Behind the art works – the Cordyline Palm

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Before the team and I decided on which trees to include in our project we visited the various trees on the Trinity College campus. Personally I was drawn time and time again to the mesmerising swaying of the flexible tree branches and the soft meditative swishing sound created by the wind rustling through the leaves of the Cordyline Palm. In the end we decided to include the palm tree with it’s multiple branches growing closely together from the base as a counterpoint to the size and stocky nature of the other trees, which have a single trunk and many branches. I knew from very early on that any artwork I would make would have to reference the delicate appearance of this tree while also referencing it’s very specific physiology.

As I thought further and researched more about the palm tree I was reminded of a two week holiday I took in Bali over ten years ago. Each day I encountered numerous offerings left outside houses, on pathways and in the temples by the locals. Each parcel was simple yet beautiful created using banana or palm leaves and filled with rice and colourful flowers.  See images above.

More importantly I was very lucky to be in Bali around the time of the Galungan festival. Galungan marks the beginning of the most important recurring religious ceremonies in Bali. The spirits of deceased relatives who have died and been cremated return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings. The most obvious sign of the celebrations are the Penjor – bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end. Every street is lined with Penjors outside each house one more decorative than the next.

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The main material needed to make a Penjor is a long, curved bamboo pole. The pole is then decorated with coconut leaves and various other natural items. At the end of each Penjor a decorative Sampian is hung made with coconut or palm leaves and flowers.

I remember at the time being captivated by the amazing diversity of shape and texture the Balinese could create with such a simple materials.

For the Trinity College Trees project I decided to create a Penjor of sorts to represent the Cordyline palm. Its strength and flexibility alongside it’s delicate appearance is the perfect vessel to embody the nature of this tree.

When I made this initial decision a few months ago I collected a large black bin bag full of fallen Cordyline Palm leaves from Trinity College. I worked with the leaves, curving and shaping them over a few weeks. The colour of the leaves for me was an issue, the natural brown didn’t really fit with the chosen colour aesthetic. I tried painting the leaves with bright neon acrylic paints but the result looked forced.

I abandoned the palm leaves and decided to cover the curved bamboo pole with neon orange ribbon and create my own decorative elements with an electric blue fabric.

The shapes of these elements were chosen based on some of the SEM images of the internal cellular structure of the Palm. David Hackett kindly explained that the Cordyline Palm is a monocot. This didn’t mean much to me initially but now I understand it that a monocot, as the name suggests, has one ‘cot’ or cotyledon. A cotyledon is basically the first leaf that sprouts from a seed. Monocots have one, and dicots have two. Basically some plants have one leaf to start their lives out with, and some have a pair.

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left: monocot, right: dicot

The reason I mention this is that I was interested in how the cellular structure of the Palm (as a monocot) looked and differed functionally to all the other trees in the project, which are dicots. As you can see in the SEM image below of a cross section of the parallel veins of the palm they are laid out in bundles, which are then arranged together to create the internal cellular structure of the branch.

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I used the various shapes from these bundles to create the decorative elements of the Penjor. Imagery from the cross section of the veins in the bundles were recreated by drawing in neon orange acrylic paint on the blue fabric sections. Finally I will draw on imagery of the breathing hole (soma) from the underside of the palm leaf while creating the decorative Sampian at the end of the bamboo pole.  See images below of the work completed on the Penjor to date.  I will post updated images of the work at a later stage. 

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