Nowadays, the derogatory stereotype of the “Tree hugger” seems like less of a whimsical identity and more of a common-sense approach to life. For those of you who loved Attenborough’s most recent doc (A life on our planet), Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery will be right up your street.
Expect epic and breath-taking artwork, coupled with some harsh lessons on the environmental importance of trees. This exhibition does not shy away from the realities – such as the fact that the number of trees on earth has declined by almost 50% since people started farming 12,000 years ago.
The artworks shed light on the numerous ways in which man-made industry and conflict has impacted the natural world. They also unveil the personal and cultural significance of trees, and the role they have played in societies across the world – from the Malaysian coast to Israeli prisons. Steve McQueen’s photograph of the ‘Lynching Tree’ is especially eye-opening.
As you wander through this thoughtful exhibition, you can’t help but notice the emotional significance that trees have had for so many of these artists. Zoe Leonard photographs a beautiful series of trees growing through barbed wire enclosures, which transformed her notion of struggle into a belief in endurance.
Jennifer Steinkamp’s memorising interactive piece Blind Eye, 1 is perhaps one of the most pertinent works. The title is a play on words, alluding to both the scars, known as ‘eyes’ that appear birch trees once they lose their branches, and to the fact, as she expresses, ‘there are so many things we turn a blind eye to these days.’ Climate change, undoubtedly being one of them.
Mariele Neudecker’s haunting pieces are also a highlight. Her submerged landscapes attempt to create a space where ‘the real and the imaginary collide.’ In so many ways, trees hold a magisterial place in our imaginations and hearts, if not only for the fact their lives can span for thousands of years beyond our own.
One thing is for sure – if you’ve never hugged a tree before, this enthralling exhibition might make you partial.
Among the Trees is currently on at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank. You can book here.
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Image: Southbank Centre
Image: Art Fund
Image: Art Fund