Never Understand Me, 2009. Cement and juniper tree, 18 x 18 x 36 in.

Andre Woodward: A Living Thing Shouldn’t Be There

Andre Woodward finds strange beauty in unexpected places. A beaten-up piece of asphalt raised on wheels and sprouting a small, frail tree becomes a grim urban landscape, mutated for speed. Blocks of concrete ordered in symmetrical grids or dispersed in random configurations miraculously burst with life, pierced by small trees that inject the irrepressible vitality of nature into hard-edged, dead, primary structures. In surreal, assemble-it-yourself landscapes, bonsai grow out of pulsing speakers connected to glowing lamps, their life-support systems of wires and water tanks exposed to view. Small dead trees coated with bright paint rotate at the end of music boxes, dancing like branches of coral to canned music while evoking ocean mysteries as well as land-based tribulations. Woodward’s is a process-oriented art that dares to look the abject and the commonplace straight in the eye. His theme is today’s manmade environment versus the timeless rhythms of nature.

Michaël Amy: How did these works come about?

Andre Woodward: I studied microbiology at California State Long Beach for three years and then transferred to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) to study art. You were supposed to go to Cal State Long Beach to study art, so I did things the other way around. Anyhow, at UCI, there is a nice little park with buildings around it. One day, I happened upon a staircase going some 40 feet underground. I followed it and saw an underworld of things that run the university. The top level is a façade—the parks are not real. Somewhat later, I wanted to install a piece on the lawn, and when I went to anchor it in, I discovered that a mere two feet down, there was solid concrete. Every lawn is just sod over two feet of dirt, except in those places where trees were planted. I found this fascinating. The park, as natural as it looks, is completely artificial. UCI has been around since 1969, and nature comes back and develops its own thing. Things sprout up all over the place. The maintenance guys are constantly going around the school pulling out whatever was not planned or planted, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The university is trying to halt nature’s take-over.

MA: And that’s the balance you examine in your work—the tightrope dance between man and nature?

AW: We come out of nature. We are nature. What we traditionally perceive as nature doesn’t really exist. The cornfields we plant, the runways and freeways we build, those are nature, too. They are simply more of our ecology. When a beaver builds a dam, that’s nature, right? So, when we build a home, why isn’t that nature? John Muir’s notion of the preservation of nature is great, but it isn’t natural. I am, however, interested in his idea of nature. Environmental aesthetics interests me. I like existentialist writers like Hemingway and Thoreau, who re-examine our position in the world and re-examine the concept of nature and man. I talk about a new idea of nature through my work: how culture drives ecology, which is part of nature. Human evolution and social evolution are part of nature. Groups get together and develop a culture. Cultures are now melting together. You also need to see the work in terms of a struggle. The base of that tree is cast in concrete. That amounts to a death sentence. However, concrete also works with nature because it is compacted limestone, and certain trees use that.

MA: Your work is also about time.

AW: My work is definitely time-based. There are about three different timelines going on in each piece. The tree grows. In the sound pieces, you need to consider the duration of the soundtrack, and in the pieces that incorporate lighting systems, you have that time going on as well. And then you have the time during which you are interacting with the work. I produce sculptural work because, with sculpture, there is you and the piece. There is not a flat divide—you and the piece occupy the same space. Once you realize that the sculpture is alive, something happens. You start to be sympathetic to the life-force. It isn’t merely an object. It’s a living thing. The trees with their bases cast in concrete are arranged in five rows of five units or modules each. Each time I show this work, I add one row to it, so next time, it will become six by five, and the next time around, it will become a square again. There is an idea going on that has to do with the time of the piece, and eventually this work will cover an entire floor.

MA: Many of your works incorporate energy—light, heat, electricity, water, and nutrients.

AW: Everything consists, to a large degree, of energy. A certain amount of energy disappears once the tree dies—the flow has come to a head. It’s something that I have been debating in the work. The situation changes. I recuperate the dead tree and use it in an epitaph—a memorial.

MA: What do you call the works that feature a single small dead tree covered with a coat of brightly saturated spray paint and spray resin?

AW: They’re titled Impossible Dream. For each piece, I use the manufacturer’s color-coding as a subtitle, such as “Brilliant Blue.” In these works, you feel the loss of energy, even when you attach a music box to the dead tree.

Psychocandy, 2009. Bonsai tree, electronics, grow lights, hose, MP3 player, pumps, speakers, and steel, 96 x 72 x 72 in

MA: What music do the boxes play?

AW: “Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha, which is based on the story of Don Quixote. The music boxes all play the same tune. The story is about peace and balance, about the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. It has to do with the idea of chivalry. But people don’t care about these ideas any more, and Don Quixote is perceived as a crackpot. So, my trees die. They have lived a semi-noble existence as representations of something that I think is worthy of consideration, and when they die, it’s as if they never existed. It’s kind of futile—they have lived in a speaker for two or three years.

MA: Why do you use speakers as planters?

AW: I like the idea of controlling the environment, and the speaker does that. The environmental stimulus is both sound and touch because the speaker vibrates. The vibrations amount to major earthquakes for the small trees, which are constantly being rattled.

MA: The earthquake theme is certainly relevant in this part of the world.

AW: It is indeed. Ironically, because of the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emitted by cars, freeways are among the best places for some plants to grow. Trees constitute one of the best filtering systems for airborne particulates, which help the trees grow, while the trees produce oxygen in exchange. The seeds of eucalyptus, palm, olive, and ficus trees are carried by the Santa Ana winds in the fall and penetrate all manner of cracks, and by June, there is a four-foot-tall tree or bush growing by the side of the road. Every time a car passes by, there is a vibration in the ground, because the concrete is so rigid. The next softest area where the energy can be dispersed is dirt where trees grow. The energy comes and is released there with a lot of force, thereby echoing what is achieved with the speakers.

MA: This whole intricate system of plant, speaker, earth, and water is exposed to view in the gallery?

AW: Yes, indeed. I like the environmental feel when one walks in—the lights and the sounds affect your mood.

MA: You record ambient noise. How do you go about doing that?

AW: Two things are going on in terms of sound since I use analog and digital technology. The MP3 players and the timers are digital, while the dial timer is analog. The tree itself is the original analog device. Cut a tree down, look at its rings—they are records. The sound starts with “The Hardest Walk” (by Jesus and Mary Chain), which is played on a record player from the analog system and put out through a digital system. While the digital playback comes over, it is also recording, so the analog and the digital recordings overlap and are off by a bit, which creates a sort of phase cancellation. The analog and digital wavelengths are so close that you hear a bouncing. The song becomes ambient noise, almost the hiss of electricity—ultimately, it is output on a digital player. That’s the base track, and then there are additional inputs, such as sounds drawn from the TV show “Robotech” and the sound of milling through a pile of Lego pieces. I also obtain ambient sound by hiding recorders at sites that are relevant to my work, such as my childhood home and the locations where record stores stood. It’s very personal. My development is juxtaposed with the development of the tree.

MA: You encase the dead trees, like relics, and place precious things around them.

AW: There is that thinking behind the work. I find the passion for relics interesting.

Cut Dead, 2008. Cement and ficus tree, 36 x 18 x 18 in.

MA: Are you religious?

AW: I am Catholic.

MA: Does the work reflect your religious beliefs?

AW: I think you can impose that on it. The theme of sacrifice appears in the epitaph pieces. My reliquaries contain trees that resemble emaciated fingers. The way these pieces look and move is somewhat creepy. I am against object-making. I cannot bring myself to make objects. That is why most of this stuff is living and has a time component to it. These things are part of life. The tree is alive, and it is always changing; the sound component makes the change more explicit.

MA: A statue by Bernini also changes constantly under shifting daylight.

AW: Bernini aims for the eternal, while I do not.

MA: Do you provide directions for curators, so that your work can be optimally preserved?

AW: A list of directions comes with the work. I can only guarantee the work when you follow the directions. My work is a self-contained system. I try to make it easy to read and follow. My idea is that when the pieces start to fall apart, they get repaired, because that’s how we handle everyday life. The object starts out as a pristine thing, and the repair is a scar. Just like with a person, the scar builds character—the repair adds to the history, and you develop a connection to it. You create a level of sustainability. If the tree dies, it can be replaced. The MP3 players are replaceable, as are the timers, the cords, the light bulbs. You can purchase all of these things at a regular store. I like the notion of putting things together myself, and I re-appropriate commonplace objects. My pieces are made to adapt over time. We have to think in those terms. We need to find a way so that, when we produce objects, we no longer have to recycle them. Things should be made in such a way that their parts can be replaced, rather than becoming obsolete.

MA: Is your work political?

AW: If there is anything political about my work, it’s that. Consider how they used to build cars. You could always replace the broken parts or have someone do it for you. Today, when things go awry, everything falls apart at once, so you have to get rid of your vehicle. That’s a capitalist idea. Don’t get me wrong: art is based on capitalism. But being able to replace things is an important issue. There was a time when you could make money as an auto mechanic. Now, many people just buy a new car. It’s the people with lower incomes who need sustainability because they cannot afford the higher end. Design and beauty are great, but we need to stop thinking about beauty and start thinking about practicality. I often joke that every piece I sell comes with a repairman—me, though hopefully, it will not always be me. Some of my pieces have as many as eight speakers and are quite complex. Each piece is modular, so you can pull something out and replace it. My work is about balance. It is political in the sense that it constitutes an acceptance of what we have made and an acceptance of how we impact nature and how we are ultimately one. We are nature.

April Skies, 2011. Redwood burl, steel, speakers, MP3 player, electronics, artificial quartz, paint, and resin, 36 x 36 x 36 in.

MA: Tell me about the works that use asphalt. Am I looking at material excavated from potholes, raised off the ground, and transposed to the gallery?

AW: Indeed you are. Asphalt is petroleum, since asphalt is tar, and there is gravel under the asphalt.

MA: You dig out these potholes at night, I presume.

AW: Yes. They come from specific locations. I used to frequent record stores when I was younger. Each pothole comes from outside one of those stores, which don’t exist anymore. I would keep my eye out for potholes, looking for cars bouncing off of them. I would come back in the early morning hours and take my tire iron and pop them out and put them in my station wagon. They also break up the streets all the time, and the material goes to a recycling center where I can pluck it. Whenever I see it, I get it, so I have a lot of this stuff.

MA: These raised asphalt pieces become tables of sorts. Is that intentional?

AW: No. They just work that way. The idea of landscape is at a certain scale, and an elevation is a table. Costa Mesa means “coast table”—a plateau overlooking the ocean. Photographs allow me to replicate how the potholes looked before I pulled them. Over time, the potholes start to deteriorate. The material flexes, and the larger ones cave in.

MA: You welcome the idea of breakdown.

AW: That’s what these pieces are really about. The breakdown opens a window for the introduction of other variables, like the tree.

MA: What is the meaning behind the wheels bearing the asphalt?

AW: In southern California, most of our life is spent inside cars. So, I just put the street itself on wheels. Los Angeles is, in a sense, founded on the automobile. The whole make-up of southern California is developed around cars. Automobiles and Hollywood came about together. Look at movies featuring Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin—there is always a car in there somewhere. We don’t have the pre-automobile history of so many places in Europe.

MA: I hear traffic sounds coming from the asphalt pieces.

AW: Indeed. I would hide a digital recorder near the location where I pulled the pothole, leave it there for four or five hours, get it, pull the information off of it, put it back, and do this for about three days, so that what I obtain is all this overlay. The input is six minutes.

MA: What does the olive tree mean to you?

AW: The symbolism is a little cheesy—peace, balance, compromise. The olive tree grows out of the asphalt that we have covered the earth with, and it thrives. We have struck a balance. We have done our thing, and nature has returned. A system is established.

Each controls the other. I am interested in the balance between these interactions. Eventually, either someone comes along to rip out the tree or the tree destroys the road. The asphalt nurtures the tree, by keeping moisture locked in, and the tree roots stabilize the asphalt, which is constantly flexing, and prevent it from degrading. So, the olive tree represents a type of social harmony, as it did in antiquity.

MA: Since so much is manmade in your constructions, one’s first reaction is to perceive the tree as a painstakingly fashioned thing. I am thinking of the work of Tony Matelli or Roxy Paine. One must examine your work at close range to see that it’s not a hyper-realistic rendering of a tree but the real thing.

AW: At Cal State Long Beach, where I started playing with these things, the head of sculpture did fabrication work for Roxy Paine. He tried to get me to start producing artificial trees, arguing that my trees were going to die and become a hassle. I repeatedly refused, and I think that I offended him. I often get the reaction that you mentioned. The realization that the trees are alive comes as an epiphany. It’s, to some extent, wrong. A living thing shouldn’t be there. I cannot fake it. The work is about your relationship to the living thing that should not be there. A lot of people see me plant these trees in their concrete bases, thereby condemning them to death.

MA: Tell me about the juniper.

AW: Juniper trees are often used as bonsai, which means “tray tree”—a tree grown in a tray. The juniper represents a controlled system, nature miniaturized, though it is completely unnatural for juniper trees to be grown and maintained that way. Thus, the juniper becomes more of a representation or idealization of nature than nature itself. That’s why it appears in my work. It’s a symbol of nature idealized. Bonsai need to be trimmed, but I don’t trim my trees too much because I want them to drop their growth. I don’t trim the roots, just the top. If you keep the canopy a certain size, the roots will mirror that—they won’t grow any farther than they need to. If you stop trimming the canopy, that can cause problems, which is an important issue for any future owner of the work. The trees adapt to the system that I establish, and the system controls the environment. In the early and mid-’90s, there was much discussion of chaos theory, which takes all kinds of circumstances and variables into account. When my work lives, it becomes its own equation. I set up the first system, and whatever is added to this system comes in great part from the environment and whoever comes into this environment, and that has a lot to do with the work—the idea of a large number of stimuli affecting the work over the course of its life. The soundtrack consists of many noises coming from different places. The light is another stimulus, the water and its consistency are different stimuli. When all of these are combined, that equation produces the tree, which becomes the sculpture, and the tree itself becomes another input into the equation. It really isn’t chaotic at all—it’s kind of practical. We have been doing this in the world of finance for years. A lot of artists take only a couple of stimuli into the equation to produce the work. You look at the input, and you can almost predict what you are going to get. In my work, on the other hand, there is always a level of unpredictability. I could be gone for a couple of days and then come back and the tree would be infested with mites and be dead. That’s part of the work. I don’t have control over that. The work invites relationship with the outside world—it is up for debate whether that destroys the work or completes it.

Michaël Amy is a professor of the history of art at the Rochester Institute of Technology.