Tree Hut by Juan Rubén Reyes,
The following text was first published by the Auckland Art Gallery in 2013, in an accompany show catalogue for the exhibition Freedom Farmers.
The rain had thickened, fish could have swum through the air; like a deepening scale of piano notes, it struck its blackest chord, and drummed into a downpour that, though it threatened, did not reach us: drippings leaked through the leaves, but the tree-house stayed a dry seed in a soaking plant. —Truman Capote The Grass Harp
Tree Hut was first exhibited at Sue Crockford Gallery in 2004. Over a three-week period the simple hut sat upon four stumps of pine in the centre of the main gallery. Visitors were able to view the work during regular gallery hours. At night this changed. The hut became a lodging, a temporary home, a place to sleep. For a fee of $150 buyers were able to stay overnight, inside the gallery, alongside the artist, inside the work. One buyer a night; 18 in total by the end of the show.
Since 2004 Maloy has constructed more huts, all grouped, regardless of location, under the same name: Tree Hut. One nestled among a group of trees in Moutere, one at the edge the Parramatta River, Sydney, one located on College Hill and now one at the Auckland Art Gallery. Each of these has been constructed in the same way; built from discarded materials intimate to Maloy’s world (his parent’s farm; his studio) or the hut’s display site (Auckland Art Gallery) to very simple specifications. The work’s blueprint and material demands have allowed for this formal reoccurrence; however, each new hut sits farther away temporally, from that first, briefly inhabited, space, and none has displayed any mark of those now distant nights. After all, how could they? These touches of presence, of intimacy, are now ghosts confined to memory for those who paid, and anecdotes for the rest of us.
Simply put, Tree Hut is a container,a vessel. It can be entered, inhabited.And as we know, a version of this one before us now, was inhabited for 18 nights. Tree Hut goes further than this, however. It is a vessel which creates a sense of place. Tree Hut is a place.
That first show drew on and inspired thinking around concepts of ownership,the art market, billable time, privileged access and the complexities of intimacy, among many other things. If we rely onthis first instance of the work, however, as our point of reference, what Maloy is now effectively displaying is a prop. This may be so, but it’s a prop so effectivein creating a sense of place, so hauntedin a way, that its most engaging aspect is not as an object per se but as a metonym for place. A place somehow outside the everyday; private, intimate, even nostalgic.
To look at Tree Hut solely as an object, art or otherwise, is very difficult. I’m not denying that interpretations can and will be applied to this work, that the discussions relating to that first exhibition mentioned above are valid or that Tree Hut can’t be contextualised historically along- side Tracey Emin’s, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With or Tadashi Kawamata’s tree huts. What I want to say is that these layers of interpretation arrive after our first experience of the work. Our initial response to this work, even possibly the title itself, is bodily and intimate. You could argue that the work, as a metonym, offers us an antidote to reason’s ruthless edit of the human person. We look at this simple hut, so representative of childhood experiences, of places outside our usual world, of escape, even of another time, a different time, and we feel things. This effect is enough to free us (for a moment) from the concepts and language we will come to use as we start to try to understand what sits before us, in an art gallery, named, written about. This object engages us so effectively and simply that by the time we say this is an artwork and start to think about what it may mean, we have already shifted from the initial experience.
This shift reminds me of Foucault’s discussion of Apollinaire’s calligrammes wherehe writes, ‘Despite appearances, in forming a bird, a flower, or rain, the calligramme does not say: These things are a dove, a flower, a downpour. As soon as it begins to do so, to speak and convey meaning,the bird has already flown, the rain has evaporated.’1 Tree Hut allows for a similar experience. Once its meaning is established as an ‘object’ we are outside it, a place has been replaced by an object and we are left looking at a silent thing.
The intimacy of experience with this work is also supported by our being allowed actual access. The hut is not situated high up in a tree, we are able to enter, we can smell the wood, view its simple construction close up, sit inside and look out the door and windows. Tree Hut is willing, and able, to reveal its interior, to welcome us. Even the materials used have a sense of intimacy to them. There is touch in the discarded, there is human contact. ‘Discarding something informs us about what we are keeping,’ Maloy says. Choice also informs what we throw out and so it has something of us in it. The discarded retains a sense of us. Sawing a piece of wood imbues both the used and discarded pieces with labour, choices and touch. Tree Hut’s materials have a history of contact and so they also have an intimacy to them, even prior to Maloy’s reclamation of them.
In a way, Tree Hut as first conceived no longer exists. We have a similar object to that first hut and we have an addendum. The addendum is the stories and experiences others had while sleeping in the work back in 2004. It’s also an addendum that our own memories and imaginations may add to. Tree Hut invites, even generates, stories. Stories from everyday life, familiar stories, stories that are known even if we have never lived them.
But this is an artwork, so what of the gallery space in all this? The gallery itself operates as a tree does: necessary initially only to define the hut’s location outside the everyday. Once we actually sit inside, however, the work draws the gallery over itself, as an actual tree hut does leaves and branches. The gallery is relieved of its usual role and instead used to produce privacy. It is simultaneously drawn on and rejected as an ‘out there’. It is both necessary and unimportant.
Before writing this piece I contacted those people who spent a night in the hut. There was nothing startling about their experiences. A poor sleep, the artist snoring, a single memory of teeth being brushed the next morning. Just like in the Capote story, the occupants all came down from the tree and returned to their lives the next morning. No transformations occurred, no revelations. Some expressed a desire for more, some found it an amusing experience and some were indifferent. I was disappointed. The more I considered this work the more it touched me. I was worried my approach to the work was incorrect, that maybe I had been a victim of sentimentality. But eventually I reconsidered. Tree Hut offers us the idea of a temporary escape, of a different kind of there, an ‘outside’, a place where, for a moment, we can escape the necessity of meaning, where, for an instant, we are sheltered from meaning (perhaps even from art); it offers us adry seed in a soaking plant.
1. Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, p24.
Juan Rubén Reyes is a poet who lives and works in Sydney.