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The Fairlop Oak

Stephen Bode takes a look at Gayle Chong Kwan’s sculpture of the famed pollarded tree that once stood in Hainault Forest, the culmination of a two-year project investigating the history, politics and people of London’s ancient woodland.

The natural tendency of a tree is to generate offshoots. It puts out feelers in the form of branches and sends out seeds to create new plantings. A tree may be permanently rooted in one spot, but it
never stands still. It is the living epitome of a will to grow – it proliferates, and it multiplies.

A tree can also be a marker of how a community grows around it: an index of how much things can change over the course of a lifetime (even a decade) as well as a symbol of continuity going back through the generations.

One such tree was the so-called Fairlop Oak, a particularly impressive, imposing specimen that towered over a vast clearing at the edge of Hainault Forest to the east of London. In its shadow, and under its canopy, an annual fair took place that grew in size and popularity throughout the 18th century, eventually, attracting crowds of up to 200,000 people. Although the original oak no longer stands (it was fatally damaged by storm and fire a century and a half ago), the fair that took its name and inspiration from it quickly replaced it as an equally prominent beacon in the local landscape.

A celebration of the diversity of personal stories, and of common roots

The Fairlop Oak is the name of a new artwork by Gayle Chong Kwan that is also the linchpin of a wider project of hers called The People’s Forest. Evoking the form of a pollarded tree, Chong Kwan’s informal sculptural structure has a playful, totemic character. At the end of each branch is a thin, delicate tendril sprouting from each stem like a ribbon on a maypole. And at the end of each of these is a tiny model of a rudimentary ‘house’. Bursting forth like haphazard fruit, they hang in the air like lanterns, or bits of bunting, or baubles of mistletoe. Their presence alludes to the significance of the forest as a place of shelter and a site of early human habitation and also, perhaps, to its annual harvest of timber as a shared, renewable resource.

Chong Kwan’s art consciously cultivates offshoots. From a central premise or framework, her pieces evolve through the participation of the people she encounters in her research and on her travels. The multiple, birdbox-sized houses that decorate her homage to the memory of the Fairlop Oak have all been fabricated by various individuals she has met along the way. Made from waste materials found lying around the borough, each one is a rough approximation of the homes that each participant currently inhabits. A celebration of the diversity of personal stories, and of common roots, the work also mourns other houses (and communities) that have been lost, as the capital city expands and as roads and other major developments clear away what was there before.

The version of The Fairlop Oak that is showing at the Barbican is itself an outgrowth of an earlier manifestation that was staged at the Walthamstow Garden Party in July 2017. Reflecting on the two-way traffic between inner and outer London that events like the Fairlop Fair would have instigated, the work deftly links different localities and histories – all gathered together under one roof as if under the big top of the branches of a spreading greenwood tree.

Gayle Chong Kwan’s The People’s Forest is in the Barbican Foyers until 18 Mar 2018.

Originally published in the November 2017 Guide.