05 March 2020
A journey across the planet from forest to forest, from wood to wood, from tree to tree, from work of art to work of art. From the Columbian rainforests to the Japanese jungles, from Israel’s vineyards to the woods of Scandinavia and on to the underground forests in South Africa, as told through photographs, videos, sculptures, drawings, watercolours and painting. The word “tree” is – wonderfully – plentiful and on everyone’s lips. Trees themselves have proliferated in a great many projects, from Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forests in Milan, Lausanne, Nanjing, Utrecht, Paris and Eindhoven to the Smart Forest City in Cancun, Mexico, also designed by the Milanese architect’s practice, which will restore greenery to a vast plot destined for a large shopping mall with 7,500,000 plants, to the new planting programmes in various European cities, such as Milan, where the mayor has announced that a total of 3 million new trees will be planted in the city and metropolitan area by 2030.
The exhibition Among the Trees at London’s prestigious Hayward Gallery, opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in July 1968, takes a look at our arboreal planet. Divided into three sections, it questions the way we traditionally consider these living organisms and proposes a different type of relationship between man and plants and, in particular, as museum director Ralph Rugoff puts it, “a renewed sense of appreciation for both the beauty and complexity of these indispensable organisms.”
The first section contains works depicting trees and forests that draw attention to their structural complexity and interconnection, chiming with recent scientific discoveries on the “wood wide web,” the underground network of roots that connects trees, transporting water and nutrients. This section contains Roberto Longo’s huge charcoal drawing of a massive tree, emphasising the tangle of branches and roots, Giuseppe Penone’s imposing 6-metre-high cedar door/tree and the 16-metre-long video of a Finnish spruce by Eija-Liisa Ahtila.
The works brought together in the next section underscore the subtle dichotomy between nature and civilisation. The famous landscape photographer Robert Adams has focused on the impact of human activity on nature, depicting farms and industrial farming, underscoring the obvious and resultant shrinking of open spaces, the American artist Zoe Leonard puts the emphasis on the way in which trees adapt to urban contexts, or rather how trees become sources of sustenance as well as decorative elements. Other trees bear silent witness to a forgotten past, like the photo Steve McQueen took in New Orleans – a simple tree to all intents and purposes, but formerly used as a gallows for lynching black Americans.
Lastly, the third section focuses on the tree as a representation of time and symbol of death. Ugo Rondinone’s sculptures of ancient olive trees, cast in aluminium from moulds of living trees stand out as twisted memorials of condensed time, while Rachel Sussman’s colour photographs document some of the world’s most ancient trees, including a 9,500-year-old spruce from Northern Switzerland, and Jennifer Steinkamp’s 15-metre-long video projection leads the viewer into a birch forest as it changes over the four seasons.
The exhibition offers a triple perspective – cultural, environmental and environmentalist. It is an invitation to reconsider the fundamental role of trees and forests in our lives and in our minds.
Among the Trees
4th March – 7th May 2020
Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XX