notes_30 An Art of the Forest, Lockdown May 2020 #HeygateLegacy

Danh Vo, Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962–1973, 2010
Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nick Ash

London’s Urban Forest; an Art of the Ongoing

By Guy Mannes-Abbott 23 May 2020

It’s the third Urban Tree Festival in London and I’ve been asked to write about what it means to celebrate and make art from a tree or trees in the South London Gallery’s world [for* the SLG; thank you! LINK]. I take the latter territory to have been tagged by William Blake, long-term resident of Lambeth’s Hercules Road, between the dark satanic mills of endlessly churning capital at Blackfriars Bridge and trees on Peckham Rye which hosted the angels of his creative resilience.

What is a tree, though? It’s an ontological question I’d like to prune into handy shape so that we can attend to the intangible qualities which enliven and expand more recognisably concrete ones. The tree as a rooted object is a marvel, of course, but it is so much more than that on multiple ecological, political, and cultural registers; smells and ‘looks’, rhizomatic roots and crowns, as well as an embedded commons. London is now formally classified as a continuous urban forest, which adds another dimension to its ambient realms, remembrances of things past and unlikely future hopes.

My first association is with Danh Vo’s landmark survey exhibition at the SLG in September 2019, and the related show at Marian Goodman Gallery. Common to both was the timber from a plantation of Black Walnut trees gifted to Vo by Craig McNamara, son of Robert the gung-ho Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War. When Vo acquired some of the latter’s effects to work with, Craig made an approach which grew into one of Vo’s many miraculous friendships. Art critical responses to the work lingered on the woody odours in both galleries, and I remember a tangy encounter with a room dressed in walnut to display a collection of ambiguous photographs of Vietnamese men and boys.

Smell is a great evoker, not least of memories entangled in Vo’s highly collaborative assemblages. He stirs rather than constrains memories, which are personal, political, historical as well as ongoing in the case of the stench of coloniality. I’m stirred to recall a thirty-year-old encounter with a stump of basalt planted next to a tree on the approach to the DIA Foundation on 22nd Street, Manhattan, which extended Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Eichen/Oak Trees project into 1988 and 1996. The basalt ‘certified’ the tree as a work while the project began with 7000 exchangeable ‘tokens’ installed in Kassel for documenta7 (1982 ) where Beuys also planted the first of these trees.

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen/Oak Trees, 1982. © DACS, 2018

7000 Eichen/Oak Trees is a modestly scaled forest but a significant work which captures many intangible qualities generated by trees in their collectivity. London has approximately one tree for each of its nine million inhabitants but doesn’t feel like a forest to many. However, that suggests that we know what a forest does feel like. How do we celebrate each individual tree and the more galvanising qualities of an urban forest? I think we do it by opening ourselves to a consciousness of qualities which we feel but struggle to name.

I approach the Gallery-world through a newly redistributed forest which is a legacy of the Heygate Estate at the Elephant and Castle. When some 500 trees were threatened by a grid of new roads with ‘retail-clad podia’ during a notorious ‘regeneration’, myself and others valued the trees for their ‘public welfare’ values, ‘tangible and intangible benefits’ identified using a Forestry Commission mechanism. An imperfect but in this case radical tool which captured the commons value of the canopy, forcing developers to redraw their plans around the core of the forest and replace each one destroyed with four or five others in a then-unprecedented concession. The thousand resulting trees link from the River Thames to Burgess Park and out west to Kennington Common, with outliers reaching Peckham Road.

The expanded Heygate forest reaches to nearby John Ruskin Road and the heart of the Brandon Estate. Its redistributed commons enliven barren corners, connect canopy and roots systems, add biodiverse resilience as well as visual pleasures. It’s peculiarly appropriate that Kennington Common is lined with a significant number of these hard-fought-for trees. The Heygate has little of the scale of battles for Epping and Hainault Forests but engaged the same cultural, political and ecological values.

I approach one of the projects in the Gallery’s world; Heather and Ivan Morison’s Shadow Curriculum, which transformed a felled Douglas Fir with carved scales before promenading it from Highshore’s old school site to its new one abutting the Brandon Estate off Camberwell New Road, where it stands starkly sentinel. Its hand-worked scales are visible from Farmers Road and surely dwell in the children’s memory. However, the living trees in the forested interior of the Brandon Estate offer it fierce competition while enlivening a walk to weigh its memorial powers.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Shadow Curriculum in situ on Farmers Road. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott, 21 May 2020

I return towards Peckham Road and residues of Danh Vo’s Black Walnut timber in the SLG’s children’s Art Block on the Sceaux Gardens Estate ‘behind’ the gallery, all part of the Sceaux Gardens Conservation Area. I’m conscious, as I approach, of Southwark’s 35 existing Black Walnut trees, including one on Camberwell Green, but especially a handful in these gardens among the grand pollarded trees which shaped the estate’s development in the 1950s. The Black Walnut is a North American species, a plantation of which was grown to supply gun barrels when Craig McNamara bought his farm. Its husks are also ground down to clean jet engines, or used in dynamite.

Left: Danh Vo, untitled, 2019. Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Photo: Nick Ash

Right: Danh Vo, Aconitum souliei, Inflorescence portion / Lilium souliei, outer and inner tepel … 2009 (detail) and Danh Vo, 2.2.1861, 2009. Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nick Ash

Vo’s work has been described as Orientalist but I think it’s more entangled and entangling than that. I think of Heidegger’s description of the River Ister as a homely site and a journeying out, which reminds me in turn of Harry Thorne’s description of the way that works in Vo’s untitled exhibition ‘accrue meaning that will one day transfer to another. Collaboration, unnoticed, endlessly.’ This is exactly how London’s urban forest works.

Cameron Rowland concretises another intangible in his ICA show: 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73. He discovered that the mahogany handrail and grand gallery doors were ‘felled and milled by slaves in Jamaica, Barbados, and Honduras’. This mahogany is ‘one of the few commodities of the triangular trade that continues to generate value for those who currently own it.’ Rowland persuaded the ICA to sign an encumbrance mortgage which diminishes the Crown Estate’s asset-value while the mahogany remains in place. It’s a work of the utmost precision, a reminder that slavery is ongoing, the world it made unrepaired.

Black Walnut residual timber, Art Block. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott, 22 May 2020

Arriving at the SLG, I’ve reached Art Block where the store of Black Walnut has been left for further projects with the children of the estate. The smell hits me, conjuring frames and furniture from untitled; an artful ongoingness continuous with the urban forest and concentrated in individual Black Walnut trees in the immediate neighbourhood. A reminder that there are millions of occasions to celebrate London’s urban forest, but millions more needed for human life to continue on this precarious flood plain we call home.

Guy Mannes-Abbott is a London-based author whose work often performs in visual art contexts, including his highly acclaimed In Ramallah, Running (London, 2012), contributions to e-flux journal’s Supercommunity for Venice Biennale 2015 (Supercommunity, London/NYC, 2017) and Witte de With’s End Note(s) (Rotterdam/Hong Kong, 2015). He has collaborated with Bombay artists CAMP on The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories, a film for Folkestone Triennial 2011 and taught theory at the AA School of Architecture in London. Recent talks include Any Place for a Non-Violent Image, (Graz, Austria, 2018), Labouring To Port, Royal College of Art, (London, 2018), and Gertrude and Alice (Work & Play), Architectural Association, (London, 2016). Recent essays include ‘Utopian Dust Versus Perfumed Amplification in Future Imperfect’ (Berlin 2017), ‘Mud as Clear’ in WdW Review Vol.1 (Rotterdam, 2017), ‘The Art of Emily Jacir’ in Archival Dissonance (London, 2015), a short story in Drone Fiction (Dubai, 2013) and an Introduction to Mourid Barghouti’s Midnight and Other Poems (London, 2008). His critical journalism has appeared in The Independent, Guardian, New Statesman, Architectural Review, Bidoun and Third Text. He is a core member of the Gulf Labour Coalition.

note_18 On the work Abu Dhabi banned from Sharjah (Biennial) 2019? #DXB

Gold-tips in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina (GM-A, 2013)

Gold-tips in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina (GM-A, 2013).



Everything we know about ourselves and our various shared and not well-shared histories affirms that systems of hermetic control never work for long, that consolidation hastens collapse. The more autocratic the regime, the messier the collapse. I will leave all of that to time, which will operate unerringly.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate a simple truth, we are going to plant a forest in DXB’s Terminal 3. It’s easy. Those of us who know the place will return from various ports in carefully staged flights that betray no joint venture. We will all be either prevented from getting on a flight, stopped at and detained at DXB, or held in the Deportees Room for some hours. Two of us at least will get in—to the airport, not the country!—and overlap in the Room on ROLEX time. We will take our allotted hour to find food in the Terminal and head up to our Costa rendezvous. We will have seeds of trees with us. We will be carrying gorgeous presentation boxes of fertilised roals or figs, like the kind from Aliya Dates Farm that I recall from a leather-lined yacht in Abu Dhabi’s Palace Marina.

Gifts, you see. Gifts of the Rolla tree, the put-upon-banyans, these potent embodiments of hopes, wishes and dreams for change. Continue reading “note_18 On the work Abu Dhabi banned from Sharjah (Biennial) 2019? #DXB”

note_14 On reading Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy in DXB’s Deportees’ Room

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DUBAI INTERNATIONAL (DXB) Connecting the World

As Nocilla Lab, the third part of Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, I kick myself for not conjuring the time to review it or celebrate the Trilogy in critique. Also for not yet even trying to read Mallo’s more recent Trilogía de la guerra (Seix Barral, 2018) in its original, despite it appearing last summer. I’m buried, properly, in my own manuscript (RR) which is very close to completion. Horizons lift in 2019 and I will be writing shorter critical pieces, once more, amongst other things…

portada_trilogia-de-la-guerra_agustin-fernandez-mallo_201802071134Mallo’s Dream and Experience are as good as each other in the suggestive vitality of their fragmentary form. They possess rare degrees of necessity and are, in the best sense, a minor literature, which means that you’ve not been reading at all if you’ve not read them yet! Put aside the Jo(h)nathan-literature, knowing you’ll miss nothing if you return to it in the future. Nocilla Lab works towards graphic elements in my 2009 Punto de lecture edition, which I struggled to bring alive with my old (LA) Spanish…

I was (re-)reading Mallo en route to a Residency in Sharjah, January-February 2017, and resisting the serial, fragmentary, and fictive, as ways to make the book I would start writing when I returned home two months later (with further Porting residencies scheduled for Aug 2017 and Feb-Mar 2018). It was not that a series of fragmentary texts with rhythmic associations would not be a natural way for me to write my river (an actual river, more of which to come). Continue reading “note_14 On reading Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy in DXB’s Deportees’ Room”

note_04 “Mr Steinberg is mistaken.” Hannah Arendt: in witness time begins/ Per 1.1.-1.4

Screenshot 2018-03-03 18.08.22

“Harold, that girl in that office is nude!”

Another addition to Art_Work is ‘In witness time begins’ (plus footnoting pamphlets called Per 1.1-1.4) from A Thing at a Time at Witte de With April 2013. They emerged from an obsessive focus on a phrase coined by an Italian theorist (and/or his translator); “immobile anaphoric gesture”. But these texts are different from those I wrote a few years earlier using a Slovenian theorist’s phrase; “imbecilic contingent intrusion” in which I could materialise or exemplify what an ici would be (see Essential Things in Art_Work, for example, which exhibited Cerith Wyn Evans’ neon Lacanian loop between the ‘pages’ of my ici2, about Willie Lloyd Turner and his ‘smile’).

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Continue reading “note_04 “Mr Steinberg is mistaken.” Hannah Arendt: in witness time begins/ Per 1.1.-1.4″

note_02 Figuring Lesser Baghdadis (One to Seven) a “small collaboration” w Ala Younis 2015

TBA_2191_Panel small“One. Mickey Mouse is not one of the bronze figures that grace Jewad Salim’s “Nusub al-Hurriya” (Liberty Monument”, 1961) in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square…”

On the occasion of Ala’s first showing of her Plan for a Greater Baghdad (2015) at Delfina Foundation in London along with a new work; Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad (installation view above; photo Tim Bowditch, courtesy DF and Art Jameel), I should share this text of mine (below in page by page pdfs) since it is not yet re-published in book form. It was commissioned as an independent text and explicitly not as a critique of the work itself. This was not because a serious critical piece on the work would not be good to read or write but because I wanted to extend my e.things essay form and write more broadly about subjects that I had some intimacy with over many years.

Figuring Lesser Baghdadis (One to Seven) belonged with another such text from 2015, Labouring One to Seven (Island of Terror) produced for Venice Biennale and e-flux journal‘s brilliant SUPERCOMMUNITY project, now re-published by Verso with an Introduction by Antonio Negri. The latter was explicitly the model for the former. It was also a “small collaboration” to use Ala’s phrase when we discussed it in 2015. Continue reading “note_02 Figuring Lesser Baghdadis (One to Seven) a “small collaboration” w Ala Younis 2015″

on the first review of in ramallah, running in 2013 -artasiapacific’s almanac 2013


In Ramallah, Running in Almanac 2013 – article below

I will catch up on posting the wonderfully generous critical responses and cleverly probing interviews to and around In Ramallah, Running since its launch soon -and amongst other things.

ImageBut this one was a lovely welcome home to London after a month away in India: a sharp, perceptive and very gratifying response to my book and I have to post the review now!

That should not imply that others were not and will be, only that I have the time/opportunity today…

Almanac 2013 is worth tracking down in full and hard copy too by the way, meanwhile I attach clickable pages from the full article below: Continue reading “on the first review of in ramallah, running in 2013 -artasiapacific’s almanac 2013”

on celebrating the launch of in ramallah, running with a panel at the mosaic rooms 25th october

More details:

In Ramallah, Running began with a writer’s residency at A.M. Qattan’s Ramallah base in 2010, so it gives me great pleasure to invite you to this launch-related event at al Qattan’s elegant Mosaic Rooms in London, part of the Nour Festival.

Intended as a celebration, it will include a short reading followed by a discussion with the esteemed critic and introducer of the book Jean Fisher, and the Abraaj Prize-winning Jananne al-Ani, whose contribution to the book is so subtly affective. The panel will be chaired by writer and critic Sheyma Buali of Ibraaz, etc. [  ]

I hope you’ll be able to join us and am sure The Mosaic Rooms would appreciate it if you were also able to RSVP: / 020 7370 9990

For interviews, early reviews and further UK events, check here: