It’s time to make like a tree and go see some art, because the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition is all about our arboreal friends.
Trees have always played powerful, symbolic roles in human society, and in contemporary art, they represent countless ideas. Here, forests become places of dark suburban escape in George Shaw’s unsettling paintings, and places of painful living memory in Steve McQueen’s haunting ‘Lynching Tree’ photograph; trees are used undermine traditional ways of looking in the focus-less photos of Thomas Struth and Peter Doig’s stunning painting of a building seen through branches. Every work in this show puts a different symbolic weight on the idea of trees and forests.
There’s an emotional conflict at play in ‘Among the Trees’: on the one hand, the whole exhibition feels like a calm, safe, quiet haven, like any forest might feel. But on the other, there’s a sense of foreboding. Some works carry the threat of a tree toppling, of the unseen darkness of the forest, of imminent environmental collapse. The show drags you in with the promise of tranquillity, then bashes you over the head with a branch in the woods.
As a whole, it works, but it doesn’t really stand up to closer scrutiny. Although many of the works are good, by the time you’ve seen your billionth black-and-white photo of a tree or blurry painting of branches, it all ends up looking the same.
Because of that, the wilder, weirder works stick in your mind best. Roxy Paine’s glowing burnt-out-forest-ember installation is grim and desolate; Giuseppe Penone’s incredible reclaimed tree carvings are elemental and impressive; Ugo Rondinone’s huge white tree is towering and imposing; Kazuo Kadonaga’s endlessly layered trunk is mind-bending and minimal. Strongest of all is Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s six-screen video portrait of a giant Finnish spruce. It’s the work that best translates a dwarfing sense of natural wonder, an appreciation of trees as something bigger, older, more powerful, more beautiful than us.
The rest just sort of blurs into one, and by the end, you can’t see the art for the trees.