Terry Allen’s ‘Trees’ are about to come to life for Obama inauguration


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For the first time since it was installed on the UC San Diego campus nearly 23 years ago, Terry Allen’s public sculpture ‘Trees’ will soon be broadcasting something other than recorded poetry and music. One week from today, the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as 44th president of the United States will be heard live in the eucalyptus grove between the Geisel Library and the Faculty Club.

Allen’s ‘Trees’ were made from three eucalyptuses cut down to make way for new campus buildings. Stripped of leaves and smaller branches, the trees were encased in sheets of lead -- an ancient material (alchemists believed it to be the oldest metal) that resists corrosion, shields against X-ray penetration and can be poisonous. It is exceedingly strange to encounter these ghostly gray memories of nature entombed in the grove -- especially when they seem to be murmuring something at passersby, like Homer’s Sirens beckoning to Odysseus.


Two trees were wired for sound and erected not far from regularly used footpaths, while a third tree stands mute in front of the library. The ‘Music tree’ usually plays a prerecorded musical selection, which includes artist William T. Wiley performing ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky.’ The ‘Literary tree’ features a variety of sounds, including Navajo chants, duck calls and poetry by the artist’s son, Bale Allen. The ‘Silent tree,’ dramatic in form and isolated in a sea of concrete, performs an inaudible rebuke to the accumulated wisdom in the library.

For the inauguration, it will remain silent. But the other cadavers will spring to life, replacing their faint, recorded solicitations from the grave with a live PBS broadcast of Obama’s swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address. The volume will be turned way up.

More photos of ‘Trees’ are after the jump ...

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Stuart Collection, UC San Diego