On 4 March, when Among the Trees opened, the Hayward Gallery could not have realised how our relationship with nature would be re-evaluated over the ensuing months. With our freedoms curbed, we watched spring unfold through windows and noticed the detail of our surroundings in rationed daily exercise.
Having been forced to close due to the pandemic barely a fortnight after opening, the gallery is now welcoming visitors back. Our experience of the exhibition is necessarily mediated by that of lockdown and offers a chance to reflect on the role of nature on our wellbeing, endurance and renewal, as well as consider the wider implications of climate change and environmental damage. Never has an exhibition about trees had more meaning.
By concentrating on a single, familiar concept, the exhibition is able to explore new perspectives, seeking to “engage us in an exploratory process of looking” at works spanning the past 50 years by 37 international artists. We are presented with images of upside-down trees that subvert our perspective in a literal sense, while the diversity of media and approach provokes different ways of looking.
Entering a fairytale
The opening gallery is a large space suffused with the atmospheric sounds of the forest. Woodland is evoked in the use of light and shade, and by weaving through images of leaves and branches, we participate in the fairytale sense of wandering among the trees, as suggested by the exhibition’s title. We are lured towards Eva Jospin’s work, Forêt Palatine – a towering, intricate cardboard forest that demands close examination.
Although flat to the wall and impenetrable, the work has a sculptural depth that invites visitors to lose themselves in it, as do paintings and photographs depicting the vegetation that makes up a forest. These representations of trees are described as “visually confounding”, frustrating the traditional rules of composition: there is no focal point in a forest, no foreground, no horizon.
The mezzanine is filled with Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s 16-metre-long spruce tree, Horizonal – Vaakasuora, depicted in six projections, each slightly out of sync with the next to emphasise the subtle swaying of the tree. The artist includes herself in this compelling video, a tiny figure at the base of the vast spruce, questioning the anthropocentric view of her medium, but also seeming to stand in solidarity with the tree. The sound of the wind in the branches is mesmeric and filters round the gallery.
The next section takes us out of the fairytale and into reality, addressing the impact of human intervention on natural habitats. The works displayed here share a stillness, the human impact accentuated by the absence of people in the images.
This is particularly striking in George Shaw’s paintings of woods on the margins of a council estate in Coventry, in which empty beer cans, fire pits and graffiti on trees suggest human activity, while Zoe Leonard’s photographs of urban trees growing through the confines of wire fences assert the resilience of trees regardless of human encroachment.
Our connection to trees is further explored in the upper galleries, where Guiseppe Penone’s thumbprint at the centre of his drawing of tree rings unites the physical evidence of human and arboreal life in Propagazione. This section of the show explores the relationship between trees and time: a reminder that trees outlive us and are witness to centuries of history.
The passing of time is embodied in Ugo Rondinone’s Cold Moon, which is cast from an ancient olive tree gnarled by years of exposure to the elements, and is a striking central exhibit, while Steve McQueen reveals a more specific history in his Lynching Tree, displayed in an earlier gallery.
This transparency illuminated on a lightbox depicts a peaceful sunlit grove, but the calm of the image belies the shocking past of the tree, used as gallows to hang slaves from nearby plantations. The tree casts its dappled shade on to the unmarked graves of the slaves buried beneath, erasing a history that was too uncomfortable to acknowledge. This powerful image is a prompt to challenge our failure to confront the wrongs of the past.
Throughout the exhibition, the materiality of wood offers a lens through which to view the works. Arboreal forms are embedded in the fabric of the building itself: the residual wooden texture on the exposed concrete walls is visible all around the gallery and is brilliantly juxtaposed with Virginia Overton’s striking panels of eastern red cedar at the top of the stairs.
Jospin’s cardboard forest uses material manufactured from one tree to represent another, and in Kazou Kadonaga’s work, Wood No. 5 CH, a cedar trunk is sliced into paper-thin sheets then reassembled into their original form, forcing us to re-examine the familiar structure of the tree. A new perspective on the familiar is also offered in Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres, in which the artist has revealed the original form of the tree from within the block of an industrial beam, reminding us of the ubiquity of trees in the common objects of our everyday lives.
Here and now
The cultural context of trees is perhaps most striking when leaving the exhibition through the shop, which is stocked with an astonishing array of books relating to trees, while the website recommends a Spotify playlist featuring tracks referencing or inspired by trees. A wealth of online material and audience engagement has kept the exhibition alive through lockdown, including a virtual tour, podcasts, video clips
of artists, reflections by arboriculturists, writers and poets, and photo-sharing using the hashtag #SpringAmongtheTrees.
The gallery experience is controlled with one-way signage, bookable time slots and limited visitor numbers. While arrows on the floor curb the urge to wander and get lost among the trees, and face coverings suppress the anticipated fresh air of the forest, the exhibition retains its immersive quality. The visitor route brings the show to a close with Jennifer Steinkamp’s 15-metre-long video animation called Blind Eye, 1, which presents an unforeseen opportunity to reflect on recent events.
The three-minute loop of a birch forest where the seasons morph into one another in a continuous cycle is an uncanny replaying of our lockdown spring, offering yet another perspective on our relationship with trees.
Caroline Ikin is a curator at the National Trust