Yan Wang Preston:
Forest

Trees Yan Wang Preston Frank Forest China Side Gallery Newcastle
'Frank' (2013), Yan Wang Preston. Image courtesy of the artist.

The effect of urban trees on human well-being depends on particular individual specimens more than was previously thought, according to a new study1. Schemes for city greening must be good, but what does it do to our understanding of non-human life (and time) when the trees are simply trucked in, already full-grown?

Although common here nowadays, the scale and weirdness of this phenomenon in China take it to an altogether greater extreme.

Dedicating almost eight years (and thereby subtly counterpointing the push for ‘instant’ landscaping), British-Chinese photographer Yan Wang Preston travelled the country and documented the eye-popping real-life examples that are now drawn together in Forest. Each large-format image is freighted with hints of a sorrowful back-story, and the overall effect is at once visually sumptuous and culturally disturbing. Great art, in other words.

There are trees buttressed by earth mounds, stretched on wires, propped on poles, wrapped, netted, lopped, bandaged and painted, and in one case ranged against the skyline like calligraphy. Another shot shows bare trunks planted down a sidewalk alternating with streetlamps that sprout mini solar panels. In another, beneath a skyscraper the trees ring a playground which boasts a joyless giant plastic flower. All notion of distinguishing the organic and synthetic seems dissolved. Some trees appear as engineered constructions, and some as shell-shocked casualties fleeing a war.

Each tree indeed has a past – the life it lived before being uprooted to go to a new home. Sometimes this was to make way for other urbanising developments in the original location. (Perhaps this is what the end of civilisation looks like … systems circling absurdly in panic like an anthill drowning). Each tree is supposed to have a future too, but soil memories and microclimates are not well understood, and a huge proportion of plantings fail.

Trees Yan Wang Preston Frank Forest China Side Gallery Newcastle

‘Haidon North Mountain Forest China Park construction site’ (2017), Yan Wang Preston. Image courtesy of the artist.

Preston particularises this with her portrait of a three hundred year old Ficus named ‘Frank’, who was relocated from a village to star in a prestige city hotel development. Frank never made it. There is more than a fractured understanding of the natural world portrayed here: it may be that our very relationship with time has become fractured too.

Denunciation, though, would be too facile. Propelling all this are forces of growth, displacement, population and climate change on scales that are hard to imagine.

The photography is masterly in its depictions; but one senses that another layer of significance is operating too. Echoes of qigong forms may be there; and there is a prominence of reds and greens, which are the yin and yang constituents of yellow, representing balance in Chinese symbolism. The ecological imbalance at the heart of the story is thus underscored with irony. These traditionalist grace-notes also juxtapose piquantly with the modernistic artificiality and disruption on show.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth thought it impossible that anyone could ‘bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root’, and dismissed the idea of calamity being foretold by Birnam Wood’s shifting up Dunsinane Hill. We, perhaps, should pay more heed to what looks like a similar portent in our own times.

Forest, Side Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, showing until Sunday 9 June. Open 11:00 to 17:00, Tuesday to Sunday. Free entry.

A book accompanies the exhibition.

1 Cox et al. (2019): Skewed contributions of individual trees to indirect nature experiences.

Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.

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