‘Like a ramp movie’ – the film about cutting down California’s giant fire-poisoned redwoods | art

WWe find ourselves in a mountainous forest full of vegetation, where soaring conifers lean, swing wildly and then crash to the earth, as if in a choreographed routine. When the trees fall, they break through the branches of their smaller neighbors and emit shock waves when they hit the ground. Sometimes you see small human figures, part of the team orchestrating the fall of the trees. They look comically small.

This is Cull, a five-screen work by Uta Kögelsberger, and the conifers are giant sequoias, some over 2,000 years old and the size of a 25-story building. After being scorched in a devastating California wildfire, these trees are now considered hazardous to homes, roads and power lines. We see five come down, one by one, then the screens refresh and the felling begins again, with another five trees. It’s like a disaster movie made up of nothing but disasters.

Cull has just awarded Kögelsberger the £25,000 Charles Wollaston Prize for the ‘most distinguished work’ in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Past recipients of this prestigious award include Isaac Julien, Rose Wylie and Yinka Shonibare. The win is “as unexpected as can be,” says Kögelsberger, who only submitted it the night before the deadline at the suggestion of a friend. On “varnish day” she was shocked to find that it had been given a room of its own.

Cull is just one part of Kögelsberger’s larger Fire Complex project. Previously, her films and photos appeared on billboards in the UK and US, intensifying discussion and raising funds. Fire Complex has resulted in the planting of 1,144 trees: 1,000 saplings donated by a nursery called Cal Fire, and 144 seven-year-old giant sequoia trees cloned from two ancient trees by the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

In September 2020, wildfires began raging through California’s forests toward Alder Creek, a giant redwood forest that had been home to Kögelsberger’s partner Bob for 20 years. “We have the fifth largest tree in the world in our community – the Stagg tree,” says the artist. “The redwoods are protected. We thought they would never let the forest burn down, but they just couldn’t help it.”

‘We had to do something’… Uta Kögelsberger. Photo: Noah Berger/AP

When the bushfires hit, she and Bob were in London. Via news feeds and satellite images, they followed the progress of the fire, whipped up by a 160 km/h wind. In all, more than 170,000 acres of California forest were burned. Half the community lost their homes — including Bob — and 40% of the giant redwoods in the Alder Creek forest were destroyed.

“On the Saturday, the fire swept 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 ensued, and it took them months to get to California. When the pair finally returned to Alder Creek in December 2020, all that remained were ash-like fragments of Bob’s cheery yellow cabin. “Our area has been declared a disaster area because of the size of the fire. That meant the Federal Emergency Management Agency became responsible for clearing the tribes because anything left over becomes toxic.”

Eighteen months later, the work is still going on. In the intervening months, Kögelsberger’s photographs and films of the cleanup have appeared in public spaces – some during Cop26 – showing on a huge and shocking scale the size of these 2,000-year-old trees.

The previous fires in 2018 cost California’s economy nearly $140 billion, dwarfing the amount the state has spent on fire prevention. “That was one of the things that really made me want to do the project, because it feels wrong,” says Kögelsberger. “Why don’t we invest our money for the fires?” In February of last year, she began posting to a Fire Complex Instagram account — “in memory of the unique ecosystem that has been destroyed” — announcing her intention to replant 100 new trees for every damaged or dead tree she documented. .

Kögelsberger also began to unravel the tangled political substrate, linking the severity of the fires to infighting, vested interests and unsustainable practices, as well as the climate crisis. Things are starting to shift. Members of Congress attended the clearance and replanting activities in Alder Creek, and the bipartisan Save Our Sequoias Act is due to be passed this month, freeing up resources for sustainable forest management.

Why call the work Cull? Apparently, the name came to the artist instinctively. “I’ve long thought of these trees as sentient creatures,” says Kögelsberger, “and now they’re being brutally removed — first by the fire and then by the clearing process.”

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