Underestimated by biology for a long time, trees—like the entirety of the plant kingdom—have been the subject of scientific discoveries in recent years that have allowed us to see the oldest members of our community of living beings in a new light. Boasting sensory and memory capacities, as well as communication skills, existing in symbiosis with other species and exerting a climatic influence, 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. In resonance with this “plant revolution,” the exhibition Trees merges the ideas of artists and researchers, thus prolonging the exploration of ecological issues and the question of humans’ relationship to nature, which has been a regular theme in the Fondation Cartier’s exhibition program, as was the case recently with The Great Animal Orchestra (2016).
Featuring drawings, paintings, photographs, films, and installations by artists from Latin America, Europe, the United States, 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, the exhibit, punctuated by several large ensembles, explores three narrative threads. Firstly, our knowledge of trees—from botany to new plant biology—; secondly, aesthetics—from naturalistic contemplation to dreamlike transposition—; and lastly, trees’ current devastation recounted via documentary observations and pictorial testimonies.
Orchestrated with anthropologist Bruce Albert, who has accompanied the Fondation Cartier’s inquisitive exploration of such themes since the exhibition Yanomami, Spirit of the Forest (2003), the project revolves around a number of individuals who have developed a unique relationship with trees, whether intellectual, scientific or aesthetic. For example, the botanist Stefano Mancuso, a pioneer of plant neurobiology and advocate of the concept of plant intelligence, has collaborated with Thijs Biersteker to create an installation that “gives voice” to trees, and through a series of sensors, reveals their reaction to the environment and pollution, as well as the phenomenon of photosynthesis, root communication, and the idea of plant memory, thus making the invisible visible. Another of the great figures who has played a role in constructing the exhibition is traveling botanist Francis Hallé, whose notebooks display both the artist’s wonder at trees and the precision of an in-depth knowledge of plants. His work is a testimony of the encounter between science and sensibility. At the heart of the exhibition lies a reflection on the relationship between humans and trees, which is also the subject of Raymond Depardon’s film. It paints the portrait of the plane trees and oaks that shade village squares through the words of those who are familiar with them, and to which many memories, ranging from the highly personal to the historical, are connected. Artist and sower, Fabrice Hyberhas planted some 300,000 tree seeds in his valley in Vendée, and offers a poetic and personal observation of the plant world in his paintings, questioning the principles of rhizome growth, energy and mutation, mobility and metamorphosis. Guided more by the aesthetics of an intuitive collection than by a search for scientific rigor, Brazilian artist Luiz Zerbini, on the other hand, composes lush landscapes, organizing the imaginary meeting of trees, borrowed from tropical botanical gardens, and the markers of urban modernity. To this pictorial exuberance responds the conceptual and systematic inventory elaborated by architect Cesare Leonardi, in collaboration with Franca Stagi: a typology of trees, their shades and chromatic variations, in a precious corpus compiled for the purposes of the design of urban parks. The ghostly silhouettes of Johanna Calle’s tall trees evoke with poetry and delicacy, the fragility of these giants threatened by irreversible deforestation. The drama of the destruction of the world’s great forests, conveyed in particular by the film EXIT by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, comes after the dreamlike world of Paraguayan film-maker Paz Encina who offers an internalized image of the tree as a refuge for memory and childhood.
The garden of the Fondation Cartier, a natural extension of the exhibition, was created in 1994 by artist Lothar Baumgarten. The public are invited to stroll through the trees which, like the majestic Lebanese cedar planted by Chateaubriand in 1823, inspired Jean Nouvel to create an architecture of reflections and transparency, playing on the dialogue between inside and outside, and giving rise to “fleeting emotions.”
Nestled in the vegetation, a discreet double of nature, retaining the trace of the artist’s hand on its trunk, Giuseppe Penone’s bronze tree sculpture finds its place in the garden of the Fondation Cartier. Also on display is a sculpture by Agnès Varda, specially imagined for this project. Finally, for a week in the fall, the Theatrum Botanicum will become the natural support of a video installation by Tony Oursler.
The exhibition Trees restores the tree to the place from which it had been stripped by anthropocentrism. It brings together the testimonies, both artistic and scientific, of those capable of looking at the vegetal world with wonder and who show us, to quote philosopher Emanuele Coccia: “There is nothing purely human, the vegetal exists in all that is human, and the tree is at the origin of all experience.”
Curators: Bruce Albert, Hervé Chandès, Isabelle Gaudefroy
Associate Curators: Hélène Kelmachter, Marie Perennes
Project Coordinator: Juliette Lecorne