Words by Dr. Christina Lanzl
When conceptual and environmental artist Konstantin Dimopoulos moved to Melbourne, Australia, from New Zealand, he was struck by the abundance of trees in his new surroundings. With a population of 4.25 million, Melbourne boasts 70,000 trees, which cover 20 percent of the city—and city planners hope to increase that ratio to 40 percent. Besides being a beautiful sight, trees have an increasingly important role in this age of global warming; they trade carbon dioxide for oxygen, provide welcome shade, and bring nature into the city. Yet primordial forests globally have been reduced to just 30 percent of their original area, robbing the earth of these positive environmental impacts.
After setting up his Melbourne studio in 2003, Dimopoulos immersed himself in the subject of trees in the environment. His research led him to the insight that “we are creatures who like certainty. We become disconcerted at our local environment chang- ing. Yet it’s we as a species that have altered and destroyed much of the global environment.” Dimopoulos realized that public art would be the perfect means to connect with those who felt the way he did and to reach out to others in order to make an impact. Two years later, the artist launched Sacred Grove—The Blue Forest, Afforestation Art Action in his hometown. For this tempo- rary installation, Dimopoulos applied an environmentally safe, water-soluble pigment to the trunks and main branches of trees, preferring species with a smooth bark.
The artist chose the ultramarine blue colour because it does not naturally appear on trees: “Color is a powerful stimulant, a means of altering perception and defining space and time,” Dimopoulos says. “The fact that blue is a color that is not naturally identified with trees suggests to the viewer that something unusual, something out of the ordinary has happened. It becomes a magical transformation.” Since his initial project, Dimopoulos has re-created The Blue Trees on three continents in 10 cities, including Houston, London, Sacramento, and Vancouver. In each case, the project aims to intro- duce new audiences and stakeholders to the issue of deforestation around the world.
Dimopoulos’s “magical transformation” was particularly evident in Houston, where two large stands of 600 trees—the largest number so far—became a measure of success for community engagement. More than 200 volunteers, including the mayor, participated in painting them. Many thousands enjoyed The Blue Trees of Houston, where millions of city trees had been lost to the 2011 drought and the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Houstonians took to the project even more than anticipated, according to Jonathon Glus, president and CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance. Many residents appropriated the project for their own purposes, including yoga classes, picnics, and photo shoots. “The Blue Trees gave us numerous opportunities to engage the com- munity in a meaningful social art action and the memory of The Blue Trees will stay with us for years to come,” Glus writes.
With one of the world’s largest urban forests, Sacramento, where The Blue Trees was staged in 2012, has made a name for itself as the “City of Trees.” The local urban forestry department presently manages 115,000 trees on public land; one of the city’s electric utilities and a nonprofit partner annually add 13,000 newly planted. The Blue Trees stands in the tradition of Joseph Beuys and his 7000 Oaks project as well as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who real- ized a tree project for the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland in 1998. By now, Dimopoulos considers the work his “legacy project,” both from an artistic standpoint and as a catalyst for his goal to protect forests and grow more trees. More broadly, The Blue Trees stands as a potent example of how public art projects can serve as a powerful tool in support of a cause.