Four years ago, Berlin-based artist Ulrike Mohr taught herself how to make charcoal. While most artists traditionally use charcoal as a tool for drawing, Mohr savors the aesthetic and conceptual riches of the deceptively modest material. She has explored and presented charcoal in sculptural form, most recently, at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery as part of a group exhibition entitled Landscapes of the Mind. Her installation “Minneapolis Black” began with an elm tree on the river bluffs of the Mississippi on the university campus. Scheduled to be cut down, the tree was selected for Mohr’s most ambitious carbonization project to date: transforming the entire tree into pure carbon.
In nature, finding wood-based charcoal is rare. A tree, struck by lightning, would have to fall into a swamp while still burning. Covered by mud and thus effectively cut off from oxygen, the wood slowly emits its moisture and gaseous content before transforming into carbon. In Mohr’s practice, metal containers of varying sizes hold the wooden objects—branches, rulers, walking sticks. The containers, whose lids are punctured to allow gas and moisture to escape, are fired in a kiln according to a precisely calibrated temperature curve: fast, high heat followed by a slow cooling process. The temperature determines the specific properties of the charcoal. Depending on the wooden material, the resulting charcoal has a distinctive shade of black. In Germany, “Frankfurter Black,” is a recognized pigment, an idea that Mohr connects to with “Minneapolis Black.”
As a sculptural material rather than a drawing implement, charcoal maintains in detail the traits of the wood it once was. The whittling marks on a walking stick, the centimeter marks on a wooden ruler, the subtle, skin-like folds in the growth pattern of a trunk around a branch, all remain visible after the carbonization. A ghostly remnant, the pieces of black carbon distort the shape of the original: they shrink ever so subtly. A wooden ruler’s inch or centimeter marks no longer correctly measure distance. The ruler’s straight line curves and curls, no longer a reliable, standardized tool to measure the world with—but something else entirely: a material memory of the object that once was.
“Minneapolis Black” presents one such material memory. Suspended in space, Mohr invites us to see the elm in unfamiliar ways. Mostly—but not entirely–transformed into charcoal, the tree’s remnants hang in precise parallels from delicate translucent threads. The blackened branches strongly suggest a three-dimensional drawing made up of fragments, implied rather than continuous lines. The individual pieces do not quite touch. No longer whole, the fragments become melancholy objects, steeped in loss. But if looked at askance or from below, the lines in space begin to shift and shimmer: the gaps turn into openings for implied continuities that change with each adjustment of perspective and point of view—a landscape of the mind, indeed.
How we imagine our relationship to the world has long been a central theme in Mohr’s work. With quasi-scientific precision, she sets out to investigate how our point of view, our angle of vision shapes what we are able to perceive. Upon first entering the installation at the Nash gallery, a chaos of black branches awaits. Walking alongside them, the parallel lines of the installation’s structure become apparent. But once visitors begin to engage more interactively—squatting, tilting, squinting—new lines, different continuities emerge. Imaginary topographies exceed scientific maps and measurements.
In “Minneapolis Black,” the sculptural drawing extends to the surrounding walls and the grey floor, where shadows mirror the hanging objects. Their ghostly silhouettes create a second after-image, another after-life: pure carbon, the parched black essence of the formerly living tree, is transformed again into quivering, delicate shadows. Their ephemeral quality sharply contrasts with the resilience of charcoal.
Historically, the chemical properties of the material long made charcoal a crucial element in iron production. So widespread was the practice of coal burning that it is said to have contributed significantly to the deforestation of central Europe reaching back as far as the seventeen hundreds. Today, the environmental significance of carbon has changed: carbon emissions contribute to the warming of the atmosphere. While Mohr’s engagement with charcoal only indirectly alludes to the problem, its history and impact contribute to the material’s complexity.
Mohr’s installation invites us to take a close look at the deceptively ordinary material and marvel at its beauty. By placing carbonized branches too big or too small to be suspended in four vitrines, Mohr suggests a preciousness typically reserved for charcoal’s molecular cousins, diamonds. Massive and astonishingly black, pieces of the elm’s trunk lie stacked, the wood cracked and curved from the kiln’s heat. In the other vitrines, small sticks of carbon nestle together in seemingly impossible intricacy. All of this once was alive, part of the same flowering tree stretching towards sunlight. The poetics of loss embodied by the blackened limbs is profound.
But Mohr contrasts allegories of loss—one member of a species of trees doomed by Dutch Elm Disease—with possibility. On a small white pedestal, brown paper bags, covered in the smudged fingerprints of hands stained by charcoal dust, hold the remainder of the elm’s former branches. The ground-up pigment, “Minneapolis Black,” is ready to be mixed, spread, printed, painted, and transformed into yet another creative incarnation. Invisible but important: each bag’s bottom is stamped—in black, of course—with the title and date of the project and an identification of its contents: “Carbonized Ulme—Elm—Ulmus—Ulmaceae,” from German to English to the Linnaean species and family name.
The touch of science is important and has long been a recurring element in Mohr’s practice. She describes herself as a hitchhiker on scientific method, effectively parasitizing its process while strategically deviating from it whenever her work demands. She excels at setting up systems and parameters for her projects only to abandon them for conceptual, aesthetic, or practical reasons. Her re-assembly of the carbonized elm no longer resembles the growth pattern of the tree. Rather than faithfully map the proliferation of branches in the installation, she re-imagines the tree’s shape in a faint visual echo of the original elm’s growth. The departure invests the tree’s new form with an aesthetic telos that seeks to understand and harness the material’s metaphoric potential.
What began with gathering sticks four years ago in the streets of Berlin as a decidedly local project—using water from a well in the basement of a neighborhood house and patching cracks in the sidewalks with tar, a side product of carbonization—has taken Mohr to an elm tree in Minneapolis. Still site-specific, her work extends far beyond local significance by subtly alluding to the global concern of a changing climate through her aesthetic interventions. More than a material memory, “Minneapolis Black” is an invitation: to look, closely, and to understand how the perspective we choose determines what we are able to see—in the suspended branches of an exquisitely blackened tree or in the world at large.
Christina Schmid, 2012