By LITA BARRIE November 13, 2023
Tiffany Shlain is an interdisciplinary artist and activist, as well as an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, best-selling author and co-founder of the Webby Awards, who understands the power of art to change thinking and motivate activism. As she told me, “I look at art as an invitation to feel and think differently and look at the world in a new way. I also love providing a conduit for people to put thoughts and feelings into action.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown, Shlain has been spending more time in nature – for a “bigger perspective” – taking long walks with her new pandemic puppy in Muir Woods National Park’s ancient redwoods near her home. Shlain reflected on the way “trees bear witness, because they are alive a lot longer than humans.” This led her to compare trees to filmmaking, because “both the stories told by films and tree rings unfold over time.” She began to think about using trees as an alternate medium to explore time because “trees give a physical dimension to time.”
Shlain’s new artwork Dendrofemonology: A Feminist History Tree Ring uses reclaimed cedar tree rings as a medium for re-writing women’s history with an “intentional counter-narrative to the typical patriarchal perspective.” She was influenced by the book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (1998) – authored by her famous surgeon father, Leonard Shlain – so she decided to begin the timeline with a powerful reminder of the fact that goddesses were worshiped in most ancient civilizations before history moved away from goddess worship, to monotheistic patriarchal gods, ultimately forbidding goddess worship in every major religion. In addition, she also spent a year distilling women’s history to reflect the reversals of women’s power in her well-researched timeline.
Featuring 32 entries, the timeline tracks both the achievements of – and challenges to – female power: goddess cultures in 5,000 BCE, female warrior leaders hundreds of years ago in Africa and China, 1960s second wave feminism, the global 2017 #MeToo marches, and the shocking 2022 Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, eviscerating federal protection of reproductive rights in the United States. Shlain also highlights the 1992 Equal Rights Amendment, which was never ratified. As she told me, “women don’t have equal rights in the Constitution. Corporations have more rights than women in the U.S.” Fittingly, her timeline then ends with “Today —” because it is a call for ongoing action.
Dendrofemonology, (2022) was made as a way to convene around art as a visual focal point for activism, which then can be moved to different sites where feminist activism is most needed, as observed by Ms. magazine writer Bonnie Stabile, who aptly named it a “bullseye for collective action” (9/12/2023). Shlain was attracted to concentric circles in the wood slice as a metaphor for a feminist timeline that shows “progress doesn't always work in one direction,” Circles are a symbol of female power and nature that harken back to ancient goddess mythology, unlike the verticalness and uprightness of patriarchal symbolism. The circular shape of Shlain’s feminist rings also suggests a sacred space and a safe place for women to gather and discuss ideas.
Shlain hired female pyrographers to burn the text into the wood using an ancient form of “writing with fire” (the Greek meaning of pyrography) which dates back to prehistory. The title references dendrochronology, a dating technique that uses the annual growth increments of trees to estimate their age. Unlike stone monuments, Shlain’s Dendrofemenology is an organic, living, breathing, moveable monument which – after traveling to other art events – will end its life cycle by decomposing and becoming part of the earth.
Dendrofemonology was unveiled in November 2022 as part of Shlain’s artist-in-residency solo show, Human Nature, at San Francisco Ferry Building’s SHACK15. The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) helped present this first iteration, and also helped organize the events around its second public display in Washington, D.C., along with presenters Women Connect4Good and over twenty participating organizations including Planned Parenthood. This five-foot diameter tree ring became a visual rallying point for galvanizing collective action in a feminist intervention when it was installed at the edge of the National Mall’s reflecting pool, November 1-4, 2023. The visual impact of seeing the moveable wooden sculpture between the Washington Monument and imposing Capitol building – with stone structures towering over it from all sides – evoked the different kind of majesty trees have, which predate and outlive human history.
Dendrofemonology was planned to coincide with the U.S. election week, where 93,000 races on the ballot were run and became a victory in favor of womens’, trans and reproductive rights against the rise of patriarchal Christian nationalism. The four days of related programming involved speakers Tarana Burke (the womens’ activist who started the MeToo movement), Dolores Huerta (the award-winning advocate for workers’, immigrants’ and womens’ rights), actress Lynda Carter (the original Wonder Woman) and television host, author Padma Lakshmi. It included voter registrations, online components, a silent disco and a convention of 50 organizations coordinated by the ERA Coalition. In keeping with the ancient idea of the circle, Shlain also invited visitors to submit answers to three questions: “What is the line on the timeline that is meaningful to you, and why?; What is something that is not on the timeline that is meaningful to and why?; What do you hope is on there next?” The NWHM will publish the expanded timeline.
Shlain told me this installation is “just stop one.” Dendrofemonology is scheduled to be shown again at Nancy Hoffman Gallery New York in June 2024, along with a selection of Shlain’s other tree-ring sculptures that explore different subjects, large-scale light boxes and photographs that continue her exploration of the intersection of feminism and nature. Shlain is also scheduled to show a collaborative exhibition with her husband, artist and robotics professor Ken Goldberg in Ancient Wisdom for a Future Ecology: Trees, Time & Technology as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time regional exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in October 2024.
Dendrofemonology also builds on Shlain’s past work exploring nature, technology and humanity. In February 2020, New York’s Museum of Modern Art premiered her live spoken cinema performance Dear Human which took the audience on a live cinema journey across past, present and future to explore the way technology both amplifies and amputates our humanity. This was an outgrowth of her weekly practice of removing herself from all screens for a 24-hour period and spending that time in nature instead, something she has done consistently for nearly 15 years, and has advocated in her best-selling book 24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection (2019). This brilliant, humorous book, filled with practical wisdom drawn from the ritual of Shabbat, was a winner of the Marshall McLuhan Outstanding Book Award.
Whether she is making films, sculpture or writing books, Shlain explores the scale realignment that happens when we step back from our dependence on screens and view ourselves within the expansiveness of nature and time, but from a sorely needed feminist perspective. Her artwork is an invitation to realign ourselves with a different scale of time in nature that shows that patriarchal constructions of time and history are “alternative facts,” not truthful narratives. Dendrofemonology is a call to action that can rewrite history in a different direction.
Tiffany Shlain: Dendrofemonology, 1 - 4 November, National Mall at Lincoln Memorial Circle, Washington, DC. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author