Gayle Chong Kwan

The Fairlop Oak (2017)

The Fairlop Oak is a monolithic sculpture that emerges out of the Lightwell whilst firmly rooted on the Mezzanine Level at the Barbican. Chong Kwan's work draws upon the famed pollarded trees in Epping Forest and specifically the Fairlop Oak, a tree that once stood in nearby Hainault Forest and which was the site of a popular eighteenth-century fair.

Formed of three parts, the installation consists of a geometric pollarded tree, a wooden scaffold which references recent road protests, section of a tree trunk, and felled branches on which sit miniature houses created by people local to the forest. Surrounded by the scaffold which holds the pollarded tree aloft, the artist has inscribed a timeline of politics and protest related to Epping Forest onto a tree ring.

Gayle Chong Kwan - The People's Forest: The Fairlop Oak
by Steven Bode

"The natural tendency of a tree is to generate offshoots. It puts out feelers in the form of branches; and sends out seeds to create new plantings. A tree may be permanently rooted in one spot, but it never stands still. It is the living epitome of a will to grow – it proliferates, and it multiplies.
A tree can also be a marker of how a community grows around it: an index of how much things can change over the course of a lifetime (even a decade) and also a symbol of continuity going back through the generations.
One such tree was the so-called Fairlop Oak, a particularly impressive, imposing specimen that towered over a vast clearing at the edge of Hainault Forest in East London. In its shadow, and under its canopy, an annual fair took place, which grew in size and popularity throughout the eighteenth century, eventually attracting crowds of 200,000 people. Although the original oak no longer stands (it was fatally damaged by storm and fire a century and a half ago), the fair that took its name, and its inspiration, from it quickly took its place as an equally prominent beacon in the local landscape.
The Fairlop Oak is the name of a new artwork by Gayle Chong Kwan that is also the linchpin of a wider project of hers called The People’s Forest. Evoking the form of a pollarded tree, Chong Kwan’s informal sculptural structure has a playful, totemic character. At the end of each branch is a thin, delicate tendril – sprouting from each stem like ribbons on a maypole. And at the end of each of these is a tiny model of a rudimentary ‘house’. Bursting forth like haphazard fruit, they hang in the air like lanterns, or bits of bunting, or baubles of mistletoe. Their presence alludes to the significance of the forest as a place of shelter and a site of early human habitation but also, perhaps, to its annual harvest of timber as a shared, renewable resource.
Chong Kwan’s art consciously cultivates offshoots. From a central premise or framework, her pieces evolve through the participation of the people she encounters in her research and on her travels: the multiple bird box-size ‘houses’ that decorate her homage to the memory of the Fairlop Oak have all been fabricated by various individuals that she met along the way. Made from waste materials found lying around the borough, each one is a rough approximation of the homes that each participant currently inhabits. A celebration of the diversity of personal stories, and of common roots, the work also mourns other houses (and communities) that have been lost, as the capital city expands and as roads and other major developments clear away what was there before.
The version of The Fairlop Oak that Chong Kwan is showing at the Barbican is itself an outgrowth of an earlier manifestation that was staged at the Walthamstow Garden Party in July 2017. Reflecting on the two-way traffic between inner and outer London that events like the Fairlop Fair would have instigated, the work deftly links different localities and histories – gathered together under one roof as if under the big top of the branches of a spreading greenwood tree."