Elizabeth Woods: There is going to be a wedding and you are all invited

Elizabeth Woods' art practice has for many years revolved around the relationship between place, artist and community and what arises from their connection to each other. Marrying a tree is its latest manifestation.

Elizabeth Woods There’s going to be a wedding and you’re all invited 2010. 
Photo: Kevin Leong.

The concept of a person marrying a tree in a civil ceremony, (conducted by the Mayor of Glenorchy, Adriana Taylor), is so gently subversive that it can hardly offend, but is off centre enough to claim attention long enough to allow the significant underlying values to become articulated and evident.

'There is going to be a Wedding and you are all invited' was a major temporary public artwork developed by artist Elizabeth Woods for Glenorchy, a municipality of greater Hobart, on the publicly owned parkland overlooking Elwick Bay. With visual links to Moorilla Estate and the site of the almost completed Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on the shores of the Derwent River, it took place on 16 May 2010 as part of the biennial Works Festival.

This Festival is defined as a 'community Festival' and is described by its Director Michael McLaughlin as both arising from, and responding to the community of Glenorchy. Genuine engagement with people which is never tokenistic or exploitative is an article of faith for McLaughlin. The Works is perhaps unique in Tasmanian festivals for the emphasis it places not only on newly-commissioned contemporary artwork, but also on the direct participation by the community in the creation of those artworks.

Woods was a natural choice for the Festival given her record of work which closely engages with communities and also the artistic quality maintained by her directorial hand throughout the process. She was invited by the arts and cultural development staff at Glenorchy City Council to view the Elwick Bay site and discuss the development of a new artwork. Interestingly, the site is about to be developed as the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (GASP!), so the artwork became the first commissioned work to be created there since the designation of GASP!. (See page 70.)

Woods’ practice has for many years revolved around the relationship between place, artist and community and what arises from their connection to each other, exemplifying the modelling of relationships in contemporary site-specific practice such as those noted by Claire Doherty in 'The New Situationists' as ‘giving rise to a marked shift in some instances of the role of the artist from object maker to service provider’. [1]

Woods creates situations that allow the participants to view their everyday environment differently, opening up the possibility of valorising everyday activities, and allows people to view their existence in a different way. Such a practice bears close relationship also to the lineage of practices sometimes termed ‘Social Sculpture’ that dissolve the distinction between public art, community art, art education and such avant-garde practices as performance and conceptual art. She contends that, 'the connection of people and their everyday activities, although often tenuous, is directly related to what binds communities together'.

Woods began the project by inviting the community in the following words:

'This project uses two events that most individuals in the community will at some time take part in:

• A marriage ceremony
• The planting of a tree

This project focuses on the planting and caring of trees for food, and the sharing of the harvest of those trees. It is open to all members of the Glenorchy community, young and old, gardeners and non-gardeners.

We invite community members and organisations to accept the responsibility attached to the planting and caring of an apple tree.

Once the relationship has been confirmed and the person has committed to planting and caring for the tree a civil marriage ceremony will take place. This ceremony will show the commitment of the person and will have the same commitment undertaken in a marriage i.e. to love and care for the tree from this day forward.'

A critical issue is the imperative Woods places on building and sustaining social relations as part of the creative process, underscored by her stress on the significance of the vernacular - ‘sites and social structures that directly relate to the personal experiences of the public. Instead of producing discrete objects, the focus has shifted to the infiltration of or interventions into, the flow of the daily lives within the community. These interactions promise more profound revelations of sites and the creation (or recreation) of a sense of community’.

An intense period of community consultation is undertaken and research to determine particular strategies and materials for each of the production hubs identified.

Engagement with communities requires a balance between offering certain challenges while maintaining an accessible vehicle through which to engage. Woods chose the wedding as such a vehicle because weddings are rich in personal and communal meaning and the concept of a wedding as a window to view the site itself suggests many possibilities: the intergenerational family nature of passive social activity in the Park; the more direct references to the use of the park for actual wedding activity; and the close proximity of the site to a working winery, which hosts wedding functions. The wedding is also a catalyst for exploring a major theme in Woods’ own work - 'how temporary public artwork can make the domestic public. The wedding carries both private and communal symbols of union, of plenty, of reproduction, of life cycle and much more'.

In 2011 the participants in this project will be photographed one year on with their trees and the photographs will be displayed at the Moonah Arts Centre in Glenorchy. The event may be temporary but the outcomes potentially survive across generations.

The notion that art can be a catalyst for social change and possess transformative capacities seems now more than ever to have relevance. Artists are working in non-art contexts and avoiding the rhetoric and tropes of art in the way they are articulating these positions. Another factor for this rise in socially engaged practices may well be the ‘end game’ consciousness which is pervasive in an era of climate change, rampant ecological ruin and socio-political divisiveness. As recently as the eighties the ‘political’ significance of art remained largely within the frame of the politics of cultural exchange and eschewed to a large extent the wider social import of the practice of art.

Art nonetheless remains the only truly non-aligned space for any social or academic discourse. As such it is unique among fields of enquiry. It is defined by its lack of edges and its inability to be constrained within the constraints of a discipline or a professional enclave. For these reasons it is an ideal field on which to meet, to engage, to celebrate and to invite and share ideas.

In the case of this project and Woods’ practice more generally it also provides a rich and harmonious avenue for the making and storing of social capital.

Reference List-

1- Claire Doherty, The New Situationists, introduction to ëContemporary Art: from Studio to Situationí, Black Dog, London 2004, p9)

All non-identified quotations are taken from Elizabeth Woods’ writings.