The Social Lives of a Tree


While on residency in Surinam, we were invited by the GrazMuseum to produce a new work for the exhibition Hall of Half-Life. We proposed the museum that we ask a woodworker from Surinam to make a museum bench from local tropical hard wood, while we documented the production process. Two men from the Arawak tribe, Mr. Alwin Sabajo and Mr. Serge Lingori, were willing to accept the commission. They invited a visiting member of the Warao tribe, Mr. Jerome Doyle, to team up with them.

In western societies, when we speak about materials, we tend to refer to refined and pure substances; ready for our use. In the real world, out there, material is never unalloyed or disconnected. It is part of a mixture, an entangled and living organism. The three men cut a tree in the rainforest and carved it into a museum bench in turtle shape, in the way that their ancestors taught them. They made it low, so that visitors of the museum need to use their muscles. “Otherwise the legs of these people weaken and then they might fall”, they noted.

The bench was partly burned in charcoal to created a distinct black pattern. They used the dried skin of a ray fish to sand the turtle’s surface smooth. The Arawak also demonstrated how the fish skin could be attached to a sanding machine, to speed up the process.

When the work was done, the men expressed the hope that the artifact would not end up in the land of the white.

We therefore convinced the museum in Graz, that the bench that they had commissioned and payed for, had to be donated to a museum in Suriname. From the wooden bench we made a mold, and from the mold we produced a plaster copy. It is this white plaster replica of the rainforest turtle bench that we showed in GrazMuseum and that since then travels around in the white cubes of contemporary art.

The Social Lives of a Tree was commissioned by steirischer herbst, 2015, for the exhibition Hall of Half-Life, GrazMuseum, curated by Tessa Giblin. Supported and co-produced by Tembe Art Studio, Moengo, Suriname.

Thanks to Marcel Pinas, Mr. Liekson, Mr. Alwin Sabajo, Mr. Serge Lingori, Mr. Jerome Doyle.


Plaster replica of wooden bench, HD video 20 min., 2015