by Rahul Kumar, Samta NadeemSep 13, 2022
Trees have been around long before us humans came along. They are strong, tall and multifunctional. Trees create microclimates for people and provide us oxygen in exchange for the carbon dioxide we produce but our relationship with trees goes beyond this simple transactional equation. For many centuries now, trees have been a valuable part of our cultural and spiritual values. For instance, the Sacred Fig has been a symbolic part of the story of Buddha where he apparently meditated under one such tree for seven whole weeks. Similarly, the Sacred Fig has also been mentioned in Hindu texts, referring to the tree as the ‘home of all Gods’. Cutting such a tree is regarded as inauspicious. In the Scandinavian region of Europe, Norse mythology speaks of a large ash tree, which is said to be the centre of the cosmos and the link to all nine different dimensions (a narrative endorsed by Norse mythology). In Malaysia, Germany, Ireland and other countries across the world, there are traditions which emphasise an intrinsic connection between the man and tree. Perhaps the most commonly heard archetype surrounding trees is ‘The Tree of Life’, which is a motif originating in religious and spiritual symbology, which can be found across borders and religious systems. The ‘Tree of Life’ is symbolic of a connectedness amongst all living creatures. Cutting through all of this surrounding culture, Ralph Rugoff, the director at Hayward, looks to re-examine our relationship with trees through a contemporary lens in his curatorial venture titled Among The Trees.
Among the Trees is an exhibition, which brings together major artworks from 38 artists from five continents, using a range of media from sculpture to immersive audiovisual experiences, paintings and photographs. The exhibition, which opened on March 4, 2020, encourages the viewer to explore humankind’s relationship with trees and develop a deeper understanding of the role that trees play in shaping our civilisations. Rugoff says, “At a moment when the destruction of the world’s forests is accelerating at a record pace, Among the Trees brings together the work of leading international artists who urge us to think about the essential roles that trees and forests play in our lives and psyches. Hopefully visitors leave the exhibition with a renewed sense of appreciation for both the beauty and complexity of these indispensable organisms”.
Some of the artists on display at Among the Trees are Rachel Sussman, Ugo Rondinone, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Eva Jospin, William Kentridge, Steve McQueen and many others. The diversity in the works shown at the exhibition is reflected in the type of trees rendered in the artworks. The viewer is transported to the rainforests in Colombia, the jungles in Japan and the underground forests of Africa. With Sussman documenting the world’s most ancient trees with colour photographs and Rondinone’s cast aluminium sculpture of an aged olive tree juxtaposed with Jennifer Steinkamp’s animated video projection, Rugoff leads the visitors of Hayward Gallery into a journey of a myriad of visual experiences surrounding this singular idea of a tree. By exploring the various types from across the world, Rugoff looks to stretch and expand our notion of trees, what they represent and how they take up a dynamic role in our imaginations and in our societies, while also maintaining an integrity, strength and security in our environmental and cultural structures.
Among the Trees is an exhibition which is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, which includes the curator’s note, individual artist texts and an original essay by writer and critic Jeffrey Kastner exploring the representation of trees in art as well as a text by philosopher Matteo Pasquinelli looking at the tree as a cultural symbol. The gallery will also host a series of public talks featuring several of the exhibition artists including George Shaw, Johanna Calle, Mariele Neudecker, as well as lectures and performances by authors, artists and authorities on climate change.