> The People’s Forest: paths through photography, politics, people, and place

Gayle Chong Kwan / The People’s Forest: paths through photography, politics, people, and place

April 2018


In this multi part project on the politics, people, and place of Epping Forest, London’s largest green space, which was once a Royal Forest, a number of paths led the process and the development of my work. Over two years my research with diverse communities has spanned walks, workshops, events, sensory feasts, and talks exploring the arboreal history, politics, and memories of Epping Forest, and the global issues facing other forests.

First, I developed an 11-metre-high sculpture, The Fairlop Oak, which was installed in the foyer of the Barbican (8 Oct 2017 – 18 March 2018). The fairlop oak was a tree that once stood in nearby Hainault Forest and which was the site of a popular eighteenth-century fair. The work consisted of a geometric pollarded tree, a wooden scaffold referencing recent local road protests in the 1990s against the building of the nearby M11 Link Road (the protests focused on ancient trees that were to be torn down), a section of a tree trunk, and felled branches on which sit miniature houses created through workshops by people local to the forest.

The project culminated in an exhibition of new photographic and sculptural work, The People’s Forest, at the William Morris Gallery (9 March – 20 May 2018). For The People’s Forest I developed a series of photographic Forest Portraits (2018) of people who have a special relationship with the forest, taken at sites that have a personal resonance for them. The subjects include conservation arborists who manage the forest, a forest keeper and guide, a circus-trained aerialist who does her stretches in the forest, and a novelist who is also an allotment holder with a plot on the edge of the forest. I photographed the sitters wearing sculptural headdresses that I created from photographic images of the forest complete with root, branch, and tendril-like forms cut directly into the surface of the resulting print. The headdresses are also presented as three-dimensional sculptural works in the show. The works are informed by William Morris’ passion for the medieval epics, which he enacted during childhood play in Epping Forest, and my interest in the visual management and artifice of the forest landscape. For The People’s Forest I also developed colour photographs of Intimate Trees (2018) in Epping Forest; twisted, entwined sensual forms that have slowly grown to lean on and embrace each other, becoming co-dependent and alluding to the liminal nature of the primeval woods: from its history as a place where highway men, such as Dick Turpin, and gangs have hidden; where rubbish (and sometimes bodies) have been dumped; and where sensual and illicit activities have long taken place.

The work of William Morris first aroused my interest in the forest as an essentially human environment. In his work, and in particular his writing in his utopian novel, News from Nowhere, Morris argues that landscape is something created by people’s physical and spiritual needs. While drawing on Ruskin’s romantic critique of capitalist civilisation, much of Morris’ thought was ecological at its core. Morris rode through Epping Forest on his pony in his childhood, which he said he knew yard by yard, and he was enamoured by the uncanny shape of the forest’s distinct pollarded trees. The unique shape of these pollards is shaped by the forest’s history of politics and protest. The thick set fingers of chunky forms reach hand-like upwards into spindly thinner branches were created from the commoners’ rights to lop off branches for their own use as building materials and firewood. This shape and its associated histories became the basis of the sculpture, The Fairlop Oak, which I developed to cut through two floors of the Barbican foyer, and to be visible from its base to its tip from various floor levels.

Throughout my time working in the forest it was people who were my introductions, doorways, and thresholds into the forest, or rather than one forest, into the many forests that Epping Forest is, and has been over time. The stories that I explored are nestled amongst the historical undergrowth of London’s biggest woodland, as it is increasingly engulfed by the growing city. The trees as landmarks, and their relative visibility and invisibility, or as ever changing and shifting landmarks over the seasons, became both clearer and denser as I spent more time exploring the different parts of the forest.

Spending time with the arborists was a lesson in visual language, bodily engagement, and love. Through spending time watching them work, walking in the forest, and talking to them about their relationship with the forest, I began to see which parts of certain trees were cut, taken back, and trimmed, how certain areas were cleared or planted in different ways, and I even came to recognise the work of the particular team of arborists when walking through the forest myself. The forest, and the associated realities of the seasonal changes and weather conditions in which they worked, was part of the arborists. One arborist has large strong hands which look like they have developed over time specifically to work with the sheer scale of the trunks, branches and soil; another arborist had grown up in a house near the forest and could recount detailed changes in the areas of the forest that he had spent time playing in as a child. The greens grew in hue and the leaves in variety of shapes. Through other people’s eyes I began to see the forest in more vivid complexity.

For the Forest Portraits (2018), I am one of the sitters in this series of nine photographs, acknowledging that the forest is in my life and I am in it. From the top room of my house I can hear the traffic along the nearest stretch of the M11 Link Road and my children and I bear testament to the poor air quality of our area due to the road, that was eventually built after years of protests in the 1990s against its building.

 – essay by Gayle Chong Kwan, April 2018


Gayle Chong Kwan: The People’s Forest continues at William Morris Gallery, London until 20 May 2018