• Riah Writes

'Among The Trees' at the Hayward Gallery: art exhibition review

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Majestic, imposing, shaking, worrying, comforting and raw. Some of the words that come to mind when I think of trees and this exhibition. 'Among The Trees' is currently on show at The Hayward Gallery celebrating trees and our complex relationship with them.

It echoes the delicate balance between how stable and constant trees are, yet, how they fall fragile victim to the poor choices we humans make.

On entry, it was the floor to wall piece by Eva Jospin ‘Forêt Palatine’ that drew me in. From a distance, it looked like the outside has been bought in and brown vines had taken over The Hayward. Then you get closer to see that it is a sculptural piece made entirely of cardboard with subsections exposing waffled layers. It bought about a really circular thought for me: here is a representation of trees in their infancy, but made entirely out of cardboard- their eventual fate. Trees made out of trees. I felt there was something gimmicky and fun about it especially seeing as it felt a bit like an optical illusion. I was particularly captured by the cove-like microcosm at the base of it. The inner child in me would have imagined a little community of toadstool fairies living there so I loved that some mysticism was pulled into the scientific precision of it all.

The (almost neurotic) accuracy of the structure makes sense knowing that Eva Jospin began by studying architecture clearly boasting an eye for engineering form. She later switched her attention to sculpture because ‘she preferred the physicality of making objects by hand’.

In between this and the mega showpiece, were some interesting photorealist pieces but I found then harder to connect to. Not because they hadn’t taken skill or they weren’t beautiful, but because they looked like images my friends and I take on our walks ‘among trees’ so felt more commonplace and less of escapism. I like when exhibitions lead you to appreciate something banal and every day in an entirely different and elegant way.

A piece I felt did that was the enormous horizontal spruce tree that dominated a higher part of the ground floor by Eija-Liisa Ahtila ‘Horizontal-Vaakasuora’. It invited you to look upon it in a space that commanded some silence and felt quite sacred.

Most people quietened and slowed their pace on approach and were enveloped by a soundtrack mimicking wind, birdsong and the crunching of leaves. It was lovely to see the movement and swaying of the tree vertically. I was particularly entertained by how it attracted little toddler art critics that thought that by tapping the screen, it would turn off. It was a great moment of humour and affection in the exhibition and realisation that screens and responsive technology is as 'natural' as the moving of trees for the smaller saplings among us that have grown up with it.

My favourite piece was ‘Cold Moon’ by Ugo Rondinone, a cast aluminium and white enamel sculpture. Rondinone is a New York-based, Swiss-born mixed-media artist noted for a range of contemporary paintings and sculptures, and I loved the bizarre, witch-like winding of this piece that seemed struck by lightning but invincible.

It beckons observers to engage in a circular dance around it. You had to meander around it to try and take it all in. At moments you catch gaps in its natural structure giving you peeps to visitors on the other side of it. I liked that at close smaller sections could have absolutely been mini sculptures beautiful in their own right and reminiscent of underwater coral. But then, pan out, and you see the entire structure of the tree in all its eery glory.

The exhibition also commented on how trees can be witnesses to human history. Some stills from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave film entitled ‘Lynching Tree’ showed how trees can be a painful living memory of the most haunting moments of our existence. It immediately reminded me of the song ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday:

McQueen’s haunting images of the bayou and mangroves unintentionally echo the title of his new film Mangrove recently shown as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

Final words:

Overall I liked this exhibition for how timely and relevant it felt. How many local parks have you gone to this year in comparison to 2019? This year more than ever I have loved spending time in nature. Going out for walks, runs, and meeting others in parks has felt like the easiest way to scratch the Wanderlust itch until I can travel abroad again.

That foreboding thrill of realising you're lost in nature with no sense of where the landscape ends or begins is the exciting discomfort I find myself seeking. The break to the monotony of lockdown life. It's the essence of what The Art of the Sublime in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century captured with its depictions of turbulent nature that make us feel on the edge of exciting fear.

In a time when there is so much change and I think I see myself and others craving certainty in nature which is an accessible free-for-all ticket to some stability. What feels more stable than a large oak with rims and rims of lines reminding us of its age-old existence?

Was it worth it?

Yes. I liked seeing how artists had been inspired by form, texture and colour to create a tribute to nature. I don’t think it was the most outstanding exhibition I’ve been to though because at times it felt the collection was a bit of a mismatch. Although there was clearly a common theme, I feel I would have liked to have seen more sculptural work. The animated wall (although I appreciated that it was showing a timelapse of changing seasons) felt a bit out of place. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had enough of screens and wanted the exhibition to deliver sculptures, real images of trees or organic material reimagined into something new rather than digital images on a screen.

In fairness, that is a completely acceptable ask in 2020.

If the exhibition isn't for you, but you're interested in getting out to see the real deal and learning about the benefits of nature for your wellness, my article on Ecotherapy may be of interest.

Among the Trees is showing until It is on show until October 31st at the Hayward Gallery in Southbank Centre. More details can be found on their website.


Thanks for visiting the Riah Writes creative writing blog. Riah is a creative writing blogger/poetry blogger interested in wellness, society, social justice rights issues and the Arts. Follow the blog and on Instagram to stay updated on new content.

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