OWe are in a dense mountainous forest of growth, where the slender conifers bend over, sway wildly and then crash to the ground, like in a choreographed routine. When trees fall, they crush the branches of their smaller neighbours, sending shock waves as they hit the ground. Sometimes you spot tiny human figures, part of the team orchestrating the downfall of the trees. They look comically small.
This is Cull, a five-screen work by Uta Kögelsberger, and the evergreens are giant sequoias, some over 2,000 years old and as tall as a 25-story building. After being burned in a devastating California wildfire, these trees are now considered dangerous to homes, roads and power lines. We watch five come down, one at a time, then the screens refresh and the felling begins again, along with five more trees. It’s like a disaster movie made up only of disasters.
Cull has just brought Kögelsberger the Charles Wollaston Prize of £25,000 for ‘the most distinguished work’ at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Previous recipients of this prestigious award are Isaac Julien, Rose Wylie and Yinka Shonibare. The win is “as unexpected as it gets,” says Kögelsberger, who only submitted it the day before the deadline at the suggestion of a friend. On the “opening day”, she was shocked to discover that she had been given a separate room.
Cull is just one part of Kögelsberger’s larger Fire Complex project. Previously, his films and photographs have appeared on billboards in the UK and US, heightening discussions and raising funds. Fire Complex led to the planting of more than 6,000 trees: 1,000 saplings donated by the USDA Forest Services, 5,000 donated by a nursery called Cal Fire and 144 seven-year-old giant sequoias, cloned from two ancient trees by the Archangel Ancient Tree. Archive.
In September 2020, wildfires ravaging California’s forests began moving towards Alder Creek, a grove of giant redwoods that had been home to Kögelsberger’s partner Bob for 20 years. “We have the fifth tallest tree in the world in our community – the Stagg tree,” explains the artist. “The redwoods are protected. We thought it was out of the question for them to let the grove burn, but there was nothing they could do about it.
When the wildfires hit, she and Bob were in London. Using news feeds and satellite images, they tracked the progress of the blaze, fanned by 100mph winds. In total, more than 170,000 acres of California forest were incinerated. Half the community lost their homes – including Bob – and 40% of the Alder Creek Grove’s giant sequoias were destroyed.
“The Saturday the fire passed through the community, we decided we had to do something – to help us deal with it,” says Kögelsberger. A terrible period of grief and frustration followed and it took months before they could get to California. When the couple finally returned to Alder Creek in December 2020, all that was left of Bob’s cheerful yellow cabin were ashen fragments. “Our area was declared a disaster area due to the scale of the fire. This meant the Federal Emergency Management Agency became responsible for clearing the logs as anything left becomes toxic.
Eighteen months later, work continues. During those months, Kögelsberger’s photographs and films of the cleanup have emerged in the public domain – some during COP26 – showing, on a vast and shocking scale, just how tall these 2,000-year-old trees are.
The 2018 fires cost California’s economy nearly $140 billion, eclipsing the amount the state spent on fire prevention. “That’s one of the things that really made me want to do the project, because it feels the wrong way,” says Kögelsberger. “Why don’t we invest our money before the fires? In February last year, she began posting to an Instagram account Fire Complex – “in memory of the unique ecosystem that has been destroyed” – and announced her intention to replant 100 new trees for each tree damaged or damaged. death she documented.
Kögelsberger also began to untangle the tangled political substrate, linking the severity of the fires to internal conflicts, vested interests and unsustainable practices as well as the climate crisis. Things are starting to move. Members of Congress have toured the cleanup and replanting operations at Alder Creek, and the bipartisan Save Our Sequoias Act is expected to be introduced this month, providing resources for sustainable forest management.
Why call the work Cull? Apparently, the name came to the artist instinctively. “I have long thought of these trees as sentient beings,” says Kögelsberger, “and now they are being brutally cut down – first by fire, then by the cleaning process.”
This article was last modified on July 4, 2022. Fire Complex led to the planting of over 6,000 trees, not 1,144 as reported in an earlier version.