Hayward Gallery - Among the Trees at the Southbank Centre.
Artillery Row

When you pile tragedy too high, you sell it too cheap

Among the Trees, Hayward Gallery (until 31 October)

Recently I made the mistake of taking my two daughters to an exhibition exploring the work of a famous fashion photographer. As we walked past piece after piece of “transgressive” art I made the decision to steer them to the exit. Transgession as art has long since become banal. Observed by innocent young minds, it’s crushing.

But when a friend invited me to the “Among the Trees” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre I didn’t pause to think I could go wrong. My daughters love trees and I thought I could return to the exhibition with them as an antidote to the anxious times in which we live; after all, art should uplift. Thank goodness they didn’t come on my first visit. Can you guess what the exhibition “about trees” was woodenly about? Climate change and rivers clogged with plastic. Colonialism and slavery. Loneliness and misery. Human conflict and human villany.

A sure sign that you are looking at bad art is long explanations. One silhouette of a tree was made using “dense typewritten text taken from Columbia’s 2011 Law of Land Restitution, a law that recognises the rights of people displaced by armed conflict”. Without the long explanation, you would never have guessed that this silhouette of a tree questions “the power and authority of the written word over oral traditions”. (If there is a long explanation telling you that a tree has fallen in a forest has it made a sound?)

A series of black and white photographs showed us images of soggy plastic trapped in the branches of semi-submerged branches. Presumably this was in case visitors are unaware that we produce too much plastic. The type of person who goes to art exhibitions, but has never paid 5p for a plastic bag at the supermarket.

What an absolute disaster of an exhibition

One artist “set out to document the American South”. According to the long explanation, they did so with a sense of “shame and some inchoate sense of accountability”. As Inaya Folarin Iman tweeted recently, “To feel guilty about the behaviours of your ancestors is to have an inflated view of your own importance”.  A common trick when you have taken a mediocre photograph, and over-estimated your skill as an observer of the human condition, is to render your photographs into black & white. A technique used here: the iPhone filter of greater sensibility.

There was a photograph of a tree stump in front of a barren seascape. The long explanation wondered what humans have gained in exchange for the havoc we’ve wrecked. White goods? Unprecedented life expectancy? Eradication of polio from Africa? The photograph of the stump? the South Bank?
Someone has taken a tree trunk, cut it into thin pieces and stuck them back together. Someone else had stuck some tree bark on the wall. I think this was to make us look closely at tree bark for the first time. Years ago, I saw a row of bottled fruit in an art gallery. That was to make us look closely at bottled fruit for the first time. Patronising then, patronising now, no doubt patronising long into the future. Maybe the repetition is ultimately soothing?

The worst installation was a pile of black logs with red glowing lights like the remnants of fire. It was called Desolation Row. It’s lucky that I read the long explanation because “it is a portrayal not of the cataclysm itself, but the aftermath of the cataclysm”. Perhaps next time we could have the cataclysm itself so that we can look closely at fire for the first time. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle also mocked this piece, so I’m in very good company:

I think of the novelty two-bar electric fire my parents had – in an antique-effect aluminium grate several Disney-ish fibreglass logs glowed, fitfully, from the orange lightbulbs and twirling pinwheels that hid beneath the grey and brown loglettes, affecting a thoroughly implausible simulacrum of the real log fire that had previously sputtered and crackled in the same fireplace. The exposed electric elements did more than destroy the illusion; heating the fibreglass, they caused it to emit a noxious tang of polyester resin.

There was a sculpture of a tree with plastic bags hanging from its branches. (Geddit? Diddit? Maybe YOU’RE to blame – I’m surprised they didn’t hit us on the head with a caber as we left, to knock home their really subtle and profound point.)

If you depress people too much, how are you encouraging them to work towards creating a better world?

Then there was a room with a floor to ceiling installation of video art. For a second my spirits rose. It looked like young trees rustling in the wind. But it was CGI. Recently I watched some Marvel movies with my daughters. There is one scene where they decided to have a vicious black dog attack the super-hero, Thor. In the right hands that could have been terrifying. Someone must have said “make the dog big”. Someone else said, make it bigger. Why stop? The end result is a dog the size of a skyscraper. We watched, slumped in our chairs. No-one is impressed by big CGI. (With a bit of imagination, the Hayward could have shown us the hand-drawn forests in the original Disney animated classics – Snow White, Bambi, Sleeping Beauty. There you will find beauty and artistic genius – and images of a now dying art?)

There was one picture worth looking at for a long time. It is a photograph taken by Steve McQueen while he was directing the film, Twelve Years A Slave, in America. It is a photograph of a “lynching tree”. Some of the people who were lynched are buried near the tree. The photograph is in colour, the sun is shining, nature is lush and makes no comment on human tragedy. But the Hayward Gallery should know that if you pile tragedy too high, you sell it too cheap. This arresting image was badly let down by the jumble sale surrounding it.

What an absolute disaster of an exhibition. Do the directors really think that anyone going to the exhibition will have been “jolted” into consciousness about climate change, plastic, or human tragedy? Like we have been sleep-walking through our lives – and stumbled into the Hayward for a sharp awakening via this mishmash of mediocre art? The arrogance is extraordinary.

I can’t see how our arts establishment are going to shake themselves out of this claustrophobic hole

Then you realise that if this is what an exhibition about trees is about, next month’s exhibition about “something else” will be the same, and then the one after that, the same too. There are no other subjects. There is only one lens. For adults to experience, it is ennervating. But I worry for younger people trapped wherever they tune in this tedious repetitive narrative. If you bore and depress people too much, how on earth are you encouraging them to work towards creating a better world? I can’t see how our arts establishment are going to shake themselves out of this claustrophobic hole. Can the Conservative Government help via some key appointments or funding arrangements? Or are they in the hole too? Perhaps a gang of six could meet to discuss.

We left the gallery and walked on up the Thames. There are some lovely plane trees. The tide was low and we looked at the Mudlarkers searching for bits of washed up history along the shore. St Pauls stood out. Definitely go for a walk along the Southbank and its foreshore to see trees and history, art and beauty. But, for the moment, give the Hayward a miss.

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