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Why are there so many monumental tree artworks popping up around the world?

From London and NYC to Lithuania, ‘arboreal art’ is on the rise

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham

On the face of it, it seems like cheating to use trees as an artistic material. They’re already pretty striking and darn cool things. And even better, they change with the seasons and continuously grow into even more gorgeous objects. We’re not saying that the innate beauty of trees makes them an artistic cop-out, but… we also kind of are. 

Over the past few years, tree artworks and exhibitions have really taken off. From the oak saplings planted atop London’s Tate Modern last year to the recent installation of tree-sprouting chairs in New York’s Madison Square, making art out of trees seems to be all the rage.  

So, where did it all start? Well, one of the first huge public art installations to feature trees was by German artist Joseph Beuys. His ‘7,000 Oak Trees’ project combined urban reforesting and public art in the city of Kassel in 1982. Beuys led the way in moving ‘arboreal art’ away from just painting pictures of trees – and towards using trees as art themselves.

In the 2010s and 2020s, tree art appears to have stepped up a notch. And the reasoning is likely rather simple. Trees symbolise life, growth and time itself, but also – and this is really crucial for our era – the climate emergency. Trees aren’t just symbols of the destruction of rainforests, they can also represent a cleaner, cooler, greener world.

That results in artworks like Yoko Ono’s ‘Ex It’ in Kaunas, Lithuania. Consisting of trees growing out of coffin-like boxes, Ono’s exhibition aims to represent hope after death or catastrophe. Ackroyd & Harvey’s saplings at the Tate Modern, meanwhile, were grown out of acorns from trees in Joseph Beuys’s original project. Titled ‘Beuys’s Acorns’, the exhibit was intended to ‘declare a climate and ecological emergency and calls for a revolution of love in our relationship with nature’. Bold stuff, eh?

Last year, London’s Somerset House also enlisted artist Es Devlin to plant 400 trees in its main courtyard. Titled ‘Forest for Change’, the artwork was the centrepiece of the London Design Biennale and was designed to highlight the importance of the UN’s sustainable development goals – one of which, of course, is tackling the climate crisis. 

Design Biennale at Somerset House
‘Forest for Change’. Photograph: Kevin Meredith

But not all tree art is about climate change. Klaus Littmann’s ‘Arena for a Tree’ took a single tree and turned it into walk-in exhibition in Basel, with the aim of simply demonstrating nature can be a work of art. Artist and sculptor Hugh Hayden’s recent ‘Brier Patch’ in New York’s Madison Square, meanwhile, uses trees to explore growth and inequality in the US education system.

And if you’re sceptical about all this ‘using trees to make art about climate change’ stuff, well, that’s actually quite fair. There are obviously some serious questions to be asked about tree artworks. Aside from trees being an obvious (and some might even say lazy) metaphor, there’s something suspect about transporting loads of trees around – thereby wasting lots of fuel and damaging the environment – for the sake of an exhibition.

It’s also perfectly justified to question whether planting lots of trees temporarily in public spaces is actually good for the their health. We guess it depends rather a lot on how the trees are looked after, and how they’re dealt with once an exhibition has finished.

So, are tree artworks good or bad? Honestly, who knows. There are many more pointless art fads out there – but at least with this one, even you don’t care for the exhibitions themselves, you do get to enjoy a load more lovely trees.

Did you see that Milan is planting one tree for each of its three million inhabitants?

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