Synchronicity of Form and Content: The Multiple Realities of An Oak Tree
In 1973 Michael Craig-Martin created a conceptual work of art called “An Oak Tree.” The piece consists of a glass of water on a shelf, and some text pinned to the wall alongside it. This text is a Q&A with the artist in which he describes how he has changed the glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without changing “the accidents” of the glass of water.
Q: Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?
A: Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.
Q: Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A: Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree. (Craig-Martin, 1973)
The goal of the piece is to highlight the enormous potential of an artist believing what they have to say and the willingness of the viewer to accept it. It is this idea that drives Tim Crouch’s 2005 play, An Oak Tree. The piece concerns a man whose daughter was killed when she was hit by a car. In his grief, he slowly imbues his daughter’s essence into an oak tree, until for him, the tree is his daughter. The man who drives the car is a hypnotist whose act has fallen off since the accident. The play takes place on an evening when the father has come to the pub where the hypnotist is performing, he volunteers for the act and the two confront each other for the first time since the accident. The central conceit of the play is that the actor playing the father is selected from the audience about an hour before the show, having neither seen nor read it, and the other actor guides him through the show.
This journey moves in and out of multiple realities, all of which somehow become one. On the surface we have Crouch and the audience member, which is the starting point of the play, but since they read to each other at the beginning it is from a script, even though they are still interacting as Crouch and the audience member, the conversation inherently takes on a heightened, dramatic quality. Through this, Crouch brings us into the world of the play, where everything is created through a willingness to believe it is adopting the qualities it is said to be adopting.
“Hypnotist: You’re a father. You’re names Andy. You’re 46 years old, you’re six foot two. You’re lips are cracked. You’re fingernails are dirty. You’re wearing a crumpled Gore-tex jacket. You’re trousers are muddy, say, you’re shoes are muddy. You have tremors. You’re unshaven. You’re hair is graying. You have a bloodshot eye. That’s great! You’re doing really well!” (An Oak Tree 59)
In this same way that Crouch transplants the properties of Andy the father onto the audience member, the father transplants the properties of his daughter onto the oak tree. Through willingness, a desire for it to be so, the oak tree becomes Clair, his daughter. Over the course of the same period of time since the accident the hypnotists’ abilities dwindle. In his world of hallucination everything slowly becomes purely what it is, in contrast to the father for whom things are becoming what they are not: “Father: I came to the roadside. I needed a hug from my girl. I looked at a tree. A tree by the road. I touched it. And from the hollows and the spaces, I scooped up the properties of Claire and changed the physical substance of the tree into that of my daughter.” (90). The play weaves in and out of the realities of Crouch/audience and hypnotist/father even in the middle of scenes. The effect is that they all become one and the same, as through the acceptance of the qualities they become real.
In many ways, Crouch is exploring the concept of transubstantiation. In Roman Catholic theology transubstantiation is the doctrine that through the act of the Eucharist the priest has changed the essence of the host and the wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, although the properties accessible to the senses remain the same. Crouch imbues the fathers’ qualities upon the participant, and the opposite is also true. The participants’ natural qualities become that of the father. As Crouch explains in a 2005 article for The Guardian:
“I have just prepared an actor called Alex Miller for the performance of my play….But Alex’s father doesn’t look at me…Alex doesn’t open up. His father is locked and quiet and tense…And, unexpectedly, brilliant. Alex’s qualities become the father’s…They become the character, and that’s without even doing what I wanted him to do…He talks about the joy he had on stage “doing nothing”. But that’s not what Alex had done: he hadn’t done nothing, he’d acted nothing, and he’d acted it at a thousand miles an hour. He’d been an actor; he’d created a performance, rather than allow a performance to be made. But it wasn’t wrong; he wasn’t wrong. The father’s story was told.”
Crouch accomplishes an effective synchronicity of the form and content of the piece. The audience is fully aware of the device; they know the person playing the father is not an actor and does not know the story, but as a result they become the father as well. The audience transplants their experience onto that of the person participating in the piece because of the wonderful dramatic tension created by the knowledge that this person does not know what will happen next. The participants’ experience becomes theirs. And this speaks to the core of what Crouch is after in his work. When we step into performance space we automatically imbue qualities onto the elements of that space that they do not naturally possess. As Michael Craig-Martin sought to prove, the possibilities are endless when an artist believes in what they are saying and the audience is willing to accept it. Crouch amplifies the ability of the audience to accept what is happening by transplanting the characters’ experience onto them and vice a versa.