Phantom Limb


Arts & Culture

Charles Ray American, born 1953 Hinoki, 2007

Charles Ray’s Hinoki (2007) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Ed Bierman, via Flickr

Some six hundred years ago, a cypress tree fell—perhaps soundlessly—in central California. When the artist Charles Ray fell for it, circa 1996, he didn’t carve his initials into its bark; he made sure his love would endure.

Ray had the tree’s corpse removed, in pieces, to his studio in southern California. Silicone molds of it were taken, and a minutely articulate fiberglass model of the corpse was created. This fiberglass, in pieces, was sent to Osaka, Japan, to be used as a model by the master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoshi and his apprentices, who would carve a replica of the replica from strong young cypress. The physical product of Ray’s love for that tree—titled Hinoki, a transliteration of the Japanese for cypress—was completed in 2007, and is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is revving up for a retrospective of Ray’s work, to open in 2015.

Hinoki is a double of a double of a tree that was alive in ancient times. When we look at it, we look into the past. But conceptually, the work responds to what Ray found out about the likely future durability of a sturdy, young cypress: a healthy specimen should be very strong for about four hundred years, after which a “period of crisis” will go on for roughly two hundred years. (Hear, in your mind’s ear, how cracking and splitting punctuates great intervals of silence.) In a final extenuation, lasting approximately four hundred years, a tree like the one from which Hinoki is derived should lie in state, rotting toward the state of decomposition at which Ray discovered the original.

Hinoki will be around for a millennium. And a temperature-controlled gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago is no state of nature; in a rain-, snow-, lightning-, rodent-, disease- and worm-free environment, Hinoki could conceivably celebrate its one-hundred-thousandth birthday intact.

Alas, it seems that there’s no environment in which a tree or an image of a tree, even one which is already horizontal, is not in peril. An Art Institute staff member told me that at an alarming rate, viewers of Hinoki have bumped into and damaged one of the artwork’s thorniest protrusions, marked with an ellipse below.


Thus, in a sense, even museumgoers who may not be able to see the point of Hinoki are still liable to fall for it. Of course, the museum is right to be concerned about its liability for visitors’ pain and suffering, but Art Institute conservators are also worried that if viewers continue to collide with the work, the prong may break and fall some nine hundred years ahead of Ray’s schedule.

So they have removed—the verb amputated tempts me, but it’s not quite right, because the limb is detachable by design, to facilitate transportation of Hinoki—and replaced that length of cypress with a synthetic prosthesis, a replica of a replica of a replica made in Art Institute workshops with a 3D printer.

Because I too have fallen for it, I wonder if Hinoki suffers from that syndrome we call phantom limb. As I write, part of the tree lives a phantom existence among other precious objects, wholes and fragments, deep in storage and properly indexed safety. It may be found and reinstalled if, over the next hundred thousand years, an occasion calls for the whole of Hinoki to be present.

Daniel Bosch is Senior Editor at Berfrois.