When Osaka-born artist Shinji Turner-Yamamoto stepped into the abandoned 1895 Holy Cross Church in Cincinnati, he got goose bumps. He knew that it was there, among the crumbling plaster and peeling paint, that he would create his next art installation.
“Hanging Garden,” as seen in the slideshow below, is one of 11 site-specific art installations that make up Turner-Yamamoto’s Global Tree Project. Other installations have been created at the Sutra Hall of the 8th-century Kiyomizu Temple, a garden in New Delhi, the Mongolian Gobi Desert, and a ruined folly on a cliff overlooking the Celtic Sea.
While he seeks to forge connections between his viewers and the natural world, in the case of “Hanging Garden,” he also created a striking connection with a historic building. We talked with Turner-Yamamoto, who now splits his time between Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., to find out why he was drawn to the church, what he hopes to inspire in viewers, and why he considers it important to save historic places.
(Please note that no trees were harmed or killed in the installation of this work.)
Tell us about the Global Tree Project. How did you come up with the idea? And what do you hope your installations inspire in viewers?
The Global Tree Project began when I encountered a large uprooted oak in a forest. It lay as if sleeping on a gently sloping grass-covered hill. When I returned a few days later, the tree had disappeared. In place of its roots remained a scar, a mound of raw earth. I envisioned a new tree growing on this mound.
Like Inanna-Ishtar, goddess of Sumerian myth, I wanted to pluck this uprooted tree and bring it to my sacred garden. I wanted the tree to lie and sleep, envisioning a new world like the dream of the world that emerges from the Indian god Vishnu's navel in the form of a lotus flower. … In my Global Tree Project, I try to heal our wound from this separation, and reopen our connection with trees to be whole, and to have a new vision through them.
With site-specific installations, sculptures, and paintings I work with this universal and identifiable tree/nature imagery to encourage audiences to encounter and engage aspects of nature in a new way. The work explores a poetic reunion with nature, making visible connections and similarities between plant life and humanity, emphasizing ecological wisdom and the interconnectedness of all life. They illuminate our mutual destiny and the precarious beauty of this relationship.
I completed the first installation in Ireland in 2000, the second in 2003 in India. The project grew gradually and I began using “Global Tree Project” as the series title around 2005.
How do you choose locations to create your installations? What draws you to a place like Holy Cross Church?
Each project has a different story, and some projects’ locations were partly suggested by organizers or curators, as in the case of the Gobi Desert installations. I welcome suggestions and proposals from prospective venues.
In the case of the Holy Cross Church installation, it began when I saw a picture of the interior of the church at the Mount Adams home of gallerist Mary Baskett, and learned the church was a five-minute walk away. She knew the owner of the building and set a meeting.
When I first walked in the church I literally got gooseflesh. The interior was so unexpected. I walked into a ruin, and there was the incredible surprise of finding something like this in the States, not in the Italian countryside. I couldn’t imagine it from the well-maintained façade -- just ordinary brick, clean and freshly pointed, and the new roof. The ceiling is stripped bare to the rafters; there is missing plaster, the wall is bare down to the wood lathe in places. What paint is left is scaling. The place was filled with office equipment, a chaotic assortment of things. It was so surprising.
I felt the building was dying, not only physically, but spiritually. I needed to see new life in this decaying church. I envisioned a live tree supported by a large inverted dead tree at the heart of the church. The root system of the uprooted tree held the soil necessary to support the live tree, creating a suspended garden oriented as a sort of tower or cross at the church’s center.
It was an extremely unique and fortunate situation for me. It was a safely accessible ruin, which is actually very rare. Since the owner used the space as storage space, they performed minimum maintenance, which actually allowed the building to retain the patina of time. There were still some unsafe areas for the public -- like near the wall where plaster fragments still occasionally fall and several rotted areas of the floor, which we cordoned off.
The history of the site also provided inspiration. The site for Holy Cross Church and Monastery was originally occupied by the Cincinnati Observatory. The place had long been a place where humanity could connect with the heavens, first through astronomy, and later through religious belief. The current building was built by Passionist priests in 1895 and [closed] in the 1970s.
The journey that began with looking for a dead tree for the installation culminated two years later, when a live white birch tree was installed on top of an inverted dead white birch.
How long was your installation at Holy Cross Church on view? And what happened to the tree?
It was open to public for three weeks, which was the maximum time my arboricultural advisor Tim Back allowed. The live tree was treated with an organic compound that induced a state of dormancy so it could stay alive in this unusual situation.
After the exhibition, the dead tree’s roots, multiple trunks, and branches were transformed into new works by Art Academy of Cincinnati sculpture students. The live tree was immediately replanted beside the church.
I always think about completing cycles in my work. I visited the replanted birch beside the church in December and April. The photographs of the tree with snow then in spring with new leaves growing, are included in my first monograph, which was recently published.
How do you think your installation at Holy Cross Church celebrated, or even helped, the space?
The work definitely drew public attention [to the site]. Images of my installation helped persuade Doug and Mike Starn to install their Gravity of Light installation in the church for FOTOFOCUS 2012. I hope the church continues to inspire artists to create site-specific work that speaks to its legacy.
Do you have any other projects in the works that will explore historic places? Is the idea of celebrating historic structures something that interests you?
Currently I am working with lightning-struck tree imagery with three lightning-struck trees I found in 2011 at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest [established in 1929] in Clermont, K.Y.
The creation of site-specific installations for historic structures is a very important part of my artistic practice, and separate from the more hermetic process of painting in my studio. I am extremely drawn to the creative process that develops through a sort of visual and intellectual conversation with space. I consider the creation of work as an artistic ritual.
What do you think historic architecture can teach about a community or a culture?
Historic architecture possesses the potential to be a catalyst for connection through their nearly enigmatic presence and the access point they afford us to our collective past. During the Holy Cross Church exhibition, I was fortunate to meet several people who had grown up in this church or were married there. These visual records and memories are extremely important and help define us as a culture.
For more information, visit Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s Global Tree Project website or browse the monograph of his work, Shinji Turner-Yamamoto: Global Tree Project, published last September by Italian publishing house Damiani.