Ladders To Heaven

By Mike Shanahan

How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Big news - From 4 sentences in a book about fig trees to nearly 1000 original artworks

On a quiet day in June 2020, a stranger on a distant shore contacted me and blew my mind. He asked me to keep a secret until this day.

The stranger was US-based artist Nathan Langston. He told me he had press-ganged some of my words into the service of an international art project called TELEPHONE. Nathan said that, at that moment, artists and poets and musicians all around the world were creating new work as a consequence.

As I said, he blew my mind. I'm still trying to wrap my head around what came next.

Today, Nathan unveiled the final exhibition (here). With work by more than 900 artists in 72 countries, it is one of the largest collections of interconnected original art works in history.

TELEPHONE operated like the children’s game in which a message is whispered from person to person, changing as it goes, until the final version is often unrecognisable from the original.

The TELEPHONE team whispered a message from art form to art form. A sculpture could become a painting, then music, then poetry, then dance. TELEPHONE whispered each finished work of art to multiple artists so the game branched out exponentially.

Halfway through the game, the process reversed. The team started assigning multiple artworks to a single artist. So, TELEPHONE began with one message, passed that message through more than 900 artists and then concluded with a single artwork.

The secret that I’ve been keeping for a year is that the message Nathan chose to start telephone was a four-sentence paragraph from my book about how fig trees have shaped our species and the world about us.

Nathan sent my paragraph to six artists. They created two sculptures, a song, a piece of writing, a painting, a film. Those six works inspired a further 16, and so on. By the time the message had passed through 950 artists it had travelled 7.7 million kilometres around the world.

This project is beautiful in many ways. It took place during a year of lockdown and isolation, yet it connected people all around the world. As the coronavirus spread around the world, so did the whispered message.

The text Nathan used to start TELEPHONE was about a kind of fig tree called a banyan. These strangler figs send roots down from their branches that thicken into stout pillars that resemble tree trunks. A banyan can have thousands of them, so can look like a forest of trees.

TELEPHONE is like a banyan. It is at once a collection of hundreds of artworks, and also a single gigantic creation. The exhibition is now open for you to explore. Have a wander in that forest of art. There are many paths to follow. See: https://phonebook.gallery/

I am so honoured to have played an unwitting part in this amazing project and I am in awe of the wave of creativity it has unleashed. This would not have happened without all of you who supported my book on its journey into the world. Thank you!

If you want to find out more, here's a link to Nathan's essay about the genesis of TELEPHONE https://phonebook.gallery/essays/nathan-langston-tree-structures And here's a great article about TELEPHONE by Margo Vansynghel https://crosscut.com/culture/2021/04/how-seattle-game-telephone-became-worldwide-art-event

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