A new temporary “feminist” sculpture installed in the National Mall in Washington, DC, appears to have accomplished a triple feat, somehow managing not to do justice to art, trees, or women’s history.
Sponsored by the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) in partnership with the Women Connect 4 Good Foundation, “DENDROFEMONOLOGY: A Feminist History Tree Ring” by artist Tiffany Shlain stands facing the Lincoln Memorial. The four-day installation is a 65-inch cross-section of a fallen Deodar cedar (meaning no trees were harmed, thankfully) demarcated in the olde-tyme style of national park monuments that chart out the progression of human history against the time logged in the rings of the tree.
The work “takes a long 50,000-year view of feminist history and distills it into the lines on a tree ring,” Shlain explained in a press event for the sculpture’s unveiling, which included speeches by actors and activists Padma Lakshmi and TV Wonder Woman’s Lynda Carter.
This “long view” offers roughly 30 highlights of women’s history, starting in 50,000 BCE with the line “Goddesses are worshiped” and ending with “Today.” I did not view the sculpture in person, and working from press images one hesitates to approach this so-called monument in earnest because it is clear at a glance that “dendrofemenology” is a lot like “girl math” — in the sense that it’s sort of cute and relatable in a very basic way and fundamentally doesn’t make much sense.
Though its contributions to the feminist cause is debatable, it’s actually more difficult to decide if this effort leaves more to be desired in terms of dendrology (the scientific study of trees), history, or sculpture. For example, “Today” appears about a third of the radius in from the bark line, even though the youngest ring of the tree, the year it was cut down, is the one directly beneath the bark line. Perhaps this suggests that the future is not yet written and that young women of today have plenty of room to add their own achievements to the glorious legacy of our history, including milestones such as “3100 BCE: Literacy develops and the seeds of patriarchy spread,” or “1450–1918: 50,000 women tortured and executed as witches across Europe and America.” Welcome to the sisterhood!
Tree rings have value both as hard scientific data — for example, environmental scientists can chart things like fires and droughts by the growth of a given ring — and as a metaphor for time on a non-human scale. “DENDROFEMONOLOGY” eschews both these possibilities, offering vague facts that still seem to have a lot to do with patriarchy, and not really following the actual lifespan of the majestic Deodar cedar, who did not ask for this.
When asked about her approach for this work, the artist said that she was “taking artistic license” rather than “tracing a linear timeline.”
“This is an artwork meant to challenge conventional wisdom,” Shalin said. “I want viewers to reconsider how history has been presented in this country. Positioning my work between the Lincoln memorial and the Washington monument, I aim to raise awareness about women’s history that has so often been neglected in our nation’s capital.”
It’s undeniable that, in terms of our system of governance, women’s rights are being treated abysmally, and the artist’s overall message is both important and commendable. It’s just a shame that it’s conveyed in the form of what can only be described as log art. And I say this as a woman, a feminist, a fellow native of Muir Woods-adjacent California, and a person who literally cannot pull over fast enough to admire a roadside stand featuring chainsaw sculptures: It is not good log art.
Let’s agree that however sincere her intentions, Shlain started with the impossible premise of somehow distilling tens of thousands of years’ worth of history into 30 milestones etched into a tree, making her party to the most senseless decorating of a big, dead tree since at least last Christmas season. Is it the greatest crime against humanity, women specifically, or even trees? No. Does it smack of a design that tries to do so much that it ends up saying nothing at all? Yes.