July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Gemma Ralton investigates how this exhibition portrays artists' responses to the crucial role trees play throughout our lives.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Horizontal – Vaakasuora
Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Horizontal – Vaakasuora: Hayward Gallery, 4th March-31st October

Gemma Ralton
22nd October 2020

At a time of global environmental crisis, when the destruction of the world’s forests is accelerating at a record pace, Among the Trees portrays how artists have responded to the crucial role trees play throughout our lives.

The exhibition’s location at London’s Hayward Gallery is poetic in its irony; a green utopia sitting within the Brutalist concrete jungle at the heart of the city. The grey interior is brought to life with various mixed-media pieces from the past 50 years, effectively conveying our complex relationship with trees.

art piece with burning wood
Roxy Paine’s Desolation Row: Hayward Gallery, 4th March-31st October

Conflicting emotions are at the centre of the exhibition, with the calm, tranquil peace of the forest clashing with a darker sense of foreboding and environmental collapse. One of the exhibition highlights is the colossal spruce from Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Horizontal – Vaakasuora which celebrates the majesty and power of nature by depicting the tree in six large segments spread horizontally across a gallery wall as though felled. The gentle animation is serene and captivating, helping the observer to step back and appreciate the true size, age and power of nature. In contrast, Roxy Paine’s Desolation Row portrays an eerie and desolate sculpture of a glowing burnt-out forest ember. Here Paine uses mixedmedia to articulate how climate change is causing increasingly catastrophic forest fires.

image of a forest

Steve McQueen’s Lynching Tree: Hayward Gallery, 4th March-31st October
art installation with plants at bottom of tree with plastic bags on top
Marthine Tayou’s Plastic Tree B: Hayward Gallery, 4th March-31st October

Throughout the third gallery, the work takes inspiration from history, exploring the ways in which arboreal life has been affected by industry, agriculture, and human conflict. In some cases, trees are portrayed as witnesses to human history, from workplaces to settings haunted by evil. One poignant example is Steve McQueen’s back-lit photograph Lynching Tree, taken while filming his Oscar winning film Twelve Years A Slave. It is a heart-breaking reminder of the horrific chapter before the abolition of slavery, with the tree standing as it always has, despite the tragedy it witnessed.

Trees have always played a symbolic role in human society, but we often treat them with contempt and disregard. Towards the end of the exhibition, the artists explore the layered relationship between trees and time, emphasising the destruction humans have caused to the natural world in our brief time on Earth compared with the longevity of these ancient organisms. Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Plastic Tree B is a familiar reminder of the detrimental impact that single-use plastic can have on our environment and how it entangles and weaves its way into many branches of our life.

Among the Trees is a thought-provoking reminder of the pivotal role trees play in our existence. It is clear our relationship with them is far from simple and the more you delve into the intricacies of each piece, the more you can understand the delicate balance of life on our planet. Although it is stimulating, the exhibition could have benefitted from additional guidance on how exactly we could help conserve forests in our daily lives. Whether or not art installations like this can help to persuade people to live more sustainably and to increase conservation efforts remains to be seen. 

Among The Trees closes on the 31st October, tickets are available from the Southbank Centre here: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/art-exhibitions/among-trees

Gemma Ralton is the Marketing Manager at I, Science and a current student of the MSc Science Communication course at Imperial. She graduated with a BSc in Environmental Science and enjoys communicating about the latest global issues on science and sustainability.