Hanging Tree

Created in 1985, the Hanging Tree is the first of Herman Prigann’s Metamorphic Objects – Sculptural Places, a series of artworks he continued to develop for the next twenty years. Nature becomes an integral part of the artistic process: weathering, decay, vegetative growth, erosion. The Hanging Tree is among the more permanent; others were created to vanish completely, reclaimed by nature. Built on the artificial Donauinsel (Danube Island) in Vienna in 1985, it is “an inverted tree (arbol inversa) that moves in the wind like a giant pendulum.” (H. Prigann in Ecological Aesthetics, p. 26) In a hollow below the larch is a block of granite inscribed with the cardinal points.

Hanging Tree
Hanging Tree, copyright Bettina Secker 2018, used with permission from the photographer
Herman Prigann and Hanging Tree
Herman Prigann in 1985, copyright Bettina Secker 2018, used with permission from the photographer

The Hanging Tree was originally built on the burn site of The Pyramid, one of Herman’s first fire actions. Feuertürme – Brandstätten (Firetowers – Scenes of Fire) was a related series he was developing at the time. Fire – the most direct and immediate form of metamorphosis – was an important and recurring element in his work. During the early 2000s, the city of Vienna moved the Hanging Tree to a different location on Donauinsel.

In the book Der Wald – Ein Zyklus (Medusa Verlag, Vienna/Berlin, 1985), Herman lays out the conceptual basis for the Hanging Tree and the action series Firetowers – Scenes of Fire, as well as tracing the long history of the tree’s representation in art. Drawing on scientific and historical facts, as well as literary and philosophical reflections and visual material, the artist explores the close connection between forests and humanity’s cultural evolution. The book coincided with a time when forests were dying at an alarming rate, when acid rain – the chemical signature of our technological “progress” – was devastating woodland around the world.

Herman believed that we, as a society and species, could only avert complete environmental catastrophe if we stopped seeing nature purely in materialistic terms and rediscovered our place within it, as a part of nature. Throughout history, countless peoples have seen the “tree as a symbol for an all-encompassing nature, a symbol that has become a deeply rooted archetype for most of humanity. The tree represents the bond between humanity and nature, as well as the connection between sky (heaven) and Earth. The changes a tree undergoes in its development come to symbolize human transformation. The image of the tree is an allegory of ourselves. Humanity always knew of its shared fate with the trees. […] The forest, once an important part of our psychological home, is now little more than a distant backdrop, and we, ‘uprooted’ from our connection to nature, stand before it, shadeless.” (H. Prigann in Der Wald – Ein Zyklus, p.7)

The object: steel tripod, 23.6 meters tall – tree (larch), 16.5 meters long – hollow, 20 meters wide – granite block, 1.80 x 1.80 meters in size.

For more information about Bettina Secker, the remarkable photographer who took the first two pictures of the Hanging Tree and Herman featured on this page, please visit her website.