Water retaining gel crystals – art material

The research focus of this project changed after the demise of the two majestic Oregon Maples in Library Square. Where the heartwood (the innermost part of the tree trunk) should have held up to about 80% water after testing the water content was estimated to be nearer 50%.

And so my artistic research expanded from the strength and stability of the trees, which was the primary focus for the Oregon Maple artwork for Trinity College 2017 exhibition. The 2017 piece focused on the cable bracing system and the internal cellular structure of the tree. The final artworks likened tendon-like structures using the lines of the cable system stretching between various limbs of one of the Oregon Maples.

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Back to the 2018/19 project. Since the two older trees fell I have been focusing my art research on water. Having used water retaining gel in past artworks I again began to look at this interesting material as a suitable one for inclusion in the 2019 exhibition.

Normally this material is added to the soil around plants and trees during spells of dry weather. It comes in crystal format and after adding water it can expand and hold over 300/400 times its weight in water. Over time the gel loses this water gradually (watering the plants in the process) until all the water is gone and it again returns to it’s crystal form…until it rains again and the gel swells with water again. This process can be repeated numerous times. Manufacturers claim that these gels work for about three years.

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In actual fact David Hackett during one of our meeting mentioned that this material might be one that they might need to consider going forward to ensure constant watering of trees during periods of low rainwater. He suggested that they would add the water retaining gel to the soil around targeted trees and that then they would add grey water (collected rain water run off from the buildings on campus) to the gel from time to time as necessary.

In the past I have incorporated water retaining gel into some of my indoor installations, subverting it’s purpose to suit a new function. I was particularly interested in how the engorged gel looked almost like chunks of glass yet also managed to be very visceral in how it felt and sounded when squished.

In one particular instance during 2011 for a group exhibition I constructed a raised walkway in a small intimate room in an abandoned building on Francis Street, Dublin 2. I covered this walkway in expanded water retaining gel and then walked really really slowly along its surface during a live performance. The audience were seated, their eye level at my foot height, the sight and sounds accentuated by their closeness and the intimate nature of the room.

For the purpose of the Trinity College Trees 2019 exhibition I will be using this material much more as it was intended to be used. It will form a large part of the opening live art performance and will remain as part of an outdoor installation throughout the duration of the exhibition.

I can’t say much more for now, but I will post images of the performance afterwards for those of you who won’t be able to be at the live event.

TCD search for replacements for fallen Oregon Maples

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During a recent computer search I came across this article written by Peter Kelly of Trinity News.  I thought it would be interesting to share it with you all.  I have included a few images that I thought might be relevant to the article. 

Trinity has begun its search for new Library Square trees to replace the Oregon maples previously in Library Square, according to Estates and Facilities. College hopes that any new tree will last for 100 to 150 years, and “look good too in that space over that time”.

The search for new trees comes in the wake of Library Square’s Oregon maple tree unexpectedly falling down earlier this summer. A second Oregon maple was removed shortly afterwards due to fears of it also falling.

Speaking to Trinity News, a spokesperson for Estates and Facilities explained that Trinity is “at the start of trying to look for replacements for the fallen trees”. It is currently unclear how long this process will take.

The first step in replacing the trees is to survey the underground area at the site of the fallen trees. According to Estates and Facilities, this investigation is taking place through the use of “ground penetrating radar”.

Estates and Facilities are considering the potential impact of climate change on any new trees, noting that they “needed to consider whether replanting with the same species as fell down (Oregon Maples) is the best choice or not as Dublin may become unsuitable as a habitat for that species”.

Should College decide to plant new Oregon maples, Estates and Facilities told Trinity News that they currently have a few small seedlings of the maples growing which may be suitable for use.

Following the collapse of College’s famous Oregon maple earlier this summer, College made the decision to cut down the second tree over fears of another collapse.

Speaking to Trinity News, Trinity’s Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Taylor explained that internal scanning of the trees a few weeks prior to the initial fall had revealed one of the trees “was getting hollow quite quickly.”

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The science of this is that basically a tree will fall if the stress in the wood gets too high, so the wood breaks,” Taylor explained. “That can happen to a normal tree if there’s a very bad storm, but if the wood in the tree is gradually getting weaker then you can reach a point where even a mild storm, or even just the weight of the tree itself, can be enough to cause the wood to fail and bring the whole thing down.”

Belated farewell to 170 year old Maple

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Image taken of the Oregon Maple

One of the oldest trees in Trinity College Dublin collapsed early on the 2nd of June 2018.

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The large Oregon Maple was and it’s sister tree opposite is one of the largest specimens of Oregon Maples to be found in Ireland or Britain. Both Maples graced the front square in Trinity College Dublin since the 1840’s.

In 2017 this tree was one of eight that were chosen to be investigated by the Trinity College Trees Team. The Oregon Maple not only formed part of the subsequent exhibition in October 2017 but was the subject matter of my performance during the exhibition opening night, which also formed part of the TCD and Science Gallery organised PROBE event.

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Images taken during the installation of the Oregon Maple artwork, part of the Trinity College Trees Exhibition October 2017.

I was informed of the demise of the Maple beside the Henry Moore sculpture while boarding a plane to South Africa via London. There was scant information at this point as to why this tree had fallen that night. Both trees had weathered Ireland’s recent storm Emma and hurricane Ophelia in 2017.

In fact there were numerous ongoing tests and safety assessments done by the diligent grounds staff and specialist contractors to asses both trees’ viability, the most recent taken about two months prior to the tree collapse. The surveys did show that both trees were diseased, the one that still stands more so than the one that fell. The tree experts estimated that the tree would definitely not be around in forty years time and regular testing of the trees was recommended.

It was a shock to all students, staff and the general public when the news of the tree’s collapse became known to all. None more to me as I boarded numerous planes to South Africa only returning a week ago. Numerous times I thought and spoke of the fallen tree to my family. I felt a deep sadness that such a majestic enormous seemingly invincible tree had collapsed under it’s own weight.

As I was incommunicado for such a long time I was unable to visit Trinity College until the middle of last week. I heard there had been a huge outpouring on social media and I visited the twitter page, which was alight for days after the collapse with numerous comments of sadness, many past students, staff and the general public sharing photographs and memories relating to the tree. Numerous articles also appeared online and in the newspapers.

During my visit to Trinity College last week it really brought it home to me how huge this tree was and the enormity of the empty void where the tree had stood for so long. See below an image of the tree stump surrounded by patchy damaged grass. In the background it’s sister tree stands alone now. All are aware that this tree is now in a very precarious position, especially due to Ireland’s ongoing drought making the less flexible due to a low water content. I decided to take a photo of the remaining Oregon Maple as I know a decision on it’s fate will be taken soon.

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As to the future direction of the 2018 Trinity College Trees project who’s focus is solely on these two Oregon Maples it is a little up in the air at the moment. The scientific and artistic premises for the project still remain valid but the resultant artwork concepts must now be revisited, revised and be flexible enough to respond to the fragility and shifting nature of the stories of these two trees and their place in this world.

Installed artworks: Day 1 – The Oregon Maple

The Oregon Maple was the most difficult piece to install.  See images above of both David Hackett and I in a Cherry Picker in the middle of the Oregon Maple tree about nine meters from the ground. We had to organise the Cherry Picker twice, once to reach the highest ‘tendon’ and the second time for the lower two. Of course we will also have to book it one final time to deinstall the pieces on the 29th of October.

Images below are photographs taken of the Oregon Maple artwork fully installed during the first week of the exhibition.

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The images below were take of the Oregon Maple artwork two weeks into the exhibition but before ex Hurricane Ophelia struck Ireland.

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I am glad to say the artwork survived the strong winds largely because of the stretchy nature of the fabric. I will post more images of how the artwork looks post Ophelia before the exhibition ends on October 29th.

Click on the following link to see the information, map and images that are to be found on the stand in front of the Oregon Maple.  Click here to see the Oregon Maple stand information

Installing in the Oregon Maple, part 2

We decided to install and leave the highest ‘tendon’ in place even though the exhibition is not due to open to the public until Friday the 29th. It would have been too difficult to get back to the same height again. I had decided on mirroring two metal wires, which ran more or less parallel to each other near the topmost branches of the tree.

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See image of the end points of the chosen pair of cables where they are fixed to the tree.

David positioned us and we began cutting, stretching and cable tying the beginning of the length of fabric between the two wires. We continued cable tying the fabric along the length of the wires until the distance between them became impossible to cover. At this point I needed to ‘carve’ the tendon shape into the fabric attaching it’s end points securely to the wires.

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Slide show of different of the piece in situ from various positions as we descended from the heights of the top branches of the Oregon Maple to the ground level.

Having finished finessing this tendon we dropped down to the lower levels of the branches to measure up for the final two tendons. Both of these tendons will run more or less parallel to each other with variations on their angles and will be nearly perpendicular to the highest tendon. David and I again moved into position and began to temporarily tie the other two tendons nearer the base of the trunk and cut the fabric length to size. These sections were taken away to allow the artist to further cut into the fabric, shape it, sew the edges and afix the eyelets.

Images of the final two ‘tendons’ and the complete installation in the Oregon Maple will be available to view after the exhibition opens to the public.

Installing in the Oregon Maple, part 1

The next stage in the artwork process was to decide where in the tree to install and how long each section of fabric needed to be. David Hackett kindly booked and organised getting the large and cumbersome scissors lift to the Oregon Maple on the morning of the 14th of September.

It would have been great if it were possible to continue using the scissors lift that day and finally install all the ‘tendons’ but unfortunately I had so much cutting of fabric to get the desired shape, sewing of the edges and inserting the eyelet fixing points that David will have to roll out all the equipment again for the final stage.

So on a windy sunny morning and on the same day that American Vice President Mike Pence visited Trinity College Dublin David Hackett and his team maneuvered the large scissors lift into position. Ironically we were up in the scissors lift when the Vice President visited the main square nearby.

See images from top of the tree looking down on the main square.

Before we could begin large boards had to be laid down on the grass to protect it from being damaged by the wheels of the lift.

See images of scissors lift preparation

As soon as all the preparation was completed David promptly buckled me into a harness system and up we went! I am not afraid of heights but it was still a nerve wrecking experience all the same. It takes a lot of skill and experience to get the cherry picker to the highest parts of the huge Oregon Maple, thankfully David is a great driver!

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See images of the tree as I was looking down at it from the topmost branches.  

For what happened next see the blog entitled Installing in the Oregon Maple, part 2. 

Ironing the Oregon Maple artwork

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As the Oregon Maple artwork is to be installed outdoors the ink printed onto the lycra fabric needed to be set This is done using heat. My instructions from Gerry in Digiscreen was to have the fabric at 160 degrees for between 1-3 minutes. In large scale printers they use huge ovens that can hold exact temperatures for specific amounts of time. Not having access to these ovens I turned to my trusty iron and ironing board!

Before I could finalise the correct setting and duration of the ironing process I did a few tests with scrap fabric. See image below. Showing the fabric with no treatment on the left and one with 1,2 and 3 minutes on the right. To the naked eye it’s hard to see which setting is best but I decided to go for the longest duration.

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I therefore put my iron on its cotton setting and began the ironing process. Three minutes for every ironing board width by forty times per length of fabric (there are two) equals….many minutes of ironing, which I is my least favorite thing to do. I persevered and the fabric is now ready to be used outdoors.

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The next stage in the artwork process was to decide where in the tree to install and how long each section of fabric needed to be. David Hackett kindly booked and organised getting the large and cumbersome scissors lift to the Oregon Maple on the morning of the 14th of September.  I will post another blog about this process at a later stage.