The Hayward Gallery’s most recent exhibition, Among the Trees, introduces nature to the sprawling metropolis of London, inviting us to spend some time among the trees. Guiding us on an immersive virtual tour of the exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, considers our innate relationship with the forest. He observes that, “one of the great joys of walking in a forest is that you give up any attempt to analyse it, you stop using that part of your brain, and you just enjoy the act of looking.” The exhibition works to explore the relationship that necessarily exists between humans and trees, taking visitors on a journey around the world in order to explore our intertwined histories. One of the key recurring themes throughout the many various artworks in the exhibition, is that of conservation, as “Among the Trees [aims to] vividly [highlight] the indispensable role that trees play in our lives and imaginations.”
The thirty-eight artists chosen for this exhibition, to quote the Hayward Gallery, ‘epitomise the past fifty years of artistic practice’, concerning works of art that explore humanity’s relationship with trees. The towering height and stoic presence of trees are a testament to the beauty that can be found in nature, characteristics which these artists have deliberately sought out and chosen to represent through different mediums. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Finnish artist Eija-Lissa Ahtila’s life-sized projection of a spruce tree (known in Finnish as Kussi). In order to accommodate for the monumental height of the tree, Ahtila has chosen to stream the six-screen projection horizontally, appropriately labelling the work Horizontal – Vaakasuora (2011). This bilingual title bridges the divide between the artist’s Finnish roots and the work’s (primarily) western audience, thus speaking to the universality of our shared environment and home.
Whilst portraiture is traditionally an anthropocentric practice, Ahtila has chosen to make, what is essentially, a portrait of the tree. Standing in front of this thirty-metre long projection, you are wholly captivated by the sheer scope of the tree, the minute stature of Ahtila standing at ground level providing scale for comparison. You can almost feel the breeze as it courses through the conifer’s branches, disrupting the seeming stillness of the scene. The tranquil ambience of this work draws the viewer in, allowing us to appreciate nature for its simplicity. Ahtila is thereby inviting us to enjoy, what Rugoff terms, ‘the act of looking’, to once again appreciate nature. Whilst we, as the human race, are so caught up in the speed of our own lives, barely drawing breath, the trees offer a moment of stillness amongst the chaos. In spending some time in front of Horizontal – Vaakasuora, we are spellbound by the sheer size of the spruce. This work asks us to remove ourselves from our hectic everyday lives, and consider our place within the earth’s ecosystem. Whilst we may be dwarfed by this spruce, as a collective, we have the power to make a positive difference, and take action on behalf of our environment.
The seasonal cycle of a grove of birch trees captivates us as we stand in front of Jennifer Steinkamp’s Blind Eye 1 (2018). Fully absorbed in the changing seasons, the 3.66m high video installation extends the length of one of the gallery walls, cycling through the life cycle of these birch trees. Red buds begin to flower, and the colours of the leaves slowly change from this vibrant, summertime green, to autumnal browns and yellow ochres, before the greying trees scatter their leaves as winter takes hold. This video installation runs for almost three minutes, a year of growth reduced to a 3 minute loop, playing into the human desire for instant gratification. Steinkamp utilises technology to enable this to happen, condensing a year’s worth of changing seasons into a three minute video loop. Whilst urban life has somewhat removed us from nature, Steinkamp re-establishes this connection through a virtual forest, intertwining new media with the natural world.
Red buds begin to flower, and the colours of the leaves slowly change from this vibrant, summertime green, to autumnal browns and yellow ochres, before the greying trees scatter their leaves as winter takes hold.
In our modernised world, new media is both a blessing, and a curse. Whilst in this work, Steinkamp uses this technology to showcase the changing seasons, it is also the reason behind our increasingly mechanised, in some ways unnatural, world. Blind Eye 1 reminds us that our lives are also attuned to the changing seasons. Whereas we may feel removed from such in the city, we rely on the agricultural sector to meet our basic necessities which, in turn, relies on the environment to produce sufficient crop yields. This video installation is a reminder that we, like the grove of birches, are responsive to the changing seasons. As the years go on, our seasons are changing more sporadically, their embedded circadian rhythms becoming increasingly disrupted by global warming. By nurturing a connection between the viewer and the virtual tree landscape, the work is calling us to action, encapsulating the beauty of nature in order to provoke a need within us to preserve such beauty.
French artist Eva Jospin utilises tree-derived material to imitate the forest in her featured work, Forêt Palatine (2019-2020). Constructed from layers of cardboard, the artist has crafted a 3D forest scene on a two-dimensional plane. Reminiscent of a fairy tale scene, Jospin has created a network of branches and sprigs which give the illusion of receding into endless space. In discussing Forêt Palatine, Jospin spoke about the significance of the forest, “[it] is a very powerful subject when you start working on it, because it’s something that talks to everybody. You have so many myths about journeys, or finding the truth … it’s an image of the mind, an image of being lost, or finding your way.” The artist awakens childhood memories of hearing stories of far-away kingdoms, dragons and enchanted forests, and revives this innocent curiosity to explore the artwork. The idea of wandering through a forest extends from this artwork into the exhibition itself as we find ourselves immersed in a curated forest. With deforestation continuing to progress at an alarming rate (the World Bank reporting that between 1990 and 2016, 1.3 million square kilometres of forest has been lost), perhaps, in future, artworks such as this one will be the only way we may wander through a forest. A scary thought, prompting us to consider how we may contribute to conservation efforts on both a global scale and within our everyday lives.
Reminiscent of a fairy tale scene, Jospin has created a network of branches and sprigs which give the illusion of receding into endless space.
As an artist who is renowned for his large-scale tree sculptures, striving to strengthen the connection between man and the natural world, Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Meters (1980-82) is a fitting choice for this exhibition. Throughout his career, the Italian artist has propagated the tree as ‘the perfect sculpture.’ Since the late 1960s, Penone has been exploring the sculptural potential of trees, scraping away at the manmade additions to reveal their internal essence. Interested in the connection between ourselves and the environment, Penone uses sculpture to reveal the similarities between human anatomy and tree anatomy. Through his intricate carving process, where he employs both power tools and carving knives, he reveals the veining of the wood and the limbs of the tree through his intricate carving process. He explores this idea in Tree of 12 Metres. Composed of two halves of an industrially cut beam, this sculpture stands tall and proud in the centre of one of the gallery’s rooms. Penone has attempted to reverse the man-made process, tracing and carving out the knots and veins of the wood to reveal its past form. Like Jospin’s Forêt Palatine, this sculptural work attempts to return an industrial material to its roots. However, man has made a lasting mark on the forest. These works are simply an imitation of their original form, as we bear witness to how our impact on our environment can have irreversible consequences. Trees, such as this one, form the building blocks for our society. They are an integral part of our everyday life, and the artist has highlighted this fact in this sculpture. Whilst we cannot undo the destruction we have already inflicted on this tree, we have the power to make deliberate consumerist choices, and demand more effort be put into conservation by our respective governments. In an era when our environment needs our care and attention the most, we are being asked by artists, such as Penone, to reflect on our relationship with the forest.
In a time in which we are subjugated to the unrelenting speed of our own lives, the Hayward Gallery’s most recent exhibition Among the Trees momentarily stops time. Whilst at face value we are being asked to appreciate the act of looking, the underlying themes of the exhibition highlight the importance of conservation and ask us to reconsider our intrinsic relationship with the forest. If the Hayward Gallery’s most recent exhibition is a taste of the direction that the art world is heading in, then I think that we can anticipate an evolving emphasis on preserving the natural materiality of our environment. Art and society are intrinsically intertwined, and as contemporary rhetoric continues to propagate the need to fight against climate change, art will continue to voice such notions in a universal medium.
By Louder Than The Storm writer Jade Le Petit