The brutalist concrete of London’s Southbank Centre, some of it originally set for the Festival of Britain in 1951, seems a place at odds – if not an odd place – to hold an exhibition that asks us to think about our relationship with trees and forests. But, that’s what the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Among The Trees’ is asking us to do. It reopened yesterday after being closed at the start of the COVID crisis and is now extended until October, so ignore the out-of-date dates on promotional banners. Visitor numbers are limited and there’s a one-way system introduced so that social distancing norms can be observed.
I’m no art critic, but I think I am with the ES Magazine’s “there’s much here to absorb, unsettle and even, occasionally, provoke wonder” over Time Out’s “the rest just sort of blurs into one, and by the end, you can’t see the art for the trees”. Most reviewers seem to agree that Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s six-screen, horizontal video of a giant Finnish spruce is the most powerful piece and it is visually very impressive. Eva Jospin’s forest from cardboard, which is one of the first exhibits you come to, reminds us of both the beauty of the forest and the damage caused by humans. Later, Steve McQueen’s Lynching Tree, depicting a tree that once served as a gallows for slaves, provides another reminder of our cruel and destructive nature.
In many ways, that grey concrete architecture – a material which itself replaced the need for wood in some construction projects and is the core of the Hayward Gallery – is the perfect backdrop to the trees that form the exhibition. Perhaps my only criticism is that there’s not enough of the contrast, the hard and the soft, exploited within.
The restrictions caused by timed-entry and fewer people in the gallery space, may not be great for the gallery’s finances, but make the experience itself very nice indeed. No real queues, except to get into the shop afterwards, and no crowds around the big art pieces. And, given how much of the world is closed off to us right now, the reopening is a real treat. Although, perhaps we should be spending these beautiful summer days in nature for real.