Ballymun: a no-fly zone for birds

  • 18 August 2005
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As the towers come tumbling down, they will be replaced by trees. Colin Murphy talks to Jochen Gerz, the man behind a project to create an oak woodland in memory of the seven Ballymun towers, and the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation after whom the towers were named


Jochen Gerz saw the plans for the ongoing Ballymun regeneration shortly after he arrived here in 2002, on a commission from Dublin City Council to produce a public sculpture for Ballymun. He was struck by the lack of trees. "My first reaction was, this is a 'no-fly zone' for birds. It's very mineral, very planned, very geometrical. There is very little organic confidence, as if everybody needed to be planned, as if life could not happen in confidence."

Gerz read Irish mythology, and found trees prominent in the stories. Yet Ireland, which was once amongst the most densely forested countries, had become "one of the least treed places in Europe.

"In Ireland, there is almost a traumatic relationship to trees."

Jochen Gerz had found his project.

Three years on, the first stage of the project (which is called "amaptocare" – a map to care) was finally completed in recent weeks, with 625 people signed and paid up to his project to plant personally-dedicated trees in public places across Ballymun.

To participate, people had to come up with just under half of the cost of the tree, a minimum of €50 (in instalments, if necessary). The participants have contributed a total of €45,000.

This contribution is key to Gerz's concept. By contributing to the project themselves, people gain ownership, and authorship, of it.

"I think that poor people become poorer if you think they can't give anything. I wanted to make it clear that these people had something to say... and that it could be possible that a work of art would not suffer from the presence of the people but, on the contrary, it would get better with the presence of the people."

The project is "a little practical study of democracy".

"I think we have a democracy, but we don't have an adequate culture of democracy. People are mainly bored. People don't know what it means, what's going on, they couldn't care less; they're not very bothered. So that's the problem. People stay home."

"What I'm proud of is to contribute to democracy, to the authorship of people. I cannot be the authors for others, they have to be the authors for themselves."

The participants choose their trees from 15 native Irish species, and choose where to place them. They write a text in collaboration with Gerz, to be engraved on a plaque placed alongside the tree, an answer to the question, "If this tree could speak, what would it say for me?".

Gerz sees the trees as breaking up the public and civic space of Ballymun, which he fears will otherwise be streamlined and anodyne. "Public space should not only be 'Walk', 'Don't walk', 'Mind the grass', or whatever… it can be more personal, more contradictory.

"It's nice to interrupt a little bit the monotony of the computer drawings."

While working on 'amaptocare', Gerz was struck by how the towers had been personalised in everyday language by the use of the signatories' names, and how those names had come to signify the towers, as homes, more than they did the people they honoured.

Now, with the towers being demolished as Gerz watched, that resonance faced being lost. (Literally: McDonagh Tower was feet from the large window of his office in Ballymun's Axis arts centre, and when the dust cleared after its 12-second demolition, he found himself working in a much brighter office, overlooking a crater)

He was approached about doing something specifically to commemorate the towers. As he explains it, this second project – now, the National Memory Grove – grew "organically" out of the first.

Gerz took the same methodology – trees with personal inscriptions to be funded in part by the public – and adapted it to fit the idea of a more permanent monument. He chose oak trees, as the most significant native Irish tree, and approached the Council for land to plant a grove. He secured one hectare, between Ballymun centre and the M50, and hopes to turn the sod on the grove at Easter next year – the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Rather than the more random approach to the first project, the grove will be planted in orderly fashion, with trees a set distance apart. As they grow, their branches will grow together, creating a ceiling – this limits the vegetation that grows between the trees, and so they form a natural, and sustainable, grove.

Gerz paraphrases a line from Thomas McDonagh's poem 'The House in the Wood beside a Lake':

"Far off, perhaps in a thousand years/ We shall meet again as we have met:/ A meeting of olden joys and tears,/ Which all the more endears/ In a wood of elm and oak and beech…"

Some 40 people have so far signed up for the grove, with the first project now closed with 625 participants, and trees to be planted. For now, Gerz is mostly occupied with meeting participants to work on their texts.

Ciara Doyle has chosen an oak tree to be planted in her name. Her plaque reads:

"I want to plant this tree here since I want it to stand for choice. Choice is freedom of many choices. It needs faith to be free… Since it stands in Ballymun it can be vandalised, but I am not afraid for it, since I think that everyone who reads this will love my tree. The future of my tree and the future of the new Ballymun depend upon all of us. We make the choice."