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Nous les Arbres, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

With a poignant appeal in favour of trees and wildlife conservation, the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, in Paris, brings together a large community of artists, botanists, philosophers, and scientists for the ambitious exhibition entitled Nous les Arbres or Trees in English. Promoting awareness, care and protection over destructive behaviours, the exhibition also spreads some of the most recent and crucial knowledge on the sophisticated living world of trees.

As for their 2003 pioneer exhibition Yanomami, Spirit of the Forest, which brought international artists into contact with the shamans of Watoriki (Windy Mountain), a Yanomami village in the Brazilian Amazon, the very concept and perception of radical otherness is once again at stake here. With the active collaboration of the anthropologist Bruce Albert with whom, since the Yanomami project, the Fondation conducts research on such themes, the curators Hervé Chandès and Isabelle Gaudefroy assembled a network of correspondences between different perspectives on trees, whether intellectual, scientific, historical, emotional or aesthetic.

Activating the principle of putting-into-common, this curatorial project responds to a highly critical situation, that is, the most ancient and greatest forests in the world are burning. The acceleration of this ongoing tragedy concerns numerous countries on all continents. Indeed, for many months now, tremendous fires are raging from British Columbia to Australia, from California to Indonesia, from Brazil to Siberia, from Gabon to Angola and Madagascar. With the majority being intentional, these offensive devastations aim to substitute long-term-profitable sanctuaries by private lands to generate tremendous short-term profits for the agribusiness industry, clearing entire forests for mining and livestock breeding, GMO grain, corn and soy fields to feed the cattle. Linked with governmental failures and disastrous over-exploitation policies, supported by numerous corporations and financial institutions, this large-scale, irreversible deforestation is a key driver of the significant decline in biodiversity which has caused severe negative impacts on ecosystems, water cycles, habitats, traditional societies and the wild flora and fauna species. Besides those unaddressed ecocides, healthy public heritage trees are being savagely cut down in several European countries without any justification, nor collective awareness. In the case of Portugal, this obscure management has been officially denounced by the PAN political party and the Quercus Association, amongst others.

As the French botanist Francis Hallé puts it in a video presented on the first level of the exhibition, we have imposed, since Plato and Aristotle, a degrading and devaluing conception of plants and trees with the idea that they would presumably be inferior forms of life, deprived of intelligence and sensitivity. This conception, which is very much anchored in the Western cultures, particularly in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, has been the cause of recurring massacres, cutting, felling, bucking and mutilating practices committed on trees. Although the situation is worsening dramatically, Francis Hallé believes this ignorance-based merciless paradigm is likely coming to an end. Thanks to the scientific research conducted on the subtle realities of trees, on their systems of communication and their sensitivity, we are now able to perceive the level of their complexity, newly qualified as equal to the sensitivity of mammals, and perhaps even more so, because plants and trees are endowed with astounding faculties greatly superior to ours. With an in-depth knowledge, Hallé recalls “trees have been on Earth for 380 million years. They are the largest and oldest living beings that exist and they are absolutely essential to the global biology of the planet”.

Considering the contribution of cutting edge scientific research, such as plant neurobiology, which advocates for the concept of plant intelligence, reactivity and memory, the participating artists worked side by side in order to give trees a “voice”, thus making the invisible, visible.

Shaped by such fertile approaches and views, the resulting set creates a particularly appealing atmosphere where rationality and visual poetry fuse. Like that which happens in many powerful experiences of radical otherness, the hybridization phenomenon also operates in the relationships between humans and trees, and as the philosopher Emanuele Coccia points: “There is nothing purely human, the vegetal exists in all that is human, and the tree is at the origin of all experience”.

Bridging the gap between artistic sensibility and scientific knowledge in relation to the world of trees, one very well might wonder to what extent can the combination of curatorship, science and art contribute to political decisions and paradigmatic changes.

The exhibition features contributions by Efacio Álvarez, Herman Álvarez, Fernando Allen, Fredi Casco, Claudia Andujar, Eurides Asque Gómez, Thijs Biersteker, Jake Bryant, José Cabral, Johanna Calle, Jorge Carema, Alex Cerveny, Raymond Depardon, Claudine Nougaret, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan, Ben Rubin, Robert Gerard Pietrusko , Ehuana Yaira, Paz Encina, Charles Gaines, Francis Hallé, Fabrice Hyber, Joseca, Clemente Juliuz, Kalepi, Salim Karami, Mahmoud Khan, Angélica Klassen, Esteban Klassen, George Leary Love, Cesare Leonardi, Franca Stagi, Stefano Mancuso, Sebastián Mejía, Ógwa, Marcos Ortiz, Tony Oursler, Giuseppe Penone, Santídio Pereira, Nilson Pimenta, Osvaldo Pitoe, Miguel Rio Branco, Afonso Tostes, Agnès Varda, Adriana Varejão, Cássio Vasconcellos , Luiz Zerbini.

Trees, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain – until the 5th of January 2020.

Katherine Sirois is a Canadian art historian and freelance writer born in Montreal. Trained in Arts Studies at the UQÀM (Mtl), where she worked as a research and teaching assistant at the History of Art Department, she did her first doctoral studies at the EHESS (Paris) with Daniel Arasse, then at the Aesthetic Department of the Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne University and at the Art History Institute of the Nova University of Lisbon. She is part of the editorial team of the contemporary e-magazine Wrong Wrong and co-curator of the Portuguese Ymago project for the dissemination of authors in the field of images. She recently joined the Umbigo Magazine team of contributors.

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