Among the Trees which just opened at the Hayward Gallery, is an ambitious exhibition that has all the best intentions, and somehow fails to make its point. Or, rather, it makes a point that is perhaps different from what the organisers intended.
What it offers seems so essentially ephemeral – ELS
The show aims to plunge you in the midst of nature. That is, to give you the kind of experience you might have when walking among the trees of some remote, blessedly uninhabited stretch of dense, natural woodland. Experiences of this sort are usually unavailable – that is, without a great deal of effort, unavailable to the inhabitants of a big metropolis, such as London is today. The Royal Parks are splendid, but when you spend time there, this is not quite the kind of sensation they produce.
The Hayward show puts no trust in traditional landscape painting to produce this longed-for result. What it offers is a good deal of large-scale photography, all of it of excellent quality and very much influenced by the centuries’ old Romantic tradition, plus video on a huge scale, plus some three-dimensional objects. Some of these 3D offerings are tree-like, but not actual living trees. Some look like the remnants left behind by commercial forestry. There is even one reproachful tree-trunk, stripped of its bark and stretched out horizontally – the corpse of a once-living tree.
The things that get nearest to the mark are massive projections, in front of which benches are placed, to invite you to sit there and contemplate. The three-dimensional offerings are often skeletal – not living trees, but the ghosts of trees. They are stripped of leaves and not big enough to replicate the over-arching trees you would find in a wood. The projections are much bigger, and some have the movement of leaves and branches, but they are ghost-like in a slightly different way: they lack physical presence and are insubstantial doppelgangers of what they represent. You are immediately conscious that they occupy a different sphere from your own, as you sit there on your bench watching the performance they offer.
I mentioned the Romantic tradition, now about 250 years old. This exhibition, with its nostalgia for aspects of nature that are now out of reach of most of the inhabitants of Britain, and most certainly out of the reach of nearly all Londoners, denizens of the vast city where the Hayward Gallery is located, represents a sense of loss. Paradoxically, it very often does so with the aid of the very latest in image-making technology.
It is in fact very well done of its kind. The layout of the show is highly skilled and professional. The problem perhaps is that what it offers seems so essentially ephemeral. A significant gesture, but one that will vanish from memory as rapidly as the wave of a hand.
Words Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2020
Photos Sara Faith © Artlyst 2020