Artist Joel Tauber was captivated the first time he laid eyes on the little sycamore in the middle of the Rose Bowl parking lot. "It struck me on a metaphorical level," he says. "It just seemed like this forgotten figure in this sea of asphalt, and that seemed indicative of where we are environmentally."
Since that day two years ago, Tauber has devoted his life and art to the tree. He began watering it and installed metal railings to protect it from cars. Now he is helping it reproduce. With the assistance of the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of native California plants, he has collected its seeds and grown "tree babies."
Tauber has documented his efforts with similar dedication. Titled "Sick-Amour," the project includes a documentary film, a video installation and, most ambitiously, a permanent "tree museum." The plan for the latter calls for replacing the asphalt in a roughly 1,900-square-foot rectangle around the tree with mulch and river stones, to increase oxygen and water flow. A "necklace" of boulders will protect the tree and display educational plaques. To top it off, Tauber has sculpted a whimsical pair of "earrings" to hang from the branches.
"When he told me that he had fallen in love with a tree, I wasn't surprised," says Susanne Vielmetter, whose Culver City gallery represents Tauber. In previous projects the L.A.-based artist has transposed underwater diving into music and flown over the desert suspended from helium balloons while playing a bagpipe. "You think it's funny and a little nutty, and sweet," Vielmetter continued, but "Sick-Amour" really addresses a much larger issue, "in this case, fundamentally, what our relationship to nature is."
The video installation, which will have its debut at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects on March 17, consists of 12 segments. Arranged in the shape of a tree, each is a personal meditation on some aspect of the sycamore. In one, Tauber lauds the tree as an "invisible worker" thanklessly cleaning the air and Earth; in another he laments the pests that attack it, comparing their exploits to the abuses of capitalism. Backed by scientific research and narrated in a passionate, though often humorous, voice, Tauber's videos urge viewers to consider the environmental toll of urban development and to better care for the natural features that survive within it.
"I think of it as a modern, video 'Walden,' " he ventures, referring to Henry David Thoreau's treatise on nature and society, "but not out in the wilderness, out in a parking lot."
Accordingly, "Sick-Amour" has far-reaching ethical and philosophical goals. The tree is "something that I'm striving to understand in as full a way as possible, and that process brings me very close to it," Tauber says. "If you understand the other -- whether it's the divine or someone else -- that allows empathy to occur, and it allows a place for some kind of spiritual connection and love." In asking people to empathize with the struggles of a single tree, he hopes to instill in them a heartfelt sense of responsibility, not only to the environment but also to one another.
For Tauber, Rose Bowl Parking Lot K is an example of what happens when people shirk this responsibility. Traversed on a Tuesday afternoon by the occasional jogger and a fire engine practicing maneuvers, the lot is an asphalt peninsula between the hills and the concrete-lined Arroyo Seco river. The "Sick-Amour" tree stands not far from the entrance, at Seco Street and West Drive, and the Rose Bowl has already replaced a 400-square-foot area of pavement around it with mulch.
Tauber, compact and energetic, strides enthusiastically around a wider perimeter that he hopes will contain the tree museum.
Getting this far has been a daunting bureaucratic undertaking, involving coordination with the Rose Bowl, the city of Pasadena and LAXART, a nonprofit arts organization that is helping with fundraising. But Tauber says he has met with surprisingly little resistance.
Vice Mayor Steve Madison, an early supporter, sees the project as emblematic of Pasadena's movement toward becoming a "green" city. "I thought it was a neat idea that this one tree could be symbolic of trees in Pasadena and open space," he says. Rose Bowl General Manager Darryl Dunn is open-minded but cautious: "We still have to function as a stadium, but we're trying to integrate his vision with our need to have a parking lot." The plan requires approval from the Rose Bowl's board of directors, which is scheduled to review it later this spring.
Still, fundraising for the project, which Tauber estimates will cost $22,000, has been challenging. "We've been coming up against perceptions of what constitutes art, what is public art," says Lauri Firstenberg, LAXART's director and curator. "We've been diversifying our approach."
Tauber has solicited donations and says he plans to use proceeds from the sale of the tree babies and an edition of earrings -- for humans, made of gold-plated leaves and fruit from the tree -- to help fund the museum.
In the meantime, his beloved sycamore has sprouted new leaves and fruit. Tauber says, "It's a beautiful tree, and people are drawn to it. It's casting its spell."
Where: Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Opening reception 6 to 8 p.m. March 17; gallery hours 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Ends: April 28
Contact: (323) 933-2117; www.vielmetter.com; www.joeltauber.com