Next to seeing Anish Kapoor's "Bean", any visit to Chicago should include a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago because, even if it is all you see, Charles Ray's Hinoki alone is worth the price of admission.
In brief, Hinoki is a sculpture of a fallen redwood tree reproduced in Japanese cypress (hinoki). As described in the artist statement posted in the gallery (a room that was built specifically for this one piece), the sculpture took ten years to complete, four of which were spent on the actual carving. Ray contracted the work out to Japanese reproduction specialist Yuboku Mukoyoshi (who normally works on Buddha sculptures) and his team of artisans.
It is beyond debate that the piece is a phenomenal effort of pure labor and skill. Just to conceive that something like this could be done is an accomplishment, and the quality of the reproduction, complete with insect tracts and bark remains, is remarkable; but what interests me about it, and makes me continue to think about it weeks after viewing it, is the concept of preserving a rotting tree in sculpture.
Hinoki (end view)
(note: hollow all the way through and the inside is carved with same effort as outside)
In addition, one of the most interesting questions the pieces raises for me is why I find this sculpture appealing while, in contrast, Ellsworth Kelly's minimalist wood "trees" and Roxy Paine's stainless steel "tree", both of which I wrote about a couple of years ago, didn't.
branch jointI think one of the key differences with this piece is that, by expending so much effort to recreate an object that most people would normally walk by, it forces them to consider the beauty of the natural object that inspired the sculpture. I don't think either Kelly or Paine's sculptures really connected me back to their inspiration. In contrast, I felt their work was more about the maker than the object. In addition, by selecting wood as the medium for the sculpture, the reproduction retains some the warmth of the original and appears to be more of a collaboration with nature. In contrast, I don't think Kelly or Paine's trees could be called "warm", both had a very sterile and cold feel to them.
Furthermore, Hinoki demands that viewers examine the quality of the reproduction because of its medium and its size (if it were simply a cast of a wood log, it would not be nearly as interesting), and by looking at the details the viewer is forced to ask why the details were worth reproducing, which thereby leads the viewer to conclude that the details are intrinsically beautiful and have value on their own.
(the main body is assembled from five or six sections, each about five feet long)
So, with Hinoki, I feel good about the trees that sacrificed their lives to make it. That their lives weren't in vain because people that see the work gain insight and appreciation for their fallen brethren as well as those that are still vibrant and growing. In the simplest terms, it is a piece that is easy to appreciate for the shear will it took to accomplish, but what truly makes it a great piece is how it makes the viewer think and see the world.