Ghost Tree

2 min read  ·  11 Apr 2024

HENI Talks presents Anya Gallacio's Ghost Tree

Among the trees, birds, and flowers of the park surrounding Manchester’s Whitworth art gallery are scattered works of public art, sculptural treasures hidden from the bustling city beyond. Discover one of the Whitworth’s most beloved public sculptures in the newest film from HENI talks, Anya Gallacio's Ghost Tree.

Commissioned by the Whitworth to coincide with the gallery’s major refurbishment and extension in 2015, and completed in 2016, this untitled sculpture by British artist Anya Gallaccio is fondly known by locals as the Ghost Tree. As Whitworth’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Leanne Green demonstrates, the sculpture’s twisting, reflective forms deeply resonate with the story of the gallery and its park surroundings.

Anya Gallaccio is one of the most renowned figures to emerge from the generation of the Young British Artists, a group of artists who exhibited together in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and who are known for their new approaches to materials and techniques. Gallaccio’s practice often centres on the relationship between nature and culture, making her a perfect fit for this sculptural commission at the Whitworth,where nature has always played a major role: in 1889, it was the first museum in England to be founded in a park, and the two spaces were conceived together from the start.

Gallaccio is interested in cycles of life and death, and the theme of rebirth frequently appears in her works. She often incorporates organic materials such as trees, flowers, ice, and sugar into her installations, upon which the natural forces of decay unfold over time, resulting in the transformation of the work. Ghost Tree, which evokes a natural form but is constructed from stainless steel, an industrial, permanent material, stands as an intriguing reversal of Gallaccio’s typical practice. Yet it still engages with the forces of transformation with which the artist is fascinated.

The starting point for this piece was an actual tree that had once stood in the very spot in which the sculpture is now located. Having died and become unsafe, the tree was sadly removed in 2014. Gallaccio’s Ghost Tree stands as a response to this loss, transforming the real tree into a shining monument. It is reborn in a negative form, embodying the natural lifecycles with which Gallaccio frequently works. The sculpture itself also undergoes continuous transformation, as the stainless steel from which it was produced reflects its surroundings. Depending on the time of day or the place from which the statue is viewed, it alternately appears shiny and silvery, or dappled brown and green as it mirrors the trees and grass that surround it. This latter effect works like camouflage; Ghost Tree is simultaneously there and not there, as solid as a monument, yet also as ephemeral as a mere memory of something that once was.

Ghost Tree also has a broader significance that intertwines with the history of the Whitworth and its vision for the future. The 2015 refurbishment and expansion worked to integrate the gallery with its natural surroundings. The expansion is more open, connecting the art inside to the park outside, featuring a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass that create a direct sight line to a row of London plane trees – one of which was the tree that had died and been felled, leaving an empty space in this rhythmic dialogue.

Ghost Tree patches this broken link, bridging the gap between the worlds of art and nature and solidifying the relationship between the gallery, its art, the human audience, and the park. It also serves to make the work of the Whitworth universal and eternal: along with the other sculptures throughout the park, Ghost Tree creates a living, breathing gallery that is accessible to the public even when the buildings are closed. Bringing art outside and capturing both the natural world and living memory in a material and form closely related to the gallery itself, Anya Gallaccio’s Ghost Tree truly encapsulates the spirit of its surroundings.