Worlds of Time: Marina Warner on Among the Trees
In this essay, writer and cultural historian Marina Warner reflects on her post-lockdown visit to Hayward Gallery’s Among the Trees (open until Saturday 31 October).
Among the Trees was closed down abruptly in March, when galleries and theatres all over the country were struck into silence, vacancy and darkness, and we experienced a kind of standstill as time twisted and dropped. It felt as if we were on board the ancient mariner’s cursed ship, caught in the doldrums, moving neither forwards nor backwards. But even in the stasis that held us, days fast-forwarded by, and the weekly rubbish collection, or the time to change the sheets, or Sunday afternoons, stacked up back to back. Time was oceanic and unmarked, but also freeze-framed. As a friend wrote to me last week, ‘the sense of time being at once endlessly elastic and weirdly jammed does wear on me.’
“It felt as if we were on board the ancient mariner’s cursed ship, caught in the doldrums, moving neither forwards nor backwards”
I expected the trees in the exhibition to take me into another zone, but I hadn’t realised how they would abolish the claustrophobia of the last months’ pandemic conditions and change my sense of time. I’d browsed the catalogue and lamented that I couldn’t go to see the works themselves but when the day came and the Hayward Gallery opened again, and I could plan and mask and enter, I hadn’t reckoned on the horizon-expanding scale of some trees and the images made of them: Giuseppe Penone’s twin masts, the perches of their branches tenderly mined out of their heartwood and soaring 12 metres high, Tacita Dean’s ancient craggy oak from her childhood village, the lyrical birch wood turning with the seasons in the closing film of the show, by Jennifer Steinkamp.
“I expected the trees in the exhibition to take me into another zone, but I hadn’t realised how they would abolish the claustrophobia of the last months’ pandemic conditions and change my sense of time.”
But now I was here, in the very low, almost subterranean light of the first rooms, and the sound of forests, the birdsong, the stir of wind and the creaking of timber made the gallery feel as if it were under sail, shifting to a music that isn’t made by humans at all but by forces that shape us and aren’t graspable except as the language of natural energy. The soundtrack comes from the 6-channel video by Eija-Liisa Ahtila that unfurls across the whole back wall of the ground floor: a tall spruce from Finland laid out horizontally, its branches lifting – dancing – under their own weight, the trunk leaning and bending. The impression of looking at the life force in motion is increased by the disjunction between each panel. The images don’t quite fit together – the tree grows too high to film in one take from a single focal point and the artist wants to draw our attention to the trees’ immensity. They exceed any human capacity to grasp them. She isn’t alone in the show in wanting to beam out acknowledgement of our limits.
“...the sound of forests, the birdsong, the stir of wind and the creaking of timber made the gallery feel as if it were under sail, shifting to a music that isn’t made by humans at all but by forces that shape us”
As other dimensions of time were made visible, I began to feel my spirits settle and a different quality of existence wrap me. Absorbed in trees as represented in drawings, sculpture and photography, I relinquished trying to take the measure of them and a mimetic symbiosis freed me. Thomas Struth, photographing forests here and there in the world and calling each of them Paradise, comments that he is ‘making pictures so full of information that they might encourage us to abandon our analytical tools, and surrender to just looking.’ Several of the artists selected by Ralph Rugoff for the show follow this aim: Toba Khedoori drawing the intricate mesh and tangle of twigs and leaves, Abel Rodriguez recognising the multitude of leaves in the depths of the triple canopy, Zoe Leonard paying tribute to the vitality that propels a tree, when restrained by fences or chicken wire, to continue to grow, enfolding the alien body into itself.
“As other dimensions of time were made visible, I began to feel my spirits settle and a different quality of existence wrap me”
Of necessity, the show confronts us with disasters of global warming and deliberate destruction: a primeval ecosystem of suffratex shrubs used to flourish near Pretoria in South Africa, growing underground in order to survive and then surviving there for millennia. The artist-scientist Rachel Sussman, as part of her project to record the world’s most ancient trees, photographed the topmost leaves as they broke the desert surface, a mat of foliage rather like the ‘Soffio di foglie’ (Breath of Leaves) that bears the impress of Penone’s sleeping form and which he cast in bronze. This mysterious, ancient, underground vegetation has now been JCB-ed to build a road.
In Puglia, in southern Italy, the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone has been making casts of ancient olive trees in the magnificent groves that cover that stony landscape. These are now blighted by the disease Xylella fastidiosa, which is spread by a sap-sucking insect with the all too graphic name of spittlebug. I’ve seen these majestic slow dancing olive trees in the past (my mother was born in Puglia), all cracked and gnarled by the work of the elements on their vast trunks and crowns and yet yielding the best olive oil ever.
The tree Rondinone chose to cast for this Hayward show is a giant; it twists like the dry wind of the south solidified, the chalk-white paint on the aluminium cast turning it into a baroque sculpture as if carved out of Carrara marble by an abstract expressionist Bernini. However, following the eerie death symbolism of whiteness, it also stands like a sentinel on the future, a spectre of where we are going. Looking up at it, walking around it, took me to a state of self-forgetfulness and pure awe at such agedness, such convolutions wrought by the raw struggle of keeping going, at the deep hollows and fissures that have been made a part of this olive’s form. It reminds me of one of those scholar’s stones the wild Chinese artist Mi Fu loved to contemplate – and I remembered how, by sheer dint of losing himself in the act, he passed into the rock as if through a door to another world and was never seen again.
Among the Trees is open on Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 7pm and Sunday, 10am – 6pm; and closed on Monday and Tuesday. You must book online before visiting.
All images featured in this blog were taken before the implementation of lockdown and subsequent COVID-19 preventative measures.
Enjoy your visit safely
London has now been placed in Tier 2 of the government’s new lockdown restrictions. This means that when indoors you cannot mix with people who are from different households, or outside your support bubble.
You can still come to the Hayward Gallery; our environment is still safe and Covid-secure, and we’ve plenty of hand sanitiser available to keep your hands clean. However, you must only move through the gallery with people from your own household or support bubble. This is in addition to maintaining social distancing, and wearing a face covering at all times, when in the gallery.
We look forward to seeing you.