Books to Burn

The wooden book is something that first appeared in my work many years ago, with a small group of them exhibited at Ray Hughes Gallery in the 90's. Each one was deeply worked and provided with glass windows into the wooden pages, encasing drawings, specimens, honey comb and other things. In 1990, during a residency and exhibition at Arthouse in Tasmania, I made a big tome out of a single log of Acacia dealbata, a physical embodiment of forestry as something more than the extraction of timber. Split from the log, bark dust-jacketed, my wooden pages described important honey and pollen species of Tasmania. Fruits and leaves enclosed or carved into the timber were named in Latin with hot-fence-wire engravings. 

It was with astonishment and delight that I came to find years later, in Simon Schama's book, "Landscape and Memory" (1996), the eighteenth century precedent of another wooden library, the "Xylotheque" from Germany. Schama writes that here "scientific enquiry and poetical sensibility are effortlessly and wittily married" in a collection of books which not only illustrate the taxonomy of trees, but are made of the materials of each, its bark the binding, seed samples of each species within. "By paying homage to the vegetable matter from which it, and all literature, was constituted, the wooden library made a dazzling statement about the necessary union of culture and nature" 

The question of nature and culture, their indivisibility, is my abiding passion. For a land manager it is at the root of everything. In this new work, using quantities of wood sawn and split to book or firebox size, I think of the whole library of human knowledge brought resoundingly back to its relationship with the natural realm.

Firewood brings forestry into the homes and hearths, the very hearts of our lives. All the romantic and frightening environmental meanings of firewood in the Southern Highlands and Tablelands today are here in this wooden library. 

As I swing down my blockbuster to smash a piece of wood on the chopping block, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the grain inside, the crinkled red of the ironbark, the glitter of medullary rays of allocasuarina, the pink flesh of the redgum. The forest itself is like a library, a storehouse of wisdom.

Alison Clouston, Artist’s Statement,

“Conversion” catalogue, Goulburn Regional Gallery, 2004

1 Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1996, p. 19.2 Schama, p. 19.

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