New exhibition celebrates the artistic power of trees

A new show at Fondation Cartier in Paris focuses on artists working across painting, drawing, photography, film, sound, installation and more to “shed new light on trees”

Since the beginning of time, nature has been a touchstone of artistic inspiration; from performance artist Ana Mendieta’s use of her body to ‘become’ a tree to Yayoi Kusama’s polka dot trees; Piet Mondrian’s Cubist-leaning takes on a tree and Ai WeiWei’s monumental recreation of a real tree from numerous dead species’ bark.

But while trees aren’t short of artistic immortalisations, they are perhaps overlooked when it comes to what they’re actually capable of – something that the Foundation Cartier in Paris is looking to address in a new show that aims to highlight the importance of trees in a world facing climate crisis and large-scale deforestation.

Top image: Salim Karami, Untitled, 2009; Above: Joseca, Untitled, 2002-2010

Simply entitled Trees, the show presents work from artists, botanists, and philosophers that looks to “shed new light on trees”, says the institution, while presenting new scientific research relating to them.

The exhibition is arranged around several large groupings of works that look to celebrate both trees’ beauty and their ‘biological wealth’. According to Fondation Cartier, among the recent findings the show will be highlighting through art are trees that “boast sensory and memory capacities, as well as communication skills”, not only existing symbiotically with other species but influencing the climate around them.

“Trees are equipped with unexpected faculties whose discovery has given way to the fascinating hypothesis of ‘plant intelligence’, which could be the answer to many of today’s environmental problems,” the gallery states.

The gallery refers to this as the “plant revolution”, and Trees looks to marry the ideas of scientists and researchers with responses by artists. It acts as a continuation of Fondation Cartier’s ongoing explorations into the relationship between humans and nature, such as in the 2016 show The Great Animal Orchestra.

The exhibition features drawings, paintings, photographs, films, and installations by artists from Latin America, Europe, the US, Iran, and from indigenous communities such as the Nivaclé and Guaraní from Gran Chaco, Paraguay, as well as the Yanomami Indians who live in the heart of the Amazonian forest.

Johanna Calle, Series Tierra Caliente, 2012-2013, Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski Collection; © Johanna Calle; Photo © Archivos Pérez & Calle

It is organised around three narrative threads: knowledge of trees, including botany and new learnings in plant biology; aesthetics; and the current global devastation of trees, displayed in image and film-based documentation. Among the artists featured in the show are Bruce Albert, Efacio Álvarez, Fernando Allen, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Ehuana Yaira, Paz Encina, Charles Gaines, Mahmoud Khan, Angélica Klassen, Esteban Klassen, George Leary Love, Tony Oursler, Santídio Pereira, Nilson Pimenta, Agnès Varda and Luiz Zerbini.

The artists were selected for their “unique relationship with trees, whether intellectual, scientific or aesthetic”, says Fondation Cartier. One installation, created by botanist Stefano Mancuso and designer Thijs Biersteker, uses sensors to give trees a ‘voice’; reacting to the environment and pollution, as well as the phenomenon of photosynthesis and root communication.

Francis Hallé, Eucalyptus (Île Maria, Polynésie française), 2018

The relationship between people and trees is at the heart of a film by Raymond Depardon, which looks at the large plane and oak trees around the world that shade village squares, and as such, the people who gather within them and connect with each other beneath them.

Other artists took a more participatory approach to their art-making: Fabrice Hyberhas planted some 300,000 tree seeds in his valley in Vendée, France. Hyberhas has long dubbed his work ‘rhizomatic’ – a scientific term relating to the spread of roots from plants, appropriated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as a philosophical context relating to non-linear thoughts that can exist on multiple levels. His planting work, then, leads on to paintings that focus on ideas around plant growth, energy and mutation, mobility and metamorphosis.

Mahmoud Khan, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Polysémie, Marseille, France
© Mahmoud Khan

The show also continues into the Fondation Cartier garden, created in 1994 by artist Lothar Baumgarten. Artworks here include Giuseppe Penone’s bronze tree sculpture plus a work by Agnès Varda.

Trees runs from 12 July – 10 November at Fondation Cartier, Paris;