File Note 33: Anya Gallaccio - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Angus Cook



Twigs, Sugar, Acorns, Blood and Chocolate Images References Quote Biography Credits

Twigs, Sugar, Acorns, Blood and Chocolate

are some of the raw materials Anya Gallaccio has used to make art. Just one primary material is used per sculpture, and this singularity of focus lends the chosen material an elemental quality: essence of carpet; the prototypical flower; pure ice; an urcandle. Always the material is drawn from the world of the ordinary. Not passion fruit or carambola, but apples and oranges and, on this occasion, a horse-chestnut.

Trees are places to play. You can hide in them, eat from them, turn into them. And they have been turned into everything from boats, bridges and arrows, to ladders, maypoles and fire. Gallaccio is attracted to the volatile. The stuff she works with is endlessly various in the interests it gives rise to. Its power of evocation corresponds with the material’s capacity to change both in its form and function, in subtle and dramatic ways.

This protean character, together with our realisation that the material Gallaccio has worked with is a familiar part of everyday life, allows a strangely normal substance to become rich in association. Its strange normalcy allows an overlooked substance — and the overlooked world it comes from — to be seen in any number of new and surprising ways. This fills the sculpture, and the viewer, and the world, full of potential.

Through the imposition of a few simple rules, Gallaccio structures things into a tightly regulated arrangement. The effect of this is a serialism, which recalls the language of minimalist art — an interesting but improbable allusion, given the idiosyncrasy of her strategy, which is distinct from less wayward artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. The relationship of her work to theirs is all the more resonant for that dissonance.

The rules governing that open space within required that the crown of the tree be separated from its trunk, then the crown be cut into modular components of predetermined length, and transported to the museum — a certain kind of open space within. Steel pins were to be driven at regular intervals into the tree-sections, and climbing ropes threaded through the pins, to return it to its former glory, whole again and upright.

But the conspicuousness of the illusion betrays itself. It’s barely a tree, more of a fragment, of barely held together fragments. Its fragility bears witness to the violence done to it, and to a vulnerability beyond itself. Other losses come to mind. While its support system of steel and rope may compensate for the tree’s structural deficit, that armature can also be read as the instrument of its own downfall.

Perhaps because they can grow so much bigger and live so much longer than us, trees and wisdom are close to each other. The tree of knowledge was a tree, because the incredible intricacy and logic of a tree’s branching patterns were noticed and admired. The taxonomies scientists create, to journey beneath the surface of the world, could not have come into existence without the special shape of trees, on which they are modeled.

Almost anything — animate objects, inanimate objects, places, concepts, events, properties, and relationships — may be classified according to some taxonomic scheme.

Perhaps it’s little wonder then that trees are themselves so hard to classify. Trees are a microcosm of almost anything, except themselves.

At the final stage of her working method, Gallaccio forces a transformation on the primary material, by applying to its arrangement a secondary material, procedure or force. Fire, oxygen, yeast, salt, sunlight, seawater and the processes of distillation and casting are just some of the catalysts Gallaccio has previously employed to accelerate, subvert or apprehend the course of time.

Gravity and pressure from the rope-tension are the main transformative forces operating on that open space within. Between them, they threaten to compromise the structural integrity of the tree — a structure whose integrity has already been compromised by the rules systematically imposed upon it. The tree was cut down and cut up, then reconstructed, and is in decline again. This process parallels and extends an earlier phase in the tree’s history, when year by year, the tree would die back, come back and die back again, in a kind of death-after-life-after-death knot.

The downward pull is not simply off-set and balanced by a reverse thrust upwards. Each is the necessary and sufficient condition of the other. Not creation as subordinate to destruction, or destruction as incidental to creation, but negative and positive all tangled up. Both are facets of the all-encompassing phenomenon that is change.

Movements of declining and emergent form elide into and react to each other — not as contrary impulses, or opposite ends of a cycle, but as two sides of the same coin. That coin is, as all coins are, change.

Certain Gallaccio sculptures are anti-flux. They are caught in the act of becoming. With these works, the process of change is not celebrated and performed, but arrested and denied. They resist development almost successfully while, in a perpetual state of working themselves out, retain the trace of a former instability. These works are not concerned with the passage of time, but its momentary lapse.

The tension between physical and psychic states is an organising principle behind much of Gallaccio’s work. In this respect, that open space within is no different from anything else she has made. The title seems to hint that the tree and the museum space it inhabits may correspond more closely with the worlds of thinking and feeling, than with any surface reality out there.

Trees can change their appearance, spectacularly and slowly, from season to season. They are things to paint or carve. When turned into paper and charcoal, a tree provides us with the means to reproduce it. that open space within contributes to and may comment on the tradition of  trees and reflexivity in art.

People like and value trees, but understand them as something other than benign. No one wants to shelter under a tree in a storm or get lost in a forest at night. A solitary tree, like the one in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, makes for a desolate scene. The leaflessness of that open space within may be understood as dormancy, or decline, or an imitation, if not of death, then of our anticipation of that condition.

Perhaps the biggest difference, between a cut-flower sculpture and a cut-tree sculpture, is the rate of transition. The tree could disintegrate soon or suddenly or slowly or way off in the future; the onset and duration of the flower’s transmogrification is less variable. Time is experienced differently in each case, but both call to our attention the uses of adversity.

Exhilaration may be felt at the recognition that the physical disintegration of the work is an ongoing one, the inevitability of its loss being an integral part of the sculpture’s poignancy and elegance. With the prospect of its physical annihilation increasingly felt, as its material end becomes reality, the sculpture turns into something truly real in our imagination — whole again, open and final.


Dave Hickey ‘Earthscapes, Landworks and Oz’ published in Art in America, September    October (1971)

Dave Hickey ‘Anthony Caro: The Economies of Surprise’ published in Anthony Caro Paul Moorhouse (ed.), Tate Publishing (2005)

Robert Smithson ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ published in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, University of California Press (1996)

Briony Fer The Infinite Line: Re-Making Art after Modernism Yale University Press (2004)

Briony Fer ‘The Works of Salvage: Eva Hesse’s Latex Workshoppublished in Eva Hesse Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), SFMOMA (2002)

Simon Schama Landscape and Memory Harper Collins (1995)

Sara Wheeler Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica Jonathan Cape (1996)

Elizabeth Bishop One Art (Poem)

Wallace Stevens Table Talk (Poem)

Ralph Warren Andrews Timber: Toil and Trouble in the Big Woods Outlet (1977)

Werner Herzog (dir.) Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Robert Altman (dir.) 3 Women (1977)

Lost Series 1–4, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2008)

Terry Allen Lubbock (On Everything) Sugarhill (1979)

The Mountain Goats The Sunset Tree 4AD (2005)

Neil Young Zuma Reprise/WEA (1975)

‘ The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. —— And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein


Anya Gallaccio was born in Paisley, Scotland 1963 and lives and works in London. She studied at Kingston Polytechnic (1984–1985) and then at Goldsmiths College, University of London (1985–1988). After graduating she exhibited in Damien Hirst’s ‘Freeze’, the exhibition that brought together a generation of Young British Artists for the first time.  She has had a number of solo shows both in the UK and internationally. Recent solo shows include ‘Three Sheets to the Wind’, Thomas Dane Gallery, London (2007); Galeria Leme, São Paulo (2006); ‘One Art’, Sculpture Center, New York (2005); ‘Shadow on the things you know’, Blum and Poe, Los Angeles (2005); ‘Silver Seed’, Mount Stuart Trust, Isle of Bute, Scotland (2005); ‘The Look of Things’, Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena, Italy (2005); ‘love is only a feeling’, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, (2004) and ‘Anya Gallaccio’, IKON, Birmingham (2003). She has also exhibited in numerous group shows including ‘Wood for the Trees’ and ‘Falling Leaves’, Gimpel Fils, London (2007); ‘Core’, Illuminated Productions, Union Works, London (2006); ‘Sad Songs’, University Galleries, Illinois State University, Illinois (2005) and ‘Monuments for the USA’ CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2005). Gallaccio was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003.


Angus Cook is a contributing editor to Q+A.

Supported by Bloomberg, The Henry Moore Foundation, Outset.