Birch Tree Garden


When Carlos No first explained to me his project of setting up, in a closed-in room, under faint artificial light, turned towards a wall from which hung a hose connected to a gas bottle, 3,500 hand-made minute figures in white clay, almost indistinguishable in their, nevertheless, unequivocal individuality, arranged in a mass reproducing the map of Darfour, and told me he would be calling this piece ”Birch Tree Garden”, I recalled Klimt’s “Birch Forest/ Beech Forest” and the bare and cold sensuality profusely imbued in the landscape from whence human presence had been swept away. I remained silent, listening to him, trying to perceive a connection between the Austrian’s “Birch Forest” and No’s own project, the name which No was telling me, relating, recounting, haunted human faces in the landscape. Klimt’s Birch trees as a metaphor for the genocide in Darfour? But if there are no, as far as I am aware of, Birch trees in  Africa…

The fact is, as Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt remind us in the “Dictionary of Symbols”, the Birch tree is “intimately connected to human life, as a tutelary symbol, of both life as well as death.” There is even a funerary symbolism associated with the Birch tree written in a Celtic text allusive to a massacre. Another clue, for certain.

In the end the author had inspired himself in the immense Birch forest which, half a century after Klimt’s painting, was destroyed in southern Poland, in the same spot where Birkenau was built (Auschwitz II, the biggest Nazi death camp).  Carlos No proceeds with the recounting. The constant counting. He doesn’t take the old and the new “Problems of Arithmetic” for an accomplished fact. The strenuous task of counting.

While Carlos No was tending the Birch tree garden, UNICEF updated the figures on Darfour. 3.5 million people under the great exorcism, one of the most insane inhumanities of the world, in which No doesn’t give up recounting both people and stories by the handful, his form of finding a way. Almost 2 million refugees, out of place pieces on a board of displacement. The Janjaweed gunmen kill at random, destroy the wells, burn down the houses, slaughter the cattle. There are 500 thousand children under the age of five in danger. How do we say “once upon a time” in Darfour?

So many names, so many numbers, that is Carlos No’s inexhaustible theme. As if, by taking up the thread of a deranged narrative, he was to tell us: “once upon a time, there was a prince on his white horse in the garden of Birch trees, where the sing-song of Sudan’s oil was sung, in a French accent, in a Chinese accent. Then the Janjaweed arrived. The prince tried to jump over the wall and make off to the other side of Darfour. But, in the haste of the escape, he got lost from his companions, as if he had fallen into the manual of the missing, those who were never seen again.” The little prince is now a child-soldier, marching on to be Lucky Jack. Better to have been, down south where, desperately, one loses one’s bearings, instead of a “zurga” marked out for extermination in the first genocide of the 21st century, a birch tree, the tree which doesn’t burn.

Carlos No doesn’t lay down his tools, doesn’t allow one to forget. He faces the world’s game. The mathematics. The serial annotation of bodies which get lost from us. He makes it his business to count the ones which do not count. The erratic faces of a banal suffering. The infanto-contagious stories.

I follow his work, casually and movingly. I know nothing of the techniques he employs. I know he will never be a bland canvas. I know his art is always a profusion of horrors, of naïve, terrible stories contaminated with a troubled and sleepless reality. He gathers his spirits from the recesses of childhood, from the innermost repository of the memory, collecting the letters and the numbers yet devoid of their future crime, searching for the milestone, the first time of innocence and sin, of the evil of the world in us.

Fernando Alves
Mem Martins, March 2006

(Translated by Miguel Moore)