Light Up Nine Elms: artist Jony Easterby

Artist Jony Easterby

Published on
December 2, 2019


We spoke to artist Jony Easterby about his project, Light Up Nine Elms, which opens this month in Nine Elms.

Beautiful illustrations of the nine elms trees growing along Nine Elms Lane will be projected by Jony onto buildings around the area from 13-21 December. These detailed tree drawings, created by artist Pippa Taylor, will come to life each evening after dark, their silvery branches transforming old and new buildings around the neighbourhood.

Tell us the idea behind the project and how it came about?

The project at Nine Elms arose out of an idea to celebrate the planting of two new elms on the embankment site where the existing seven elms are currently planted. At the time I was making an opera about trees and working with Kew Gardens creating the animation of tree drawings taken from 18th century etchings by a horticulturalist called August Louden – these were projected during an event in the arboretum at Wakehurst Place. So the idea came to me that we could make our own botanical illustrations of the trees at Nine Elms and animate their past 35 years of growth from seed to tree. We could then project these as an installation somewhere nearby. As time went on the ambition grew and the number nine took over. So now we have nine projections at nine different sites over nine nights!

How will this project differ for audiences who will experience it in London, compared to your projects in the countryside or wilderness?

When approaching my projects in wild places I always try to find the most remote and beautiful place possible so that we can take an audience to experience the work and the landscape at the same time. This allows us to ‘borrow’ the local landscape and celebrate and highlight its beauty. It’s also generally very dark and a great place to work!

For Nine Elms I obviously had to take a totally different approach, spending many hours by foot and bike looking for dark corners and suitable walls to throw the projections on. It’s literally a dark art… so in this case there is no natural beauty for us to piggyback on; we need to bring beauty to the place! In a sense we are bringing the beauty of trees and nature to those places, filtered through the medium of our digital projections, establishing connections back to a past when we lived much closer to trees.

There will also be many more ‘stumbled upon’ experiences for the audience of this work. As people come and go from their homes to work, people will experience the projections both within workplaces and residential areas in Nine Elms. This is in contrast to my remote events where people have to make big journey or hop on a bus to get to the site.

How is the project split between you and Pippa, and how does your artwork come together to create this visual spectacle?

It is pretty much a split between Pippa on the analogue and myself on the digital in this case. Pippa creates her tree drawings using photographs of the actual trees as her reference point, using fine point pens. It takes hours to make one drawing and any mistakes means she has to start all over! Some of the trees are on their third or fourth versions as each attempt informs the next. We have both been influenced by our time in Japan where we went to study gardens and trees.

The tree drawings are then scanned into high resolution digital copies and this is where I take over using a technique which resembles a kind of digital bonsai; pruning the trees back twig by twig and branch by branch in photoshop. This gives me the keyframes I need to animate the trees’ growth into a 20-second sequence for projection.

How important is it to work with projects that link to the environment?

I have always had a passion for plants, the elements and sublime natural places. Early in my career I had the chance to work in forests such as Grizedale and wild remote places making permanent sculpture, installation and theatre shows. This work used the backdrop of the natural world but did not always relate to our relationship with nature. The more time I spent in these places, talking to experts and exploring reading around ecology, habitat and environmental issues, the further my work shifted to the place it is now, where every piece of work concerns my love and anxiety with the state of our natural environment. My main concern now is in addressing the imbalance and emergency we now face in our relationship with the natural world.

Did you know the special story of the elms prior to the project?

It feels very different when you start to explore and realise there are emerging and existing pockets of greenery. My hope is that Nine Elms can become 100 elms over time! I have since discovered that there are many more varieties of elms than you believe around the world, so maybe we can encourage even more diversity. My favourite tree at the moment is a Japanese Elm called the Zelkovia, it has the most delicious colours in Autumn.

How do you think audiences will see this work this festive season and what do you hope they will get from it?

For me, the festive season is a really great chance to celebrate trees. From the iconic Spruce Chrimbo tree to the Holly. It’s all about trees for me at this time of year and lighting up trees is a big part of my work in shows, so we are going to light up the actual elms with some great wintery white lighting – I can’t wait to see them lit properly!

The animations of the trees will also be augmented by surprise additions to give them a special seasonal appeal. These will all be subtly different for each projection, so it is worth seeing them all to see if you can spot the things we have made for them.

Find out more about Light Up Nine Elms – 13-21 December

Animated: Moving elm trees will light up nine different locations

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