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What the tree sees

"What the tree sees" explores how human activities have changed the balance of the world. With global warming as a focus “What the tree sees” emphasizes and challenges the idea of  Anthropocene.

produced by: Miduo Gao


“What the tree sees” is a sculpture made from both man-made and natural materials to represent contemporary building and symbolizes the form of a tree trunk at the same time. This tree trunk is a witness to current human activities which have jeopardized nature. By looking into the depths of this distorted sculpture the viewer can see adversely affected earth that they live on.

Concept and background research

The concept for this project is based on the discourse of “ Anthropocene”, which is a term used to express mankind activities that have changed the nature, for example, deforestation, air pollution(CO2). Crutzen was the first person who named human’s activities, this kind of geological phenomenon as ‘Anthropocene’. He has divided the development of human being on the planet into three different stages. He claimed that stage three has become the riskiest stage, with the rapid increase levels of CO2. Mankind started observing the levels of CO2 emission more closely due to the emergence of modern environmentalism during the 1960s. And this stage like Crutzen wrote in his article ‘This process represents the beginning of the third stage of the Anthropocene, in which he recognizes that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth System as a whole. Humanity is, in one way or another, becoming a self-conscious, active agent in the operation of its own life support system.’ Because of the global warming, the ice has started to melt and affected the living environment. So I decided to pick this topic to express my own concerns about global warming through my artwork named “What the tree sees”


“What the tree sees” is inspired by small tree trunk on the university campus. The surfaces of those tree trunks were destroyed by artificial tools. So I decided to create a sculpture based on my idea by using clear Acrylic and wood. Acrylic part can represent man-made material. I inserted those acrylic materials between the wood, to express the idea of the human activities influencing the nature. I decided to make this sculpture looked like  a tree trunk which has deformed by man-made material, the tree trunk wants to alarm us of human activities, so I have changed the  tracing paper to silk projection fiber to make a screen on the top of this tree trunk sculpture, so the viewer can  through this small screen watch what has happened. In other words, this tree trunk can be a witness to human’s negative influences. For the color part, I kept the texture of this wood. Using this texture, the viewer can feel this human influence in a direct way. The viewer even can smell the scent of wood burning done by laser cutting.



“What the tree sees” projection is developed in processing (based on JAVA programming language) to create five different scenes to express the idea of Anthropocene. “What the tree sees” is focusing on global warming. I decided to use Algorithm and image data to create different parts of this project. For the algorithm, this project is based on the calculation of sine, cosine and tangent knowledge. In scene 1,  the deformed earth part, I have used the original sphere to used vertex format which can give the deformed effect. For the color part of this deformed shape, I have selected global warming map image from NASA, then mapped it on the deformed earth, which can express a more real sense of destruction. Here are my experiments for deformed shapes in two dimensional:

For the rest part of scenes, I have decided to create two-dimensional animations, which are easy for the viewers to see what has happened when human activities have affected the nature adversely through the tree screen which I have further explained below under the heading of projection.

Scene 2 is Pollution part, I have created the pollution with global pollution map from NASA, it will be melting previous scene 1 about the deformed earth. Then red pollution factors which I have used particle system will appear in the middle of the tree trunk screen.

Scene 3 is Destroy part, I have used noise to draw and set the global warming color. I tried to create a feeling of global warming looks like a disaster, which has started to dominate the whole nature and the continents on the earth will be melting and disappearing from the earth.

Scene 4 is Population part, I have used global warming map, small black dots with red temperature factors(red circle) which developed by using particle system and those dots bumping and walking around the whole map, then it will show the viewer that increasing population numbers and human random activities have influenced the nature.

Scene 5 is Wildfire part, I used sine, cosine, tangent with mesh to create the earth has smashed into pieces by human activities. 


To achieve the tree trunk as a witness to tell the story of human violent activities and effect, I have done several experiments. My original method to express my idea is to create a hologram in the middle of the sculpture. But after some tests, I realized that to build a hologram I need to use only plastic and the hologram shape is really limited. For my project, I did not want the viewer to know how I built this hologram and feel that the material that I use for my hologram is a folded plastic paper. Here is the link about my hologram experiment:

After hologram experiment, I decided to change it, I started to do experiments with different projectors. I have tested with a projector which has a mirror reflection, then through this mirror, the projector can project on the wall. The physical principle of this projector sounds like a reasonable choice for my project, but the problem is the size and the image quality. I can not see a clear image mapping on tracing paper at a short distance. Besides, if I wanted to have a clear image with this projector, I had to build a huge table to present this idea instead of using my sculpture. That was changing my original idea and not in an applicable way.

Then I started to test with a portable projector without a reflective mirror, it still had to measure the distance between the clear image to the projector.This portable projector needs at least 65 cm to present a good quality image mapping on a frosted acrylic board. Below are links to my projection experiments with the frosted acrylic board:

For the material to make a tree screen, I have changed the frosted acrylic board with tracing paper as the second replaceable choice. Because the frosted acrylic board is not stable for a clear image, so I changed it into tracing paper, the tracing paper can easily get clear image, but I found that the image which was projected on tracing paper is boring, the paper was just showing the exact image, so I decided to explore a new material which can project a clear image in short distance between projector and screen, and can create a screen which can give floating feel to those images in a mysterious way. Then I change it into silk fabric for projection.

Beyond projection

By using this small projector to achieve what the tree sees, I had to consider the different materials. Many questions came to my mind like does the light of projector will hurt the viewer’s eyes and how different height of the viewers can see the inside part of the trunk, how to avoid a rectangle screen shape of that projector mapping on the ceiling? In order to handle my concerns, I decided to build a plinth for my sculpture which has a similar tree trunk shape on the surface of the plinth. By placing projector inside the plinth it can map effectively inside the sculpture, and the viewer could clearly see the image mapping on acrylic part as well, for example, the deformed earth part will look like floating inside this tree trunk sculpture, which is what I really wanted, it looked like hologram effects but not by using hologram in obvious way. It also avoided rectangular projection of projector shape on the ceiling. 

After combining all experiments and elements together, I realised the effect is still not what I really wanted, because as the aspect of aesthetic, the information from the projection mapping on the screen which I have made by semi-tracing acid paper and clean acrylic  board, when I look at them, they just tell me that they are just a new shape of small screen.

I started to find a way to break it, at the beginning, I have put my hand under the sculpture and I saw a hand shadow on the screen, so a new experiment journey started. I put different materials underneath of the sculpture, then I decided to use a paper in grey color which has circular grid holes on its surface. I have tested with it, its shadow can separate the information on the screen into several small holes, which can show the viewer that their influence has become a boring dogma to limit the nature. Also, through those holes, it will help those two dimension scenes on the clear acrylic material, looking like scattered memories and shadows that caused by human, which can stimulate the angry emotion of the nature of human’s activities.Finally, this will be a good way to present how the earth has been destroyed by mankind.


Future development

For the future, I decide to add diverse sizes of tree trunk buildings to make it looks like human-influenced hybrid trunk city. Also, I have to add interaction to it, like when the viewer stands in different front of the sculpture,  it can generate different sounds, like the traffic jam, air pollution etc. The plinth part I will change to a deformed shape as well, not keep this cube shape again, the plan for the plinth is that the plinth will not just a platform to show something for the viewer, it also can be part of the sculpture, like it would be a root of tree trunk which not in white, it will cover more human effect(industrial elements cover its skin and rotted surface like human set rules, make the whole earth looks like prisoned by human activities. Also, another interaction is when the viewer wants to touch the surface the whole work, like when they touch different layer of the tree trunk sculpture, the embedded diffused LEDs on the plinth will light on.


Self evaluation

Overall, I think this project gives me a mixed feeling.

The pleasant part for me is that the effect what I really wanted has come true and it looked like magic. The viewer also liked the effect what I have done, they gave me some good feedbacks. And I achieve my opinion "ugly is beauty" which makes the viewer feel that this project is talking about a serious topic and not pleasant issue, but I made it looks like an irony beauty project.

The sad part for myself is that I should add interaction which will make the whole project can have a conversation between the viewer and the work. I had to realize earlier to drill holes at the back of the plinth to release the heating air for the projection and laptop. Otherwise, it would have damaged that electronic equipment soon.


Dipesh Chakrabarty | Keynote | The Anthropocene Project. An Opening:

“The Great Acceleration: Art in the Anthropocene”:

Hamilton. C., Gemenne, F. and Bonneuil, C(eds.) (2015) ‘The Anthropocene and the global environmental crisis: Rethinking modernity in a new epoch.’ Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill(2007)The Anthropocene:Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature? ’ Ambio Vol. 36, No. 8, December (2007) 

NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally: