The Hug Me Tree has gone high art. An icon of the Queen Street West shopping district for the past decade until its unceremonious uprooting last August, this humble tree stump is now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Over the past ten years, street artist Elicser Elliot repainted the tree several times and became its informal steward. Elliot has been on site at the museum over the past week, painting a massive wall mural to adorn the tree’s new place of honour.
The migration of street art into the realm of the gallery and auction house has been ongoing since the 1980s, and the tree is part of the ROM’s Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC) exhibition “Housepaint, Phase 2: Shelter”—the first street art exhibition in a major Canadian museum.
However, the cultural value of the Hug Me Tree does not lie merely in its artistic aesthetic; it is not on the tree’s street art merits that it deserves to be housed within these walls. This tree has played host to massive amounts of human energy, experience, and history over the past ten years, and it is deeply invested with the culture of the people who’ve embraced it or otherwise interacted with it where it was originally set. The worth of such an object to a museum of culture and history is clear.
And yet, something interesting happens when an object that owes its relevance to a sustained relationship of informal interactions with the public is transplanted into a new cultural sphere. Is the original context, in this case a highly social corner on Queen Street West, essential to the identity of the tree? Can it retain its heart and soul? More importantly, will you still be allowed to hug it? According to museum staff, yes, you will. In fact, the new base for the tree was constructed by the same company responsible for the structures that support the dinosaur displays. Devon Ostrom, the curator of the show, says that the tree and the stand can withstand “several thousand hugs per square inch.”
The ultimate fate of the Hug Me Tree is undetermined at this point, but several ideas are circulating, including reinstallation at the original site on the street corner (either in its current state, or bronzed), or a series of cast Hug Me Trees positioned throughout the city.
Acceptance into the permanent collection of the ROM would also be a fitting tribute.
Housepaint, Phase 2: Shelter, features an upcoming panel discussion at the museum on March 25, and runs until July 2009.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.