Artist Giuseppe Licari looked relaxed as the torch he held belched fire on the already scorched remains of a pine tree. Laying on a nearby tarp spread out in the courtyard of Ming Studios were the twisted remains of more burned timber waiting to be brushed clean of soot, blasted with Licari's torch, treated and reconstructed.
In Ming's whitewashed, angular showspace, Licari will bolt the trees back together and anchor them to the gallery's concrete floor for his exhibit, Contrappunto, which opens Friday, Oct. 14. The exhibition of work by the Sicilian-born, Rotterdam, Netherlands-based artist will comprise a ghostly grove of gnarled limbs and caddywhompus trunks. Opening two weeks before Halloween, Contrappunto—Italian for "counterpoint"—is appropriately spooky but, at its heart, it is about contrasts that challenge viewers' assumptions about nature, themselves and mankind's footprint on the natural world.
"The landscape functions as a mirror and a lens," Licari said.
Looming over Contrappunto is the Pioneer fire, which burned more than 188,000 acres in the Boise National Forest in July, August, September and October, to become the largest blaze on public lands in the U.S. this year. Because of rugged terrain and inclement conditions, fire crews couldn't get the upper hand until the cooler weather of autumn slowed the fire's spread.
In late September, Licari and a handful of smokejumpers visited the burn zone, gathering timber for the exhibit. Licari said the trees he found there had been ravaged by beetles, mites and cancers. The forest as a whole appeared unhealthy.
"These trees were already dead, so the fire is good," he said. "The problem was when private homes were threatened."
Licari's foray in the Boise National Forest illuminated for him the kinds of choices that can have broad impacts on nature. Despite the apparent ill health of the trees Licari found, the Pioneer fire only grew to its tremendous size when resources were diverted from containing it to address another fire thought to be more dangerous to people and property (the Mile Marker 14 fire). When Licari went into the forest to collect timber for the exhibit, he said his main obstacle wasn't steep terrain or still-glowing coals left behind by the fire. It was red tape.
"There's so much bureaucracy in America," Licari said. "The forest is such a political entity."
Licari has long been fascinated by the intersection of nature and politics. In 2007, forest fires allegedly caused by arson (and exacerbated by negligence) burned across Greece. Simultaneously, Greece was in the infancy of what would become an economic crisis exacerbated by the Great Recession that would jeopardize its relationship with the European Union. For Licari, the result would be an exhibit in which he compared the areas of a single tree and a house to show how forest managers determine what is allowed to burn and what is spared. Next came his exhibition at TENT Rotterdam, Humus, in which he suspended trees' root systems from the ceiling. The title came from the nutrient-rich soil that supports plant growth in forests.
In Humus, TENT visitors strolled in the space where soil growth should have been. In Contrappunto at Ming, the soil has been replaced by cement, specially ground for Licari's installation. At the Boise show, the overlaps and contrasts between nature and human development are on full display. The charred remains of once-living trees will rise from a plain field of concrete, trapped inside Ming's interior. They've been bolted back together—"Frankentrees," Licari called them—and anchored to the ground, both for ease of installation and to illustrate the inadvertent fragmentation and destruction of forests that takes place even as humans manage them.
"I like to confront the architecture of setting," Licari said. "It becomes a perfect metaphor to talk about society and humanity."
After an afternoon of cleaning and re-burning timber for Contrappunto, Licari nursed a can of Sockeye beer and talked about the Greek financial crisis, lost pensions and how the southern European country's debt has complicated its relationship with its neighbors. For many people, nature is a place where humans can escape the pressures of civilization. Licari's work is a reminder of man's roots in the forest, but also that when people go there, they bring civilization with them.
"Humanity is part of nature, but with culture, we're something else," he said.