2008-09 | two site-specific installations with: a dead dogwood tree, ferns, volunteer plant, soil, Virginia clay, water | Greater Reston Arts Center / Dogwood Elementary School woodland, Reston, VA, USA

curator: Joanne Bauer | supported by: Greater Reston Arts Center, Virginia Commission for the Arts, Arts Council of Fairfax County, Reston Association, Shady Lane Tree Movers, IPAR Initiative for Public Art Reston | special thanks: Jennifer Blum, Cheryl Freeman, Donna Garriety, Patricia Greenberg, Stefan Greene, Suzi Guardia, Erica Harrison, Adam Jenkins, Keith Kanzler, Linda Martin, Brian Murphy, Paul Priestley, Marco Rando, Howard Robinson, Katie Shaw, Sarah Tanguy, Claudia Thompson-Deahl, Andrea Tree, Dogwood Elementary School, GRACE Explore More Docents, residents of Governor’s Square, staff of Greater Reston Arts Center


A 25-foot dogwood rests prone on the gallery, a cone of clay supports its myriad roots. Gnarled branches and leaves, now stilled in death, once rustled in joyous abandon to the wind. In startling contrast, areas of green temper the dominant umbers and sienas. A hardy volunteer plant sprouts from the base, while baby ferns grow from channels along the trunk and branches, and mounds on the floor. Undulating its way to the ceiling, this miraculous meditation on the cycle of life forms a holistic link between heaven and earth.

From start to finish, the project took over two years, with Shinji Turner-Yamamoto teaming up with community volunteers, naturalists and other specialists. After the tree’s initial uprooting and replanting in a parking lot, it went on view at GRACE for five weeks. Then, leaving behind a swirling tracery of dirt, leaves, and twigs, it was moved to the grounds of nearby Dogwood Elementary School. Here the artist made another mound and painted the tree with a clay slip from the original soil to highlight the return to the starting point. A frequent shape in Turner-Yamamoto’s work, the mound is based on two he saw at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto where they served as vessels for spiritual power. In Sleeping Tree, the regeneration metaphor hinges on the shape. As both womb and tomb, the mound affirms the procreative potential of nature, complementing the birthing allusions of the channel system and the tree spade.

Turner-Yamamoto had his own rebirth as a child, when he escaped the urban asphalt of Osaka and encountered the forest and the sea for the first time. He began collecting fossils and other organic materials, later experimenting with them to create pigments. His interest in physical properties grew into an exploration of metaphoric potential. In his current practice, the use of handmade colors from indigenous materials acts as a portal into the landscape, letting him feel its rhythms, stratum by stratum, and record his emotional response. Sleeping Tree is the latest incarnation of the Global Tree Project, a series of site-specific installations that seek to renew connection to the natural world. While recalling tree-planting projects by Yoko Ono and Josef Beuys, Sleeping Tree relates more to the eco-pattern of old growth forests and emphasizes partnership over intervention.

It took years for Sleeping Tree to reach this state and in years to come, its spirit will live on as a nurse tree, at once completing and perpetuating the cycle. By isolating one tree in the artificial context of a gallery, Turner-Yamamoto adds intimacy to what is a continual occurrence in the forest. The impact of this wondrous act is undeniable. In shepherding the transformation, the artist awakened viewers of all ages to the simple truth: we too engage in the cycle of life. And as we draw comfort from this communion, we acknowledge our tacit complicity in violating the natural order and our shared responsibility of care giving. Back at Dogwood Elementary, the students address Sleeping Tree by its proper name. Grasping the project’s spirituality, they are inspired to create their own artworks. The message has indeed come full circle.

Sarah Tanguy is an independent curator and critic based in Washington, DC.
below - photography: Joanne Bauer