In this joint piece, Trine Søndergaard and Nicolai Howalt focus on the living mega-fossil Kongeegen — the King's Oak. This tree stands in the woods by Jægerspris north of Copenhagen and is somewhere between 1500 and 1800 years old. Large serigraph prints show parts and sections of the huge and ancient tree stretching skywards, while a small box on the wall holds a twig from the tree itself. Pulling the tree out of its historical and natural environment, the artists point to the shifting status of living materials as they become preserved historical objects in a museum.
Megafossil was originally made for the group exhibition Shaped by Time in the prehistoric collection of the National Museum of Denmark, 2012. A catalogue in English has been published by Revolver Verlag. Edited by Milena Hoegsberg.
INTERVIEW: Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt: Megafossil
Jeu de Paume online magazine, June 2014
Raphaëlle Stopin: In an earlier series, How to Hunt, you explored the idea of the territory, as a space to be explored and experienced. This series was deeply rooted in your own country, Denmark. With Megafossil you are again exploring that national territory, albeit on a different scale. How did this project start?
Trine Søndergaard et Nicolai Howalt: The Megafossil series has a historical starting point. We began by working with the images connected to the exhibition “Shaped by Time” at the National Museum of Denmark, 2012. We were invited by the museum to research and respond to the prehistoric collection, which is composed of historical artefacts from the end of the Ice Age to the Viking Age. Anything between 1500 and 2000 years old, and located in the Jaegerspris woods, the “Kongeegen” or “King’s Oak” is one of the oldest living organisms in Europe. We were fascinated by its connection to the past and the idea that it represents a direct link to the past.
RS: How did you come to decide on a minimalist four-panel portrait, focusing not on the tree’s imposing stature but only on details, with close-ups of its thick and cracked skin? Why did you choose this visual synecdoche (as these four parts represent the whole) as a way of grasping your subject?
TS & NH: Megafossil examines the concept of time. Standing in the presence of the King’s Oak there is a sense of connection with history. The tree is a witness to the passing of time and an image of something larger than us. Monumental in size, rich and immense in detail, the tree reminds us how small we are and how brief our time here is. By focusing on parts and sections of the tree we wanted to take the tree out of context, away from its natural environment and into the museum space. We wanted to look at the tree in isolation, not only as a piece of nature, but also as an object.
RS: You have chosen to print these photographs on wood using the silkscreen process, which implies overlapping layers of different inks, and therefore the presence of various strata on the paper. Was this an attempt to get closer to the physicality of your subject, to recapture a texture that a photographic print cannot convey?
TS & NH: We wanted to look at the tree outside its forest, away from its natural environment. Cut out, it stands alone and the silkscreen process reinforces this method. Unlike photographic prints, our silkscreen prints have more than one layer. Printing the different layers of grey and the details of the tree on wooden plates enhances the physical presence of the tree.
RS: In the final presentation of the work, you have included a branch from the tree. Why did you choose to complement the image with this real part of your subject?
TS & NH: Installed in the museum space the branch almost assumes the status of a relic. We originally meant to keep it alive for the duration of the exhibition, but due to considerations concerning conservation and sterilisation this was not possible. Before we were able to bring the branch into the exhibition space it had to undergo a process of being frozen for 24 hours.