A Haiku to Nature in Reston

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

The centerpiece of artist Shinji Turner-Yamamoto's exhibition at the Greater Reston Arts Center is a 25-foot dogwood, the state tree of Virginia. Lying on its side, it scrapes the ceiling with its gracefully twisting branches.

Which are, you can't help but notice, very, very dead.

Or are they?

A thick green blanket of ferns has sprouted along the trunk and several twiggy arms. They're the addition of the Japanese-born, Washington-based artist, who carved out shallow channels in the wood and filled them with moist potting soil. Another unidentified plant -- known in horticulture circles as a volunteer, but more commonly called a weed -- can be seen growing out of the now-lifeless root ball. That one came with the tree, when it was uprooted this summer. (See "The Story Behind the Work.")

Both the ferns and the tiny hitchhiker will be carefully watered and tended during the show's five-week run, after which the tree will be hauled off to its final resting place on the wooded grounds of the appropriately named Dogwood School, a Fairfax County elementary. Students there will study the tree -- covered, one hopes, with thriving ferns -- as an illustration of the cycle of life.

Called "Sleeping Tree," the work raises several interesting questions. Questions about the all-too-frequent denial of our own connection -- both physical and spiritual -- to nature. They're questions that are echoed in Turner-Yamamoto's other work, several examples of which are also on view: minimalist preparatory drawings, atmospheric paintings and fragile sculptural objects of handmade paper produced during a recent residency in Finland.

For those works, nature also provided the artist's toolbox. Turner-Yamamoto sometimes draws with a bird's feather loaded with henna, applied to the paper with his own breath, then fixed with whole milk. Several paper pieces incorporate plant fibers, seeds, even clay (another name for dirt).

What's it all trying to say? Something about respect for the Earth, to be sure. But also something about awareness. An awareness that the succession of the seasons takes place not just outside us, but also within us. In every seed -- just as in every sleeping tree, and indeed in each of us -- there is the potential to awaken in another form from a slumber that only seems eternal. If not life after death, then life in death. The Earth itself, then, is both subject matter and art material.

To the extent that "Sleeping Tree" works -- and I mean both the installation and the exhibition that takes its name from it -- it works like poetry. By making connections between what may seem disparate elements. Between the animate and the inanimate. Art and artlessness. Man and nature. Life and Death.

Joyce Kilmer wrote, "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."

At the Greater Reston Arts Center, Turner-Yamamoto has taken those words to heart.

REGENERATION: THE ART OF THE TREE Nov. 8, 10 to 11:30 a.m. The arts center, in cooperation with the Walker Nature Education Center, will present this family workshop. Participants will make art using natural materials and will learn about the life cycle of plants. $8 per person; $20 for families of three or more. Members $5; $12 for families of three or more.

Sleeping Tree: Shinji Turner-Yamamoto Through Nov. 14 at the Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Suite 103, Reston Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Info:703-471-9242. http://www.restonarts.org. Admission: Free

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