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Glasgow-born, Berlin-based artist Katie Paterson has spent the past three years collecting wood samples from around the world, trying to check off all the items on her tree species wish list. In addition to samples of common tree species, like ginkgos, banyans, redwoods, Phoenix palms, and Lebanese cedars, she scored a piece of a nearly 5,000-year-old Methuselah tree, one of the world’s oldest living organisms; a scrap of railroad tie taken from the Panama Canal Railway, which claimed the lives of thousands of workers during its construction; and wood salvaged from the Atlantic City boardwalk, devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
These are just a few of the 10,000 types of wood that make up “Hollow,” “a microcosmos of all the world’s trees,” as Paterson calls this newest installation. The public artwork, now permanently sited in Bristol’s historic Royal Fort Gardens, was commissioned by the University of Bristol and made in collaboration with the architects Zeller & Moye.
From the outside, “Hollow” looks a bit like a wigwam assembled from giant Jenga pieces. Inside, through a little opening in the façade, thousands of wooden rods of varying sizes protrude from the ceiling and floor like stalactites and stalagmites. Two people can fit in this “modernist grotto,” as the architects put it, “an introverted and meditative space where, whether sitting or standing, one finds oneself embraced by history.” Apertures in the vaulted roof let in sun, mimicking the dappled natural light of a forest canopy.
The effect is spectacular, both visually and conceptually. The single sculpture encompasses all of arboreal history: It features petrified wood from an extinct species thought to be 390 million years old, samples of the world’s oldest known trees, and bits of some of the youngest. It contains human stories, too: The Indian Banyan Tree, under which Buddha achieved enlightenment, and the Japanese Ginkgo tree in Hiroshima, which survived World War II. And almost every country on the planet is represented. Paterson received donations from the Herbario Nacional de México, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Kyoto University, and the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard. Paterson’s past projects have been similarly ambitious in their fusion of the natural sciences with sculpture and installation — for one project, she created a map of 27,000 known dead stars.
Katie Paterson’s “Hollow” is permanently on view at the Royal Fort Gardens (Royal Fort House, Bristol, City of Bristol).