Tree Listening

Previous Installation, 2017

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights features giant ears that are big enough to climb into. The garden plants elephant’s ears and lamb’s ears can be purchased from most good quality garden centres and elephant’s ear fertilizer is freely available, promising to promote large leaves and strong stems. Ears are no strangers to the garden.

Gardens are important to us, both as a source of beauty and food and as a reminder of how our lives are intricately bonded with nature. Sometimes living in a city it’s hard to remember that inches beneath the pavement lies the raw earth of nature, we can become so obsessed with our everyday lives that we forget to listen to what nature is telling us.

These oversized ceramic ears by artist Garry Barker celebrate the fact that York Art Gallery is now asking us to Rethink Ceramic Art but they are also in the garden to encourage us to slow down and listen to nature. But perhaps Nature is also listening to us; these large ears listening for clues as to why rivers and seas are so polluted, listening to find out why noisy humans have created global warming.

Some ears are easy to find, others are hiding in the foliage. When you find them try and think what they could be part of, are they like the Jelly Ear fungus, growing directly out of the earth, or are they cast offs from the BFG?

Find out more in this  Q&A with Garry…

Why did you want to work with the gallery and why in particular are the gardens so important?

I’ve been visiting York Art Gallery on and off for 40 over years and always found hidden gems in the collection. The recent facelift and celebration of its fantastic ceramics collection has however really invigorated the gallery and has highlighted how ceramics as a medium has often been undervalued and little appreciated as an art-form.

The fact that the gallery has also opened out the garden area and has overseen the careful planting of both aromatic and ‘sculptural’ plants, also highlights the vital importance nature has to the development of our aesthetic sensibilities. Some of the most significant artistic developments were initiated by artists simply going back to look and listen to nature.

What was your inspiration behind the ceramic ears?

Most of my work begins in drawing. As well as wondering the streets with a sketchbook, I also make drawings to visualize concerns I have about the world around me. One series of drawings began with people putting their ear to nature. People would be drawn with their ear to a tree or to the ground, as if trying to hear nature’s whispers. I began these drawings after reading about how the average family produces almost two tons of waste a year and how we seem to be constantly told that economies should grow and yet we all now know that the world’s resources are being stretched to their limit.

Eventually the drawings evolved so that it was nature itself that had the ears, as if it was listening to us, just as we were trying to listen to it.

Can you tell us more about the audio that goes with your installation?

For a while now scientists have been aware that plantlife is much more sensitive than was thought. The science of bio-acoustics has raised awareness of this and modern technologies in sound recording and computer enhancement have enabled sounds to be generated and re-recorded so that they are audible to humans.

The artist Alex Metcalf has developed a practice around this and he has constructed devices that enable people to listen in to trees. If I was to suggest anyone to be invited to develop a follow up exhibition to what is on currently in the gardens it would be him.

The sounds I have gathered come from these recording of trees, I haven’t done any recording myself, what I have done is to take these sounds and compose them using the computer software ‘Garageband’, a digital audio workstation. I have been sampling, and cutting and overlaying these sounds in order to create a soundscape that is both the result of ‘tree listening’ and our propensity to be seduced by rhythm and harmony.

Click here to view an article on the Daily Mail website about the ‘scream’ of trees.