Updated: Sep 4, 2020
At a time when the global agenda is dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, one London exhibition continues to challenge mankind's collective complacency towards the environment. Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery takes place not a stone's throw from Waterloo Bridge, which was brought to a standstill by climate activists in the summer of 2019. The show itself has led a precarious existence, since it opened for a few weeks this March, was closed during the lockdown, and has recently risen again like a phoenix from the ashes. Among the Trees provides a poignant reminder of mankind's symbiotic relationship with nature. It is also one of the most impressive shows we have seen for a long, long time, by turns soothing and provocative.
Giuseppe Penone's Albero Porta - Cedro (Door Tree - Cedar) (2012)
So what makes this a standout exhibition? The exhibits are allowed to breathe, for a start. This makes a refreshing change from numerous other shows (such as Mushrooms at Somerset House, reviewed here), which provide for a much more claustrophobic experience. In much of the gallery there are just a handful of pieces on display, and plenty of room for the visitors to move around: a prerequisite of social distancing, obviously, but equally essential for ensuring that everyone has time and space to question and contemplate, without the constant risk of being jostled. The pacing is perfect, and the sight-lines subtle yet accurate. You never feel overwhelmed.
Looking across the gallery towards Peter Doig's The Architect's Home in the Ravine (1991)
There is an equally startling transformation in the exhibition's design. As you leave the outside world (such a relief in the current climate), you first enter a cool, dark room, where you are welcomed by the song of the forest, playing from the installation on the upper landing. You almost feel at one with nature. Upstairs, in stark contrast, you are greeted by a vision of rape and death, metaphorically speaking. A recent photograph of a South African tree that was thousands of years old and is now no more, destroyed for the building of a new road, is typical of this part of the exhibition, in which beautiful artworks interplay with harrowing arboreal tales. The soundscape lingers in the background but is much less pronounced,
a reminder of what trees once were. Far too often they have been left clinging to survival by their roots.
In the foreground, Giuseppe Penone's Tree of 12 Metres (1980-82)
Eija-Liisa Ahtila's Horizontal - Vaakasuora (2011)
There are several candidates for the accolade of best exhibit in show. First up on the now obligatory
one-way system is Eva Jospin's Forêt Palatine (2019-20), delicately carved from cardboard. Giuseppe Penone's Tree of 12 Metres (1980-82) vies for contention with his own Albero Porta - Cedro
(Door Tree - Cedar) (2012). Ugo Rondinone's cold moon (2011) was cast from an ancient olive tree.
The video installation Horizontal - Vaakasuora (2011) by the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila dominates the upper landing of the opening hall. And Then the World Changed Colour: Breathing Yellow (2019) by Mariele Neudecker captivates visitors upstairs. Jennifer Steinkamp's computerised animation Blind Eye, 1 (2018) provided an appropriate moment of calm. The Hayward's line-up is truly contemporary, international and diverse, reminding us that trees have inspired artists worldwide, and across a vast array of urban and rural contexts.
Jennifer Steinkamp's computerised animation, Blind Eye, 1 (2018)
The first room; in the background is Eva Jospin's Forêt Palatine (2019-20)
But don't be fooled into thinking that this is a guilt-free trip. Half-way through your attention is drawn to a light box and transparency, containing a woodland scene that could easily come from the heart of the English countryside. On closer inspection you are chilled to the bone. The title of this particular work is Lynching Tree, and it was taken by Steve McQueen in 2013, in the woods near New Orleans, Louisiana, during the making of his film Twelve Years A Slave. The tree in question was used for the summary execution of African-American slaves; it stands as testimony to their desperate fates and to the inhumanity of their persecutors.
Steve McQueen's Lynching Tree (2013)
A minor quibble (and this also applies to other art shows we have seen in recent times). Some works have copious labels and others, such as Peter Doig's The Architect's Home in the Ravine (1991), have none. There is no rhyme nor reason for this. It is as if someone gave up, or decided unilaterally that certain exhibits were more deserving of attention than others. This gives the impression (a false impression, we trust) that there is a hierarchy of importance at play here. It would be kinder to both the artists and visitors to reconsider this approach in future Hayward Gallery shows. The gift shop, meanwhile, was a delight, but the catalogue over-priced and not particularly well-produced. We passed on it.
Mariele Neudecker's And Then the World Changed Colour: Breathing Yellow (2019)
But these are small glitches and should not detract from this show's resounding achievement. Among the Trees is not the only exhibition to survive the London lockdown, but it is by far the best, expertly curated, superbly designed, precisely lit, nicely named and carefully thought-through. We haven't stopped thinking about it since our visit.
Ugo Rondinone's cold moon (2011)
The Hayward Gallery
1 August until 31 October 2020