All That’s Left

An installation by Peter Fluck and Tony Myatt

An enormous piece of a Monterey cypress, a species of tree native to the Central Coast of California, is lying on its side in a gallery in Cornwall. It’s in the middle of the room, centre stage, but many of the people who have come to see it head straight to the gallery walls.

Here, photographs of muscular, arid forms hang alongside close-ups of cavities, rifts, and ripples reminiscent of sand. Charcoal and conté drawings are lyrical. Beneath hard black lines soft strokes appear to move upon the page. Bearing a resemblance to dance notation, the drawings resist a single form, hinting at time, movement and change.

At one end of the space a roll of 100 further photographs is projected onto a screen – every one of them a close-up of a different part of the trunk-piece.
Some of the images could be mistaken for aerial shots of deserted territories or parts of the anatomy. Even where what is pictured is obviously wood, the material is rendered different. It twists and zigzags, juts, wrinkles and curves to mimic fabric, stone, earth, metal and bone. The pictures vary in light, density and sinuousness, but they have in common shades of ochre, silver, gold, black and white. Every image is unmistakably created with an abstract eye.

The sounds of birdsong, a woodpecker, insects, wind, a thunderstorm and a chainsaw whistle, knock, rasp and howl around the room. Played in layers through eight speakers, each sound is selected for being as close as possible to the sounds native to the environment in which this particular tree was felled. What is left of it demands another look.

‘All That’s Left’ is Peter Fluck’s response to the felling of a tree near his home on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula. An artist and caricaturist best known for his founding role in the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, for over 20 years Fluck would regularly pass the centenarian cypress, observing its seasonal changes in colour. Standing tall on the roadside of a sparsely wooded region, it was an arboreal landmark hard to miss. When, out driving, Fluck first saw the tree in its reduced form it held for him an instant power and significance. The six-foot lump of timber lying on the ground looked fantastic. When, moments later, he realised what it was, the charismatic trunk – slashed with the marks of a chainsaw – assumed a tragic presence, left on the ground as a sacrificial victim. By the end of the same day, the tree’s remains were in Fluck’s garden, hauled there by a crane.

Over the course of the following year, as the bark fell off the tree, metaphor clung to it. Its pale bones gradually became exposed – their smoothness emphasising the chainsaw-wounds. A different sort of sculpture emerged. The colours and textures of the bare wood refined its beauty. The visible interference to the tree’s patterns of growth and experience elevated its tragedy. Fluck, the astute observer, trained in alighting on those things that make a subject interesting, began creating his photographic impressions.

Fluck’s obsessive fascination with this found piece resulted in hundreds of digital images taken over the next three to four years. He approached Tony Myatt, professor of sound at the University of Surrey and someone with whom he had previously collaborated, to produce an audio reimagining of the tree.
Myatt, a specialist in spatial sound reproduction and recording, created an ambisonic track that draws the listener directly into the life of this Monterey cypress.

By the time Fluck embarked on his drawings of this part of a trunk, his knowledge of it was so intimate he did them from memory. Jettisoning his former, studied approach to drawing, Fluck responded freely to his subject. The drawings developed their own expressionist aesthetic. Fluck has been drawing in this unrestrained, calligraphic way ever since – artist and subject continuing to change one another.

What began as a project without a plan became a multi-faceted work of connected layers. In essence a tribute to the loss of an important, living thing, the intention of the work is humbly that people look and see.

In the Tremenheere Gallery, in the grounds of a sub-tropical sculpture garden filled with beech, oak, holly and sweet chestnut, the visitors return to the central exhibit. It is October 2018 and the first time ‘All That’s Left’ has shown. People arrived unsure of what they had come to see. Now, in the familiar company of two-dimensional images and prints, they look again at the trunk-part that’s lit like an old actor in a Beckettian play. People are spending time with it. They touch it. They are asked not to climb it, but children start to. Something happened to this tree. Something is happening to it still.

Today, the trunk is back in Fluck’s garden, between his house and studio. He still photographs it when the light is good. It’s provided the inspiration for yet more drawings and paintings. He is using its surface to make some rubbings. He has taken moulds from it, which will form the basis for some ceramics – to make the tree permanent in a new way. Maybe it could be a hologram.

The Artists

Peter Fluck is an artist and kinetic sculptor. A co-founder, along with Roger Law, of Spitting Image, the enormously successful satirical TV series broadcast between 1984 and 1996, Fluck has since focused on ceramics, printmaking and mobiles.

Tony Myatt is the Professor of Sound at the University of Surrey with a special interest in the composition and performance of computer music and contemporary audio art. ‘All That’s Left’ is their second collaboration.

In 1997 Fluck and Myatt created ‘Chaotic Constructions’, an interactive kinetic sculpture/audio installation. Originally created for the Tate Gallery, St Ives, ‘Chaotic Constructions’ showed in galleries across the world, including in Bath, Corsica and Hong Kong. It won a Herald Angel Award at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival.

Tony Myatt thanks field recordist Chris Watson (whose credits include BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Wire’ and the BBC series ‘Frozen Planet’) for his help and generosity in providing some of the source material.

Words by Caroline Davidson