Gail Ritchie: A memorial suite of tree ring drawings, drawing a parallel between the passage of time marked on each cut tree and the abbreviated lives of dead soldiers. This piece of work follows on from her drawings of civic memorials, as another serial study, through diagram forms, of the icons of remembrance.
Paul Gough: ‘Ritchie’s most contentious recent work is her ambition to create an open-ended suite of ‘tree ring’ drawings. The origin of this long-term project lies in a serendipitous moment when glimpsing a log pile in Albert on the former Somme Battlefield in France at the same moment as browsing a pictorial spread in a British newspaper which carried portrait photographs of the dozens of British servicemen who had died in the fighting in Afghanistan. ‘Growth rings’, also known as ‘tree rings’ or ‘annual rings’, can be seen in any horizontal cross section cut through the trunk of a tree. They indicate new growth in the vascular cambium and result from the change in growth speed through the seasons of the year. Invariably, one ring marks the passage of one year in the life of the tree. (Ritchie 2010b)
Ritchie saw a connection between dendrochronology (the scientific method of dating based on the analysis of patterns of tree-rings) and the lives of soldiers killed in action. Drawing a parallel between the passage of time marked on each tree and the abbreviated lives of dead soldiers Ritchie has created a suite of portraits that connects the two sets of stunted ‘lives’. Each drawing is painstakingly executed in a hard 6H pencil, as if to inscribe each years of tree growth into the body of the paper, a softer 8B pencil is used to fill out the deeper, darker tones. Her first exploratory drawings were simply captioned ‘Captain – 29’, but now the rings are arranged in sobering sequences of age – a row of three x 24 year olds; a row of five x 18 year olds, and uniformly entitled as ‘Larch 35’, or ‘Larch 23’. (Figure Five) As in the ‘Memorial Studies’ suite, the presentation – deadpan, unadorned, unframed – is deliberate, even provocative, and there is an outright refusal to offer more than the most economic explanation about the historic origin of the image, or the conflation of fallen (or chopped) tree and the ‘fallen’ of the battlefield. (Ritchie, 2010c)
Fifteen tree rings were shown in Paris in 2009 and aroused an array of responses and readings from visitors, some choosing to see faces, brain scans, targets, or even bullets embedded in the outer carapace of the tree’s cross-section. Many were clearly shocked at the simple, but telling parallel between annual growth and sudden termination. As Ritchie notes, the project has no end-point, it is open-ended, predicated on the duration of the war in Afghanistan and an unknown number of British dead. (Figure Six) Far from being provocative she sees these artworks as reconciliatory, a joining of natural forces with lost lives, but she recognizes the parallels with premature logging, the felling of immature organisms by violent means. In Northern Ireland, notes Ritchie, such artworks are inevitably seen through the prism of ‘The Troubles’, especially when many of the Poppy watercolours have local names – John, Shaun, Patrick – and the tree rings draw harsh attention to numbers, age, and the duration of conflict. (Ritchie 2010) Felled trees as surrogates for corpses appeared often in Paul Nash’s post-war work. He used the motif of log-piles many times, neatly piled in Landscape at Iden (1929) and again in the funeral pyre of wood for his illustrations in Urne Burialle (1932). Here, in both Nash and Ritchie, we see echoes of the tension between formalised spaces – parks, arboreta, plantations – and the informal, outwardly chaotic appearance of untrammeled nature.
In her most recent drawings of ancient gnarled trees, standing sentinel in the Northern Ireland landscape, Ritchie has become enthralled by how they function as repositories of local and collective memory. She has been visiting and drawing one specimen veteran that has over the years been impregnated with votive offerings, studded with nails, coins, and political logos and strewn with paraphernalia. Under siege from those who wish to preserve it and those who want it burned down, this tree epitomizes for Ritchie the uncomfortable issues of violation, despoliation and political division, which run invisibly through the social and topographical sub-strata of Northern Ireland. Ritchie’s forensic drawings of these ancient wizened stumps brings us back to Paul Nash and the ‘Poison Tree of Java’, as an icon of dread fascination that both lures and repels. There is also a parallel between Ritchie’s drawings of stunted lives and felled saplings, and the emergence at Alrewas of the Ulster Ash Grove, the 1,000 trees planted to commemorate each member of the security forces killed on active service between 1969 and 2000. In a reversal of Ritchie’s images of truncated growth, the Ash Grove proposes enduring memory through strategic planting and numerical design.’