Top image: Yto Barrada, Terrain Vague – Tanger (Vacant Low – Tangier), 2001

In 2020, the importance of trees cannot be overlooked. With global deforestation on the rise, huge swathes of forest succumbing to fires and deadly pathogens infecting whole species, our greatest natural protector against rising CO2 levels need protecting like never before.

Generating some much-needed hype on the issue is Hayward Gallery, who today announced a new group show celebrating depictions of trees and forests throughout contemporary art. Among the Trees spans the last 50 years and brings together 38 of the world’s leading artists including Steve McQueen, Thomas Struth, Tacita Dean and Sally Mann.

Set to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (4th March), the exhibition will transport viewers across the globe, from the rainforests of Colombia to the jungles of Japan, olive orchards in Israel and underground forests in South Africa. The idea is to re-imagine our relationship with trees by questioning their conventional representation. Through this vantage point, trees are given multifaceted and complex meaning, incorporating world views that fill in the gaps of our own understanding.

“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.” said Ralph Rugoff, director at Hayward Gallery. Hopefully visitors will leave the exhibition with a renewed sense of appreciation for both the beauty and complexity of these indispensable organisms.”

Divided into three sections, the first focuses on that which cannot always be seen – networks of roots, fungi and bacteria that connect forest organisms. Through large scale works from the likes of Robert Longo and Giuseppe Penone, we are reminded of the unique architecture we find in trees and their roots.

The second section will explore the blurred intersection of nature and culture. Photographs from Robert Adams and Zoe Leonard demonstrate the man-made obstacles that trees must overcome as well as the impact of destructive human activities on woodland. In one image from Leonard (Untitled, 2000), a tree envelops the pattern of a chain-link fence as though it were being squeezed through like soft cheese. Steve McQueen meanwhile, will present a film work that casts trees as silent spectators, observers of forgotten histories (remember all those evocative shots of Spanish moss from 12 Years a Slave?).

The final section of the exhibition questions notions of time: between seasons, lifetimes and epochs – all observed by ancient trees whose life spans hundreds of years. Ugo Rondinone’s aluminium casts of ancient olive trees (Wind Moon, 2011) pay testament to this idea, as do the photographs of Rachel Sussman, who documents some of the world’s oldest trees including a near 10,000 year spruce in Sweden.

Among the Trees is on at Hayward Gallery from 4 March – 17 May 2020

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