To enter Orleans House, you walk through the gallery's small yet flourishing woodland. This time of year the trees' leaves create a brilliant tapestry of green. It's fitting then that Phoebe Boswell's site-sensitive exhibition 'A Tree Says [In These Boughs The World Rustles]' begins in the woodland with a sound installation that plays aloud, as if the trees themselves are speaking to you:
I have an image whereby I have grown old like a tree, you know, those tree rings. I gather rings. You could say it's just made me fatter and bigger. But it's done more than that.
We got married after six months, everybody thought we were crazy. We didn't. You know, we were young.
The voices are real, the sentiment tender and raw at times, joyful and funny at others. These are the voices of our elders, a vast and global group of elders that the artist interviewed about life, memory, history and place.
I wasn't very good at listening to advice, number one. Number two. I don't think I got much advice.
I can remember the smell of paraffin, I can remember the taste of the sugar cube, and I remember the first time I saw a really big tree.
As you continue into the gallery, thinking about the histories and lives behind each elder's voice, you enter the gallery's Octagon Room, itself imbued in history. The Baroque Octagon Room was built in 1720 to entertain on a lavish scale. Today when you visit the Octagon Room, you're met with Boswell's interactive sculpture The Whispers.
The sculpture is a circle of twenty tree stumps and a soft, almost musical whisper of voices. Through this work, Boswell brings the outdoors in, subverting assumptions of what belongs in an opulent eighteenth-century space. The natural earthiness of the tree stumps stands in stark contrast to the room's gilded finishes. The stumps are acutely tied to the site of Orleans House Gallery, each embedded with offcuts from the trees outside.
You're invited to sit and rest a while on any of the stumps. As you do, the soft chorus of whispers grows fainter while the voice coming from the stump where you are seated becomes louder and clearer. You begin to hear the voice, Boswell's voice, asking individual questions. The artist sourced these questions through a public call out, and they are the basis of the interviews she conducted with the elders, whose answers you just heard in the woodland.
The arboreal and intergenerational themes that Boswell introduces in the woodland and the Octagon Room continue throughout the gallery across an expansive installation composed of polyphonic soundscapes, interactive sculpture, site-responsive wall drawings, intimate pencil studies and looped videos. The installation is at once personal and universal, showing how individual experiences make up the collective experience of personhood. It acknowledges that we are who we are because of who came before us and the relationships – both romantic and non-romantic – we have.
In the video triptych A Sanctuary of Trees, three people come together to create an intergenerational sonic work: virtuoso jazz pianist Pat Thomas, a spirited 5-year-old and Boswell herself. Each plays piano improvisations based on music that Boswell wrote as a teenager to accompany a passage of poetic advice given by her grandmother about the journey of life and death.
Boswell covers the wall opposite this triptych with massive floor-to-ceiling drawings of trees in the site-specific ephemeral piece entitled Undeterred by Particulars, The Ancient Laws of Life. Through this wall drawing and the moving image diptych, (A Memory of The) Mother | A Longing To Wander, projected across screens and the gallery floor, Boswell creates an immersive forest-like sanctuary inside the gallery.
This is a forest of memory, interconnectedness and belonging. If you feel like the forest is made for you, it's because it is. If you feel like the forest is you, it's because it is. Boswell's installation reveals how this forest, with its branches reaching high above, its roots extending underground, is part of all of us.
As you leave Orleans House Gallery, you walk back through the woodland. The voices playing aloud become that much more personal because you know they are part of your forest too.
One says: It could just be the sight of a tree or a child or a beautiful object. Just notice those things, take time.
And you listen to this elder and promise yourself you will take the time.
And another says: I think you cope with loss in the same way that a tree copes with a branch that breaks off or an axe that pierces the bark. Or the way the leaves fall in the wind. You simply keep growing.
And you listen to this elder and promise yourself you will keep growing.
'Phoebe Boswell: A Tree Says [In These Boughs The World Rustles]' is on view at Orleans House Gallery through 5th November 2023. Please check the exhibition page on Orleans House Gallery's website if you would like to experience The Whispers installation when it is situated within the Octagon Room, as some days it is located in the Main Gallery.
Julia DeFabo, Arts Officer – Exhibitions and Collections at Richmond Arts Service & Orleans House Gallery