed it down in 1964 to take a look at its rings. The tree was called Prometheus and like its namesake it endured a torturous life as its roots became exposed and parts of the tree would die as other parts would go on living – “The trees,” muses Weiss, “are essentially dying their whole lives”

Who resurrected Prometheus’s memory ?

That would be an artist by the name of Jeff Weiss, as mentioned above. A man as passionate about trees as he is apathetic about the ‘relentlessly commercial art world’. Weiss, after 50 years of showing in galleries will not have a bar of them these days. This is one reasons this artwork ended up as a memorial in a national park, more about that soon……

How it all went down

In the beginning, a perceptive Weiss woke one morning with the instruction in his head – go to the Bristlecones – what did he stumble across when he got there? The sad tale of a tree , long gone, called Prometheus. This part of the story is particularly interesting to me as Weiss acts upon total intuition, a thought in his head.  So where did it come from? This spark, is it a memory of the Bristlecone sign he saw on the side of the road years before*- therefore does the theme of memory begin at this point? How does this memory all of a sudden become a strong and demanding thought years later? A thought that sets off a grand artwork. Where was this memory stored? Sub conscious? Is it coming from Weiss? Interesting how the author of this article, Carolina A. Miranda has used the word ghost in her title, humanising the tree and for me, in a strange way, giving it life, giving it a presence that a lump of dead wood would not have.

* (this tidbit about the sign came from the Weiss podcast interview I listened to http://www.theconversationpod.com  Ep#118 – an art podcast)

I understand this intuitive process as I regularly experience it upon waking, just this morning I woke with Judy Millars name strongly featuring in my mind – perhaps she was a part of a dream I had? it always intrigues me why only one word/name/sentence can stay with you.

For the next few years Weiss researched not only the facts about a bristlecone pine but also the story behind the trees demise. It is an archetypal tale of a hero, a tree and a trickster. Interestingly the intuitive theme plays out again as the first burly chainsaw guy (the hero) who was to destroy Prometheus got to the tree, he put his hand on it and then refused, not stating why just that it wasn’t right, didn’t feel right . Is the tree communicating with him?

‘ I have learned that energy flow exists between people and plants. It can be looked upon like a yarn weaving us into the web of life, a direct connection that exists between people who know plants and their characters and vice versa. Plants have people friends as people have plant friends. The flow is equally as strong from plants to people, yet much more subtle. We humans live in a realm a thousand times faster than plants and rarely do we slow down enough to hear them speak’ by Sparrow from the book The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner, 2002, Chelsea Greene Publishing, Vermont, USA

So…..Prometheus’s death was never reported and a clever cover up was formed, that is until Weiss came along.

The actual event:

1 – A group of artists, students and friends of Weiss’s drive 9 hours into the middle of nowhere to a hotel (Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall in downtown Ely). This group didn’t have a clue why they were there.

2 – In each guests hotel room was a snow globe that contained a copy of a Bristlecone Pine, an envelope with sightseeing plus dinner instructions and information about the memorial service the next day. Also details to tune into the local radio station on their way there.

3 – The following day as guest drove an hour to the venue, songs such as “Pine Tree’ by June Cash and Johnny Carter played on the radio.

4 – Upon arrival at the Great Basin National Park, guest were given headphones to listen to the recording of the memorial service (no public gatherings were permitted according to Park Rules)

5 – Symbolic watering of a Bristlecone Sapling.

Attending artist John Divola describes as “The whole piece – it’s not quite a performance, it’s not quite a sculpture, it’s not quite literature, it’s not quite any of those things,’ he says. “But it’s certainly poetic. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in anything quite like it”

Making memories

A tree records its own lifespan, more precise that human wrinkles, a trees rings will let you know exactly how old it is. In order to find out, it must die.

Miranda has written a very accessible article, a description that Weiss and others can file away as a memory keepsake and therefore she continues to help Weiss keep the memory of Prometheus alive. I recently asked my longtime suffering partner if he was scared of dying and maybe it’s a man thing but he said he was more scared of not leaving a legacy behind. Not leaving a memory.  He wants to leave as many physical structures he has built behind so his memory stays alive. Strangely enough I had never thought about it, I was too busy fearing the idea of an afterlife, or lack of one. In Weiss’s case he is creating a memory of a tree that no longer exists, that no one at the memorial service, including Weiss saw  – a memory of a  symbol:

The Tree of Life

Egyptian

The Tree of Life is an important symbol in nearly every culture. With its branches reaching into the sky, and roots deep in the earth, it dwells in three worlds- a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting above and below. It is both a feminine symbol, bearing sustenance, and a masculine, visibly phallic symbol- another union.

http://symboldictionary.net/?p=34

 

 

Weiss trained as a photographer, a memory maker. Photography can often be nostalgic, capturing moments to look back on that will often bring up an emotion. I find this work very nostalgic and Weiss has treated the subject like a favourite grandmother. He was unable to take a photo before the tree died as he could with an aging relative but he has created the equivalent by honoring Prometheus in a well thought out, precise event. He gave the spectators the opportunity to feel the emotion of looking back on a favourite photograph – Weiss has used many of the senses to create this effect – sound (emotional songs on the radio),  sight (going back to see Prometheus’s home), touch (the snowglobes – an object you physically interact with).

Weiss admires the Bristlecone trees tenacity, I admire Weiss’s tenacity  during this project. Listening to a more in depth version of the struggles with park authorities, Weiss’s honest approach wasn’t a gimmick to get attention in the art world, he really cares about trees.

For Weiss, this is not over, this was merely part one of an ongoing artwork – I look forward to reading about part 2.

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