Tree Boat: A Meditative Non-Site

During September 2005 New York City witnessed a strange and unexpected gesture. A barge filled with lush and extravagant trees, plants and shrubs making its way around Manhattan pulled by a tugboat. Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan was developed from a simple sketch Robert Smithson made in 1970, three years before his sudden death. The project remained as an idea for over 30 years, until Minetta Brook and the Whitney Museum decided to make it a reality on the occasion of Smithson’s retrospective at the Whitney. Developed under the supervision of Smithson’s widow, artist Nancy Holt, Floating Island had the desired effect; the work became a ‘non-site’1 of Central Park. In fact, in his 1973 essay Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape, Smithson argues that the Central Park designer was perhaps the first American ‘earthwork’ artist. (164) The landscape as a dynamic generator of relations and associations, as opposed to formalistic interpretations of nature, is a major reference point in Smithson’s work.

This idea of the dialectical landscape and of nature’s ‘unexpected conditions’ still influence a generation of artists today. In practices that incorporate nature, the work ceases to be an object to become ‘a process of ongoing relationships.’ (Smithson, 160) Wilfredo Prieto’s Walk (2000), for instance, presents an engaging situation that refers to the ‘dialectical materialism applied to the physical landscape’. (Smithson, 160) In it, Prieto fills a wheelbarrow with soil and a house plant, and takes it for a 5km walk around the countryside in the Caribbean island of Curaçao. This seemingly absurd but poetic gesture, an act that echoes Smithson’s idea of the ‘non-site,’ is an act that attempts to recontextualize the landscape from the vantage point of the wanderer as a constant succession of movements, shifts and relocations. Similarly, Myeongbeom Kim’s ongoing project Tree Boat develops mobile actions that produce dialectial relations. Furthermore, realized in Seoul (Korea), Chicago (US) and now Dorado (Puerto Rico), Tree Boat demonstrates the malleability of ‘locational identity,’ (Kwon) which is undoubtedly bound to site-specific projects, for in each place or site, the work acquires different social, cultural and political meanings.

In Tree Boat, Myeongbeom Kim performs a meditative action by planting a tree on a small boat and taking it on a journey along a river. In Dorado, the route starts at La Plata River, which runs from the South of the island and flows into the North Atlantic Sea. But compared with previous renditions of the project, Tree Boat in Dorado reflects the luxuriant and abundant foliage of Puerto Rico. Choosing native plants, including a Ficus longifolia and a Tabebuia rosea, the project transformed from a single tree to a lavish garden. The choice of boat also significantly changed the meaning of the project. For the performance, the artist chose a local yola, a small boat commonly employed by people from adjacent islands, particularly the Dominican Republic and Cuba, to crossover illegally to Puerto Rico. The problematics of immigration, borders and territorial ownership, currently a major topic of conversation and debate on an international scale, then becomes an important factor to consider when interpreting the work. For Kim, the tree comes to represent the individual, who affected by unforeseeable circumstances, decides to leave his country ‘in search of the miraculous.’2 The tree, an image that evokes permanence and stability, then initiates a dialectical relationship with its environment conditioned by immediate circumstances and probabilities.

Returning to Smithson’s idea of the ‘non-site,’ Kim’s project elicits a sense of place but also of displacement. If our identities are forged by difference, time and movement, like our notion of space, then it is an ever evolving dialectic. Kim’s poetic and meditative gesture expands upon this idea; a personal journey that reveals the plural and engaging nature of our environment.

Carla Acevedo-Yates

Works Cited: Smithson, Robert, and Jack D. Flam. "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape." Robert Smithson, the collected writings . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 157-171. Print.
Kwon, Miwon. One place after another: site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

1 Robert Smithson coined the term ‘non-site’ referring to indoor earthworks, but the concept can also be applied to displaced sites.

2 To describe Myeongbeom Kim’s work I refer to the title of Bas Jan Ader’s performance In Search of the Miraculous to underscore the meditative and spiritual aspect of the work.

Artist: Myeongbeom Kim

Place: From La Plata River into the North Atlantic Sea, Dorado, Puerto Rico

Sponsor: Fist Art Foundation