Hayward Gallery Takes Us Back To Nature In A Tree-mendous Exhibition

Among the Trees, Hayward Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 31 months ago

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Hayward Gallery Takes Us Back To Nature In A Tree-mendous Exhibition Among the Trees, Hayward Gallery 4
This mesmerising installation by Jennifer Steinkamp moves through all four seasons. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Linda Nylind

Trees give us shelter, the oxygen we breathe, and provide a welcome refuge when urban life gets a bit too much. So how do we reward them? By chopping them down by the thousand every day so we can have nice furniture, and glossy magazines to read.

Hayward Gallery has pulled together a selection of artists who all draw inspiration from trees or incorporate them into their works. Given that environmental destruction has never been higher on the political agenda, it's an important and timely topic to explore.

Tacita Dean presents a photograph of a yew tree and it's mind blowing to think that this English tree may predate Christianity. Trees clearly operate on a timescale that we can't comprehend, visible in Zoe Leonard's photographs of trees that have slowly subsumed the fences that have been placed to contain them.

Get a load of this horizontal spruce. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Linda Nylind

Their scale is also epic as demonstrated by a video of a spruce tree that has to be displayed horizontally across six screens to fit inside the Hayward Gallery — and this isn't even close to the size of some of the biggest trees on Earth. Sitting in the dark watching its needles move about in the breeze is remarkably soothing, making this exhibition a calming escape from the chaotic city outside.

A similar effect is recreated in Jennifer Steinkamp's animation of a forest that fast-forwards through the seasons from green leaves to red, fruiting blossoms to bare branches.

Giuseppe Penone takes industrial timber and shaves away at it to reveal the tree inside. In our modern, industrialised world it's easy to become divorced from the fact that the beds we sleep on and the sofas we sit on are all products of trees. The wood we see is so processed that only the graining remains as a reminder that it was once part of a forest. Penone's work reignites this lost connection.

We love this atmospheric vitrine by Mariele Neudecker. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Linda Nylind

Thomas Struth's photographs of forests and jungles ask us to examine the interlocking branches and gnarled roots — these aren't a backdrop for an influencer or a comment about someone's holiday, they're opportunities to stop and simply appreciate natural beauty.

As well as beauty, this exhibition covers the destruction of forests, as seen in a tree where leaves have been replaced by colourful plastic bags. Roxy Paine's charred forest, aglow with red lights as if still on fire, understandably reminds the viewer of the recent devastating Australian bushfires.  

As well as celebrating artistic interpretations of trees, this excellent exhibition is a reminder that we should re-engage with nature and get out there and explore some forests. As the weather improves I'll head out to the woods, switch off all notifications and breath in the fresh air — it's what this exhibition would want me to do.  

Among the Trees at Hayward Gallery is on from 4 March to 17 May*. Tickets are £13.50 for adults. * Post-pandemic this has now been extended to run from 1 August to 31 October.

Last Updated 21 July 2020

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