We’re in a mountainous forest dense with growth, where soaring conifers lean, swing wildly and then crash to earth, as if in a choreographed routine. As the trees fall, they smash through the branches of their smaller neighbours, sending out shockwaves as they hit the ground. Sometimes, you spot tiny human figures, part of the team orchestrating the trees’ fall. They look comically small.
This is Cull, a five-screen work by Uta Kögelsberger, and the conifers are giant sequoias, some more than 2,000 years old and tall as a 25-storey building. After being scorched in a devastating California wildfire, these trees are now considered hazardous to homes, roads and powerlines. We watch five come down, one at a time, then the screens refresh and the felling starts again, with another five trees. It’s like a disaster movie made up of nothing but disasters.
Cull has just netted Kögelsberger the £25,000 Charles Wollaston award for the “most distinguished work” in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Previous recipients of this prestigious award include Isaac Julien, Rose Wylie and Yinka Shonibare. The win is “as unexpected as can be” says Kögelsberger, who only submitted it the evening before the deadline at a friend’s suggestion. On “varnishing day” she was shocked to discover it had been given a room of its own.
Cull is just one part of Kögelsberger’s larger Fire Complex project. Previously, her films and photographs have appeared on billboards in the UK and US, intensifying discussion and raising funds. Fire Complex has led to the planting of over 6,000 trees: 1,000 saplings donated by USDA Forest Services, 5,000 donated by a nursery called Cal Fire, and 144 seven-year-old giant sequoia trees, cloned from two ancient trees by the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.
In September 2020, the wildfires ripping through California’s forests started heading towards Alder Creek, a giant sequoia grove that had been home, for the last 20 years, to Kögelsberger’s partner Bob. “We have the fifth largest tree in the world in our community – the Stagg tree,” says the artist. “The sequoias are protected. We thought there was no way they were going to let the grove burn, but they just couldn’t do anything about it.”
When the wildfires hit, she and Bob were in London. Through news feeds and satellite imagery, they followed the progress of the blaze, whipped up by 100mph winds. In all, more than 170,000 acres of Californian forest were incinerated. Half of the community lost their homes – Bob among them – and 40% of the giant sequoias in the Alder Creek grove were destroyed.
“On the Saturday the fire went through the community, we decided we had to do something – to help us deal with it,” says Kögelsberger. There followed a terrible period of grief and frustration and it was months before they could get to California. When the pair finally returned to Alder Creek in December 2020, all that remained of Bob’s jolly yellow cabin was ashy fragments. “Our area was declared a disaster zone because of the scale of the fire. That meant that the Federal Emergency Management Agency became responsible for the log clearance because everything that’s left becomes poisonous.”
Eighteen months later, work is still going on. During those intervening months, Kögelsberger’s photographs and films of the clear-up have appeared in the public realm – some during Cop26 – showing, on a vast and shocking scale, just how big these 2,000-year-old trees are.
The earlier 2018 fires cost California’s economy close to $140bn, dwarfing the amount the state has spent on fire prevention. “That was one of the things that really made me want to do the project, because it feels the wrong way around,” Kögelsberger says. “Why don’t we invest our money before the fires?” In February last year, she started posting on a Fire Complex Instagram account – “in memory of the unique ecosystem that has been destroyed” – and announced her intention to re-plant 100 new trees for every damaged or dead tree she documented.
Kögelsberger also started to unpick the tangled political substrate, linking the severity of the fires to in-fighting, vested interests and unsustainable practices as well as the climate crisis. Things are starting to shift. Members of Congress visited the clean-up and replanting operations at Alder Creek, and the bipartisan Save Our Sequoias Act should be introduced this month, providing resources for sustainable forest management.
Why call the work Cull? Apparently, the name came to the artist instinctively. “I long thought of these trees as sentient beings,” says Kögelsberger, “and now they are being brutally removed – first by the fire and then by the clear-up process.”
This article was amended on 4 July 2022. Over 6,000 trees have been planted, not 1,144 as stated in an earlier version.