Scientific discoveries over the past decade have opened up a new way of understanding one of the most majestic members of the living world. Trees have been shown to have a wealth of impressive abilities: an innate adaptability, sensory abilities, memory capacities, the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees, symbiosis with other species and climatic influence. These findings have led to the development of the concept of ‘plant intelligence’ that some believe could hold the answers to multiple current environmental challenges. Trees intertwines these ideas with the theories of artists, botanists and philosophers and continues the Fondation Cartier’s ongoing commitment to explore contemporary ecological questions and the place of humans in the living world.
The exhibition brings together the work of artists from Latin America, Europe, United States, Iran, and from Indigenous communities, including the Nivaclé from across South America, the Guaraní from Paraguay and the Yanomami Indians living in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Each artist has developed a unique and intimate connection with trees and their work expresses their personal experiences through mediums such as drawing, painting, photography, film and installations.
On the ground floor, the works featured focus on the space shared by humans and trees and the interactions between them. Upon entering, the large-scale and bold canvases by Brazilian and Paraguayan artist Luiz Zerbini immediately catch your eye. The artist wanted to create the impression of ‘being in the painting as you could be in a forest’ so the viewer is immersed in an urban jungle which combines lush flora and symbols of Brazilian urban modernity. Speaking about his work, Zerbini said: ‘I can never do it fast; it takes time because the painting has its own time, just as plants and trees do. If you look at seeds, if you take time to see the shape of plants and trees, they are so beautiful. You can find all the most complex and beautiful colours, structures, and architecture in nature.’
Also on display, are the strikingly intimate drawings of Paraguayan Nivaclé and Guaraní artists such as Jorge Carema, Esteban Klassen, Efacio Alvarez, Marcos Ortiz and Clemente Juliuz. These artists live in the Gran Chaco region (Paraguay) which is currently undergoing deforestation at an unprecedented rate. Their work bears witness to their deep and profound attachment to the forest and memorialises the interactions between the human and non-human beings that live there. The forest was once the natural habitat of innumerable animal species and a source of subsistence for the communities living there however, the unstoppable pace of deforestation is threatening to destroy these peoples and their cultures which depend on the balance of this cohabitation.
The coexistence of humans and trees is also the focus of Mon Arbre, a film by Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret. Featuring walnut, evergreen, oak, cedar of Lebanon, strawberry, weeping blue cedar and cypress trees among others, the film records the moving personal testimonies of individuals who have a special connection with a particular tree. According to the creators, it gives ‘a voice to the men and women who are surrounded by them, cherish them, observe them, defend them, care for them, admire them.’ It’s moving to listen to individuals describe the tree that holds a special place in their heart as either a site of memory, an emblem of their town or village, a reference point when life becomes hectic or even a source of wisdom.
Inspired by man’s relationship to nature, Alfonso Tostes, a Brazilian artist, has created a series of tools for the exhibition made from wood found on the street and demolition wood recovered from construction sites. The carved wooden handles evoke both the branches of a tree and the bones of the human body and the transition between flesh and wood powerfully reflects the interdependence between trees and humans. Commenting on his creation, Tostes said: ‘Each tool is unique and bears the mark of its use. These handles that I sculpt remind us of the bones of the human body articulated like the branches of a tree to which this wood once belonged. This brings me closer to the people who have made and used them in the past.’
On the lower floor, the tree becomes the subject of study and representation between realistic and fantastical visions. Francis Hallé, a travelling botanist, who was a major inspiration for the exhibition, exhibits an impressive selection of his observational drawings from his travel notebooks. He is an expert in the architectural forms and the canopies of tropical forests and his work brings together science and sensibility as even though he studies trees from a scientific perspective, he also approaches them from an aesthetic point of view. His drawings on display are so beautiful and intricate that they seem more like artwork than scientific drawings.
The photographer Sebastian Mejia explores the theme of human-tree relationships in the heart of the city. His series of photographs documents the amazing palm trees of Santiago. The Chilean capital’s palm trees predate the city’s development so the trees have become a symbol of survival. Some of the images of the trees in unexpected places are rather comical but there is also something stirringly beautiful in the contrast between the concrete buildings and powerful palm trees. Mejia said he wanted to emphasise the paradox according to which ‘we as city dwellers keep nature at bay while trying to reintegrate it into our homes, gardens, and public spaces.’
The garden of the Fondation Cartier, created in 1994 by artist Lothar Baumgarten, is home to several artworks, some created specifically for the exhibition, others installed there permanently. At the very start of the route is the installation Symbiosa (2019) which combines art and science. Stefano Mancuso, a pioneer of plant neurobiology and a firm believer in the concept of plant intelligence, and Thijs Biersteker, an eco-awareness artist, collaborated in placing a dozen sensors on two living trees in the garden, a horse chestnut and a Turkey oak, in order to measure in real-time the tree’s reactions to the environment and pollution. It is an impressive showcase of the tree’s sensitivity and indicative of the environmental impact on the trees surrounding us.
The sculpture Paradis by Fabrice Hyber, an artist and a sower – having planted some 300,000 seeds in his valley in the Vendée – is of an oak tree whose leaves are the colour of human skin. Ethereal and magical in style, it aims to fill you with a sense of calm and wonder as you approach it. The artist wanted to create a ‘dream world’ where ‘men and trees live in symbiosis with one another’. Speaking about his creation process, Hyber said: ‘When I draw a tree, I try to put myself in its skin... its bark clothing. I imagine that it has invisible functions, by its analogy with our profoundly human behaviours: like us, the tree can move and communicate with others; it can be crazy or wise, hysterical or calm, depending on the context and the environment.’
Trees is ultimately a thoughtful and provocative exhibition, as well as being a feast for the eyes. It shows us, to quote Stefano Mancuso, that ‘trees are extraordinary beings in every respect.’ More than just a visual display, it perfectly combines artistic and scientific testimonies in order to emphasise how essential trees are to the health of our planet and to highlight their ingenuity and beauty.
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