'Giving voice to trees'

Salim Karami, Sans titre, 2009.
Galerie Polysémie, Marseille, France.
Trees, a new exhibition in Paris, explores our intimate and at times devastating knowledge of plant life through art and science.


The exhibition Trees12 July – 10 November 2019, gives voice to numerous artists, botanists, and philosophers who, through their aesthetic or scientific journey, have developed a strong and intimate connection to trees. 

The ensemble of works reveals the beauty and biological wealth of these great protagonists of the living world, threatened today with large-scale deforestation.

Trees boast sensory and memory capacities, as well as communication skills, exist in symbiosis with other species, and exert a climatic influence. They are equipped with unexpected faculties, the discovery of which has given way to the fascinating hypothesis of “plant intelligence,” which could be the answer to many of today’s environmental problems.

Inquisitive exploration

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).

The exhibit features 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 explores three main 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.

Science and sensibility

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 his- torical, are connected.

Artist and sower, Fabrice Hyber has 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.

Pictorial exuberance

The conceptual and systematic inventory elaborated by architect Cesare Leonardi responds to this pictorial exuberance, in collaboration with Franca Stagi. They have produced a typology of trees, in all 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-makerPaz 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.

This exhibition 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.”

This Author

Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from Fondation Cartier, Paris. 

Image: Salim Karami, Sans titre, 2009. Courtesy of the Galerie Polysémie, Marseille, France. © Salim Karami.

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