Historically in western art, trees have generally been depicted as ornamental afterthoughts, their upright forms used to frame a scene or add definition to a landscape. ‘Among the Trees’ at Hayward Gallery, however, puts trees centre-stage, emphasising images where branches and leaves fill the frame, confusing the eye and defying the human scale of the viewfinder or canvas. For example, the exhibition opens with Thomas Struth’s detailed photograph of a forest, ‘Paradise 11, Xi Shuang Banna, Yunnan Province, China 1999’ (1999), which is so full of visual information that the viewer struggles to analyse it in a single glance.
Nearby is Tacita Dean’s monumental work ‘Crowhurst II’ (2007), a large-scale photograph of one of the oldest living trees in the UK. The background has been erased with white paint. The tree’s impressive form is revealed with an extraordinary beauty, and Dean’s careful hand-painting around its branches and bark suggests a degree of attention we rarely give to nonhumans. Such works challenge our blindness to the variety and vitality of the vegetal lives around us and make us a little more thankful for their essential role in cleaning our air and producing the oxygen we breathe.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s giant multi-part video work ‘Horizontal – Vaakasuora’ (2011) takes up the whole of gallery 2’s longest wall. This filmic portrait of a spruce is turned on its side, creating an uncanny image that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The work points to the difficulty of capturing the entire organism in a single shot, suggesting the inadequacy of human-made recording devices to engage with something as complex and radically other as a tree.
Works in gallery 3 emphasise the inextricability of human and arboreal lives, reminding viewers of the insistent but overlooked presence of trees in their imaginations and everyday existence, from the wasteland at the edge of the estate explored in George Shaw’s enamel paintings to the forests of fairy tales imagined in Mariele Neudecker’s ‘And Then the World Changed Colour: Breathing Yellow’ (2019), a water-filled vitrine containing a miniature model of a forest. The importance of trees in many foundation myths is highlighted through Anya Gallaccio’s ‘because I could not stop’ (2002) – a bronze Tree of Life burgeoning with ceramic apples.
The exhibition is spread across two floors, with the Hayward’s characteristic concrete spiral staircase running up the middle. The lower floor has low lighting while the upstairs is lit by skylights, giving the impression that visitors are climbing from subterranean roots to canopy: the exhibition-as-tree. In gallery 5 I enjoyed Kazuo Kadonaga’s ‘Wood No. 5 CH’ (1984), one of the oldest pieces in the show, which consists of a cedar log sliced into around 800 paper-thin sheets. Dried and glued back together to recreate the original log form, Kadonaga drew on his family’s knowledge as owners of a lumber mill to highlight the individuality of the trees which are turned into uniform ‘materials’ such as plywood.
‘Among the Trees’ shows that once you start to think about trees, the possibilities for imagination and recontextualisation become endless. However, the show is perhaps too literal. Every photograph, painting, sculpture and video in the show features a figurative representation of a tree and the effect, when initially viewed en masse, is one of homogeneity. As in a forest, closer looking finds some examples of uniqueness and powerful beauty, but even then the concept is often somewhat weak.
‘Among the Trees’ fails to grapple with what Michael Marder calls the ‘radical alterity’ of vegetal beings and generally avoids engaging with trees on their own terms. Contrary to a growing body of philosophical and critical thought around plant-consciousness and the alternative modes of being presented by trees, the exhibition primarily engages with the significance of trees (or their absence) to human lives in symbolic, economic and environmental terms.
It’s certainly an urgent truth that trees are disappearing from the earth at a record pace because of human activities. And yet we need them more than ever before. If the environmental crisis didn’t convince us, then perhaps the context-consuming Coronavirus (which has now closed this show) will do it – proving, as it does, that we are all intimately connected. The virus doesn’t care if you’re rich, famous or a right-wing voter – and nor, in the end, will climate breakdown. Scientists now suggest that a forest can be considered a ‘superorganism’, a network of symbiotic species connected through the ‘wood wide web’. It’s time to recognise that we are just as interconnected as the trees.