Robert Voit. New Trees

Robert Voit’s Peculiar Arboretum ─ 

An Epilegomenon

 “The influence of the physical world on the moral world, the mysterious interaction between the sensual and that which transcends the senses, lends a unique and still too little recognized appeal to the study of nature when one elevates it to higher points of view.”

Those words, which may seem somewhat peculiar at first reading, were addressed by Alexander von Humboldt to the kind readers of his epochal tome Ansichten der Natur [Views of Nature], which had already undergone its third printing in 1849. Humboldt’s almost missionary intent did justice to the realization that the reciprocal spheres of influence between the intellectual-spiritual and the material are only to be reached through an extensive study of nature. But what method ought one follow to achieve the desired intermingling? The great polymath suggested two strategies: on the one hand, one would need a botanical system to differentiate the plants in their enormously diverse forms and figures; on the other hand, “the marvelous multitude” of vegetative forms which required differentiation made it necessary to classify “certain chief forms … back to which many others can be traced. To identify these types – the individual beauty, distribution and grouping of which determine the physiognomy of a country’s vegetation – one need only consider what, through its sheer mass, individualizes the overall impression of a location.” Humboldt’s unprecedented approach consisted of a systematic viewing, the first step of which sought to take note of all details, however insignificant they might initially seem, so that these could serve as the basis for a subsequent distillation of archetypical natural forms.


Not without good reason, this ingenious train of thought runs through the book’s fifth chapter, which Humboldt devoted to Ideen zu einer Physiognomik der Gewächse [Ideas about a Physiognomy of Plants] and in which he listed no fewer than sixteen forms of plants and trees that he had encountered on his journeys around the world. His categorical catalogue of “natural physiognomies” ranges from palms to Musaceae, mimosas to cacti, conifers to orchids, and lianas to grasses. Today too, one might agree that the great natural philosopher’s methodical approach, with implications that point far beyond botany, is perhaps the most effective way to understand the world. From the side of the natural sciences, but also from the artistic side for the past several decades, one would be tempted to ascribe an almost timeless validity to this method. It may therefore seem appropriate to talk about a love of trees. And this would be all the more fitting here because one is continually confronted by the threefold task of defending oneself against a romantic wallowing in emotion, a narrow-minded nationalism, and an abstruse esotericism. The encyclopedic attempt to probe and select each arboreal subject and to assign these thousands of subjects to a manageably few types, coupled with a soberly objective stocktaking, avoids sui generis every threat of subjective distortion. This is also and especially true of the photographic method, the pictorial reproductions of which are usually borne by a strong objectivity and an unconditional focus on the particular object of each viewing. The photographer is accordingly admonished to obey a stipulation, which is as strict as it is impossible to misunderstand: “This ‘ideal’ view of the object must not allow the gaze to wander into atmospheric ‘irrelevancies,’ must take objective notice, and must concentrate exclusively on the subject at hand, thus forming the precondition for the comparability and legibility of the subjects.” Not coincidentally, and guided by the urge to visually take possession of the world, a certain branch of artistic-documentary photography still pursues Humboldt’s approach with the goal of ultimately arriving at an orderly scheme on the basis of systematic viewings and typologies. This involves a borrowing which is expressly motivated by the spirit of a “condensation of the visible.” Robert Voit’s peculiar arboretum likewise bears witness to this spirit.

New Forest

To understand this arboretum and its idiosyncrasy, one must begin by emphasizing that Humboldt’s traditional method leaves out two effective modes of the real, both of which play a role in contemporary attempts to investigate the world. What we have in mind here are the pathos of reality and the dramatic fall of the absurd. One cannot avoid taking into account both of these modes of perception when one views the exotically bizarre vegetative forms whose images are printed in this volume. That it is indeed germane to derive a contemporary arboretum from these influential factors is convincingly confirmed by the story of this book’s genesis, which is a tale that well deserves the telling. In December 2002, Robert Voit chanced to view an electronic advertisement for the British firm of Francis & Lewis, which promised to offer “elegant solutions for problematic sites.” Upon closer scrutiny, Voit saw a color photograph depicting a summery meadow bordered by several deciduous trees in the background. This Elysian scene, beneath which stood the harmless subtitle “New Forest,” was flanked by a most disconcerting textual commentary. “The ‘FLI Cypress Tree’ is a unique development,” the advertisement explained, “which minimizes, to the greatest extent possible, the visual encroachments of mobile-telephone masts on their surroundings. It’s remarkable that reliable and disruption-free functioning is assured, despite the dense crown of artificial foliage which conceals the mobile-telephony antennae and the parabolic dish. Even the ‘tree trunk’ is covered with true-to-nature imitation bark.” This immediately sparked an ardent interest Robert Voit, who was studying at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf at the time and who had never before heard of this peculiar species of cypress. Continuing to read, he learned that this anomalous “FLI Cypress Tree” could optimally blend into the existing hedgerow countryside. It was therefore “unlikely that a casual observer or passerby would notice it or be disturbed by it.” The verdict of his eye frankly confirmed this assertion. A cypress was indeed visible among the other trees in the thicket in the background, but nothing about it suggested that its drapery of simulated foliage in fact disguised a mast which was intended to transmit the radiation needed for mobile telephony. This instantly raised questions in Robert Voit’s mind: Could it really be true that he had accidentally chanced to discover a new treelike crop which, because of its perfect mimicry, had thus far remained hidden from the majority of his contemporaries? How many such artificial tree species might exist throughout the world? Where could they be found and how could they be recognized? The empirical quest which led Robert Voit, like a latter-day Alexander von Humboldt, through familiar and exotic lands and continents around the globe proved to be extremely protracted and demanding, not least because of the lack of cooperation initially shown by the globally active companies responsible for manufacturing these plantlike camouflaged objects. Voit’s research sometimes acquired a downright sleuthlike character, for example, when he was informed about the precise location of artificial trees by local people who had chanced to confront one or another of these highly remarkable specimens. One informant, who had seen such a “tree” on his way to work, urged Voit to go to a specific spot and to keep his eyes peeled – because the treelike anomaly could readily escape notice. Its camouflage, Voit’s informant warned, was simply perfect.

New Tree

The collection depicted in this book brings together sixty-five specimens of this new arboreal flora, which Robert Voit found primarily in Europe, but also in the United States of America and in other parts of the world. An initial overview shows that Germany, England, Italy, Austria and Portugal predominate among European countries and that American specimens are principally encountered in the western part of the continent, i.e. in California, Arizona and the adjacent desert state of Nevada. The volume also includes photographs of several rather exotic species from South Africa and Korea. Many features may seem familiar from botanical points of view. For the central European region, pines, alders and cypresses deserve particular mention alongside the widely distributed conifers. The English trees, by contrast, seem to have the disastrous effects of acid rain to thank for their rather bizarre appearance. Two specimens of the “Shalford Brain Tree,” which Voit discovered standing at fifty-one degrees North latitude in England, undoubtedly occupy a special position. And an entirely leafless species, e.g. the arboreal ruin in Hundon Haverhill, could also be identified.

In contrast to this, the southern European regions evince remarkable similarities to the North American flora. A few Palmaceae can also be found here alongside cypresses, pines and birches. Well-adapted for desert conditions, Palmaceae and Cactaceae have gained the upper hand in the western American region, although the extraordinary diversity of new flora on this continent may surprise the reader. Similar abundance also characterizes the South African environment. On the other hand, a mostly monocultural tendency is evident among the solitary specimens in Korea, whose mast-like shape only inadequately embodies the camouflage concept inherent in a veritable new tree. An acute desideratum for research presents itself here, and not solely for the branch of botany.

Archive, Catalogue, Atlas

The unprecedented panopticon which this arboretum makes possible for the genera of new trees reveals a veritable roundelay of insights in Alexander von Humboldt’s sense. For example, an initial viewing confirms that the new trees exclusively consist of tall species which, in accord with their function, can attain heights of as much as thirty meters. Not only are they characterized by a certain monumentality, they also occur in an ideally archetypical shape, which in most cases bears witness to the working of a geometrically inspired demiurge. A pathos that toys with the sublime is undoubtedly inherent in these new trees, not least because their essence, in Nietzsche’s sense, ineluctably manifests the character of an übertree. “Look here!” they proudly and unapproachably shout. “We want to be perceived, but only as trees!”

Could something futuristic suggest itself in this contradiction between perfect mimicry and resounding pathos? The placement of these peculiar plants may also be significant. In Robert Voit’s pictures, we encounter the new trees in cemeteries, in the midst of deciduous forests and occasionally even on golf courses, but they’re primarily found along arterial highways and at the intersections of thoroughfares. Dedicated to today’s primary communicative movements, it seems that their true calling is (literally) to irradiate their surroundings. After having read this book, the impression will doubtless be reinforced that a moment of absurdity, at least in viewpoint, ultimately also results from the metaphysical function. Morphologically, the questions seem highly charged: At what height ought the tree’s crown be affixed? And how should its massive trunk be treated? The growth habit as solitary specimens often seems to have misfired. Many readers of this arboretum may therefore sense a certain absurdity in most of these treelike creations.

A comparative view is accordingly most appropriate. A book would seem to be the sole appropriate medium through which to view the genus of new trees. “Historically, the link between photography and books is closest,” David Campany noted, “wherever so-called ‘direct photography’ is involved: sharply frontal and straight-lined. The subject stands so prominently in the foreground here that the photograph doesn’t only seem to be a picture, but literally appears to crop the object or the person from the background. A book with such images thus becomes as much a collection of things as it is an album of pictures. It functions as an archive, catalogue or atlas.” Robert Voit’s peculiar arboretum excellently satisfies these three requirements through its allusion to the arboretum as a traditional form of publication. We recall here that the learned Briton John Claudius Loudon had already published his Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum in book form in 1838. Programmatically, the famed botanist not only formulated the demands placed on the genre of science, but also urged a candid treatment in order finally to view new and unconventional arboretums. “We shall say nothing, therefore, of the influence which it cannot fail to have in promoting a taste for the culture and spread of such foreign trees as we have already in the country; and in exciting a desire for introducing others from different parts of the world, and for originating new varieties by the different means employed by art for that purpose.” The same can probably also be said for Voit’s arboretum in book form, which invites its readers to indulge in the delicate pleasures of exploring the influence of the physical world on the moral world and of tracing the mysterious interactions between the sensual and that which transcends the senses. It remains for us to wish, in Alexander von Humboldt’s sense, that the appeal of this unusual nature study, which has truly been elevated here to higher points of view, may experience widespread dissemination.

© Christoph Schaden, 2011

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