Exhibition at Hayward Gallery offers an exploration of trees and forests in contemporary art
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Exhibition at Hayward Gallery offers an exploration of trees and forests in contemporary art
Installation view of Among the Trees, Hayward Gallery, 2020. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Linda Nylind.

LONDON.- Among the Trees celebrates key works of art that reimagine how we think about trees and forests. Spanning the past 50 years, the exhibition brings together major works by 38 leading international artists from five different continents. As well as illuminating the beauty and visually arresting character of trees, Among the Trees invites us to consider trees as both symbols and living organisms. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the exhibition explores how trees have shaped human civilisation and how they continue to play an indispensable role in our lives and imaginations.

Among the Trees covers an expansive and adventurous artistic terrain with works ranging from immersive video installations to life-sized sculptures; from large-scale paintings and drawings to intimate black-and-white photographs. Participating artists are: Robert Adams, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Yto Barrada, Johanna Calle, Gillian Carnegie, Tacita Dean, Peter Doig, Jimmie Durham, Kirsten Everberg, Anya Gallaccio, Simryn Gill, Rodney Graham, Shi Guowei, Hugh Hayden, Eva Jospin, Kazuo Kadonaga, William Kentridge, Toba Khedoori, Luisa Lambri, Myoung Ho Lee, Zoe Leonard, Robert Longo, Sally Mann, Steve McQueen, Jean-Luc Mylayne, Mariele Neudecker, Virginia Overton, Roxy Paine, Giuseppe Penone, Abel Rodríguez, Ugo Rondinone, George Shaw, Robert Smithson, Jennifer Steinkamp, Thomas Struth, Rachel Sussman, Pascale Marthine Tayou and Jeff Wall.

The works in the exhibition take us on a journey of ideas and simultaneously transport us across the globe: visitors encounter images of Colombian rainforests, jungles in Japan, olive orchards in Israel, Scandinavian woods and an underground forest in South Africa. Incorporating distinctive and often surprising perspectives, the artists in the exhibition question our conventional representations of trees in order to forge new ways of understanding our crucial and multifaceted relationship with arboreal life.

Among the Trees is divided into three sections. In the first, visitors encounter images of trees and forests that call attention to characteristics of complexity and connectivity in nature, chiming with recent scientific discoveries about the “wood wide web” – the network of underground roots, fungi and bacteria that connects forest organisms. Like Robert Longo’s giant charcoal drawing of a massive tree, the works in this section dramatise the intricate architecture of branch and root systems. Along with a looming six-metre-high wooden sculpture by Giuseppe Penone and a 16-metre-long video portrait of a Finnish spruce by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, several of these works also remind us of how trees set our sense of scale.

The exhibition’s second section features works that play with the blurring line between our concepts of nature and culture. Artists such as photographer Robert Adams examine the impact of present-day human activity on nature, with industrial farming and the clearcutting of woodlands; others, like Zoe Leonard, consider how trees unexpectedly adapt to man-made urban milieus. In other works, trees appear as valuable sources of sustenance as well as objects of decor. Additionally, a number of artworks within this section cast trees as silent witnesses of forgotten histories: artist and film director Steve McQueen, for instance, presents a photograph, taken outside New Orleans, of an innocent-looking tree that was formerly used as a gallows for lynching black Americans.

In the final section of Among the Trees, artists explore the theme of time. Reflecting seasonal changes and with life spans that far exceed our own, trees have long served in art as symbols for invoking mortality. Ugo Rondinone’s sculpture of an ancient olive tree, cast in aluminium from moulds of a living specimen, stands as twisted memorials of condensed time. Colour photographs by Rachel Sussman document some of the world’s most ancient trees, including a 9,500-year-old spruce in northern Sweden, while Jennifer Steinkamp’s 15-metre-long animated video projection places us in the midst of a birch forest as it cycles through the four seasons.

Ralph Rugoff, Director, Hayward Gallery says: “At a moment when the destruction of the world’s forests is accelerating at a record pace, Among the Trees brings together the work of leading international artists who urge us to think about the essential roles that trees and forests play in our lives and psyches. Hopefully visitors leave the exhibition with a renewed sense of appreciation for both the beauty and complexity of these indispensable organisms.”

Among the Trees is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring a curatorial overview by Ralph Rugoff, individual artist texts, an original essay by writer and critic Jeffrey Kastner exploring the representation of trees in art and a text by philosopher Matteo Pasquinelli looking at the tree as a cultural symbol. Alongside the exhibition there is an extensive public talks programme featuring several of the exhibition artists including George Shaw, Johanna Calle, Mariele Neudecker, as well as lectures and performances by authors, artists and authorities on climate change.

Among the Trees is curated by Ralph Rugoff, Director, Hayward Gallery.

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