I was in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and went for a walk through Pyrmont on the shore of Sydney Harbour - a very swanky location indeed, but fortunately most of the actual harbourside is public parkland.
I noticed something strange, though. A lot of the trees had been painted blue. At least, their trunks and lower branches were painted blue up to the leaf line, where the blue merged into the natural brown of the wood and green of the leaves. The effect was quite striking and a little disturbing, like they were ghost trees, or space aliens.
The sign told me that this was the work of an artist called Konstantin Dimopoulos, global citizen and current Melbourne resident, and is "an environmental art installation that draws attention to global deforestation by turning living, breathing trees bright blue, demanding we notice them before the planet's old forests are gone for good." It adds that Dimopoulos has installed similar works around the world.
Now I find the artwork itself mildly interesting - in does make you look. But I certainly didn't think "oh no, deforestation!" when I saw them. After all, I wasn't in a forest, I was in an urban park in the centre of Australia's largest concrete jungle. Nor did these appear to be forest trees, nor particularly old - some of them were mere saplings.
In fact, what drew my attention to deforestation was the sign telling me why the trees were painted blue. Perhaps the Sydney City Council could have saved some money by just putting up a sign, but that would be weird. Although perhaps not as weird as blue trees.
What's really interesting about this is not the trees, or even the rather cliched message about deforestation, but the business model. I don't imagine for a moment that Dimopoulos gets rich painting trees blue, but he clearly has a nice little earner on his hands. He has painted trees blue in the name of deforestation outside St Paul's Cathedral in London, and at various locations in the US and Canada. His own website shows photos of a dozen such installations, often associated with big city art festivals. He also does other public art projects, many of which also feature vertical sticks painted in vivid primary colours.
Any good business relies on two things - repeatability and good marketing. You want to be able to sell your product more than once, and you need to be able to make people want it. Dimopoulos has both.
I don't mean to denigrate the skill of painting trees blue - of course I could do it, but it takes much more skill than I have to make it last and not kill the tree with toxic chemicals in the process. Dimopoulos would have had to put a fair bit of research and practice into finding the right materials and techniques. It's possible some trees died along the way.
However, once he has done this, doing it again is a piece of cake. He can take his paintbrush and blue mixture anywhere in the world and repeat the process as many times as people will pay him. Perhaps the painting itself gets a bit boring sometimes, but hey, he's in Vancouver, or Seattle, or London, at a fantastic art festival, and getting paid to boot!
Why do people pay him to keep doing this fun but apparently pointless activity? Because he has sold them a great story - it's all about deforestation. Whose heartstrings are not twanged by that connection?
Konstantin Dimopoulos is far from the only artist to operate such a business model. One of the most successful is called "Cow Parade", a global corporate entity which organises the placement of groups of vividly painted, life-sized fibreglass cows in communities all over the world. The CowParade Holdings Corporation boasts that cows have been placed in 79 cities since 1999, that over 5,000 cows have been created in that time by over 10,000 artists and that over $20m (or $30m, depending on which bit of the website you read) has been raised for charity by auctioning the cows at the end of each event. It's the ultimate outsourcing operation - local artists compete for the privilege of painting the cows, local governments pay for the privilege of having them on their streets, the auction at the end takes care of storage and disposal. CowParade Holdings makes its living selling the idea.
Interestingly, my home city of Brisbane is not on their list of 79 locations, and I can't find any pictures anywhere on the internet of such an event ever taking place here. Yet I distinctly remember it. I was working in Brisbane City Council at the time, some year in the early 2000s, and shared a floor with the arts officers who made it happen. Cows identical to those in the photo appeared at various points around the city and then disappeared into private collections at the gala charity auction.
Perhaps I just dreamed the whole thing, but I don't think so. The thing is that at the time there was a fierce legal dispute going on about ownership of the concept. Two rival artists (or corporations) claimed the intellectual property. If I remember rightly, Council's arts manager advised the Mayor not to go ahead for fear of being caught in the middle, but the Mayor basically said "stuff them" and the cows duly appeared. I can only assume that Brisbane backed the wrong horse, or cow, and our event had to be erased as part of the legal settlement. I wonder what happened to the cows.
Art may make us feel good, and add beauty and depths of meaning to our lives. It can also prick our consciences, even if it needs the aid of a boring sign to do so. But beneath the surface, the same economic forces drive it as drive coal mining, or the manufacture of plastic toys. I don't begrudge the artists that. Everyone has to make a living. But if someone presents you with a shiny, colourful vehicle for saving the planet, or helping the poor, or whatever, don't forget to look under the bonnet.