Michael Craig-Martin: An Oak Tree

Next to the glass of water is the following text:
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size ...
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn't change its appearance. But it's not a glass of water, it's an oak tree.
Q. Can you prove what you've claimed to have done?
A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.
Q. Haven't you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.
Q. Isn't this just a case of the emperor's new clothes?
A. No. With the emperor's new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn't there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.
Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?
A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.
Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?
A. When I put the water in the glass.
Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?
A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.
Q. Then intention causes the change?
A. I would say it precipitates the change.
Q. You don't know how you do it?
A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.
Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn't that the case?
A. I'm flattered that you think so.
Q. But aren't you the only person who can do something like this?
A. How could I know?
Q. Could you teach others to do it?
A. No, it's not something one can teach.
Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?
A. Yes.
Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?
A. There is no glass of water anymore.
Q. The process of change?
A. There is no process involved in the change.
Q. The oak tree?
A. Yes. The oak tree.
Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.
A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category 'oak tree' or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.
Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?
A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.
Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?
A. Until I change it.


An Oak Tree consists of an ordinary glass of water placed on a small glass shelf of the type normally found in a bathroom, which is attached to the wall above head height. Craig-Martin composed a series of questions and answers to accompany the objects. In these, the artist claims that the glass of water has been transformed into an oak tree. When An Oak Tree was first exhibited, in 1974 at Rowan Gallery, London, the text was presented printed on a leaflet. It was subsequently attached to the wall below and to the left of the shelf and glass. Craig-Martin’s text deliberately asserts the impossible. The questions probe the obvious impossibility of the artist’s assertion with such apparently valid complaints as: ‘haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?’ and ‘but the oak tree only exists in the mind’. The answers maintain conviction while conceding that ‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water ... Just as it is imperceptible, it is also inconceivable’. An Oak Tree is based on the concept of transubstantiation, the notion central to the Catholic faith in which it is believed that bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Christ while retaining their appearances of bread and wine. The ability to believe that an object is something other than its physical appearance indicates requires a transformative vision. This type of seeing (and knowing) is at the heart of conceptual thinking processes, by which intellectual and emotional values are conferred on images and objects. An Oak Tree uses religious faith as a metaphor for this belief system which, for Craig-Martin, is central to art. He has explained:

  • I considered that in An Oak Tree I had deconstructed the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art: it accounts for why some people are artists and others are not, why some people dismiss works of art others highly praise, and why something we know to be great does not always move us.

  • (Quoted in Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes, [p.20].)

Craig-Martin was born in Dublin, raised in the United States and has been living and working in England since 1966. His early work of the late 1960s was influenced by such American Minimalist sculptors as Robert Morris (born 1931), to whose work he applied his own brand of Conceptual thinking. His first exhibited works were series of hinged boxes that appeared functional but were impossible to use. Apparently impossible balancing was often used to create visual puns. In Six Foot Balance with Four Pounds of Paper 1970 (Tate T07975), the image of a four-pound weight printed onto four pounds of paper hung in equilibrium with the weight itself, suggesting an equality of some kind between image and object. In the early 1970s, in a series of works utilising mirrors, Craig-Martin explored relationships between physical and psychological perception. In Faces 1971, installed at the Tate Gallery as part of 7 Exhibitions in 1972, viewers entering booths, which each contained a mirror, were likely to encounter the face of another visitor in another booth where they expected to find their own. Conviction 1973 (Tate T01764) consists of a series of eight small mirrors attached to the wall above eight statements, written directly on the wall. The phrases ‘I recognise myself’, ‘I know who I am’, ‘I understand why I am as I am’ and ‘I accept myself’ alternate with question marks undermining the certainty of the statements. Craig-Martin intends these to set off processes of questioning in the viewer as he alternately looks at his reflection and reads the words and question marks. The two separate activities of seeing - which relies simply on ocular vision - and reading - which depends on an underlying structure - are oppositional forces in this work. With An Oak Tree, Craig-Martin introduces a third element, that of belief or faith.

An Oak Tree was a watershed in the artist’s work. He has explained: ‘everything before that was trying to take the whole structure of the thing apart’ and ‘everything that comes after the Oak Tree should be seen as me trying to put the pieces together again’. (Quoted in Flash Art, no.152, May-June 1990, p.132.). In his subsequent works, such as Reading with Globe 1980 (Tate T03102), Craig-Martin established a language of drawn objects and planes of colour relating to intellectual processes and physical experience. Following the logic of Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made, which was established in 1917 by titling a urinal Fountain (remade 1964, Tate T07573), Craig-Martin sees everyday objects as models for works of art. He has stated: ‘I try to get rid of as much meaning as I can. People’s need to find meanings, to create associations, renders this impossible. Meaning is both persistent and unstable.’ (Quoted inMichael Craig-Martin: A Retrospective 1968-1989, p.73.)

Further reading:

Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin 2001, [pp.19-20]

Michael Craig-Martin: A Retrospective 1968-1989, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1989, reproduced (colour) pl.18

Michael Craig-Martin: Selected Works 1966-1975, exhibition catalogue, Turnpike Gallery, Leigh, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol 1976, [pp.18 and 27-31], reproduced [p.30]

Elizabeth Manchester

December 2002