A Forest for the Trees Grows in LA
Ace Mission Studios, Los Angeles
Through October 31, 2022
Written by Genie Davis
The traveling exhibition A Forest for the Trees, created by installation artist Glenn Kaino and based on essays in The Atlantic magazine is taking temporary root in Los Angeles. The exhibition seeks to stimulate thought about the power and beauty of trees, the necessity to preserve them, and the spiritual and environmental purpose of Native American controlled burns. The latter, an idea reviled during the era of Smoky the Bear (as a small display sign in the exhibition points out) is now gaining momentum as a sound way to prevent the devastating wildfires of recent years and help preserve healthy forests.
There is one massive primary installation space as well as several other smaller exhibits. Entering the building, visitors can listen to voices discuss personal relationship to forests and trees through microphones on stands, gathered together like a skeletal forest themselves. Next, visitors move into a smaller inner room, in which scenes of forests and wildlife are illustrated as illuminated graphic art inside mounted lightboxes. The images accompany discussion of a Karuk ceremony, revealing the interconnection between humans and trees, and trees in their forests.
From there, visitors enter a still smaller room, in which a spinning white and black circle glows on a wall. Installation staff members encourage the audience to stare into the circle and then at their hands, to create an illusion on their own palms of connectedness with tree roots and branches. Neither myself nor my companion could see this illusion, but no matter, we were shepherded into the main exhibition space with much more to contemplate.
The main exhibition space is a single cavernous warehouse room in which 87 redwood trees stand straight and tall, magnificent. Most but not all of them are real redwood sections sourced from Northern California – ethically, of course. Some are replicas. But the overall effect of this entrance is one of awe. We are entering the forest primeval, and it is a hushed and reverent space. As much as I reveled in this beautifully lit space, and enjoyed the scent of the actual woods, I have one caveat about this first main section. As beautiful as it is, it also had a parallel for me from a decade as a year ‘round Universal Studios Hollywood pass member. When I had small children at home, I visited probably twice a month. My son was particularly taken by the old E.T. Ride, which I likely rode at least 100 times.
There is an aspect not just to this entrance section, but to the entire exhibition that seemed to me to be influenced by the aesthetics of that ride and its talented design team. It was engagingly performative in the way that good theme park rides can be. But perhaps that is just me. There is nothing negative about this commentary, and nothing bad about offering an exhibition with a truly good cause as its focus in an immersive, beautiful, and fun environment. But, if you were expecting the kind of edgy inventiveness of the recent MOCA Pipilotti Rist exhibition, or something the Meow Wolf collective might offer, that is not what you will find here.
But I digress. Here in this artistically created, environmentally focused exhibition, what visitors learn about and thrill to is a celebration of the trees themselves and a call to action to preserve them. To offer this message and this technologically epic installation, the exhibition creator, artist Glenn Kaino, has joined with experiential art staging company Superblue; an offshoot of The Atlantic magazine, Atlantic Ventures; and has also entered into a new music and art collaboration with TV on the Radio’s David Sitek. He also worked with consultants involved with the Karuk Tribe of Northern California, whose protection of the land through controlled burns is a focus of the exhibition.
But what about the art? It is both lovely, elegiac, and yet somehow quite commercial. Least successful for me was a series of talking trees with robot faces and moving eyes and mouths, many speaking in a kind of comedy-laced casualness that again reminded me of my Universal Studio visits – the kind of bantering dynamic enjoyed by the animated characters of Shrek and Donkey. While the information the robotic trees impart is certainly relevant, about the communication between trees for one thing (not everyone has read The Overstory), the joking manner belied the otherwise respectful and quiet nature of the rest of the main exhibition space.
So, what did work? Each of the other central art pieces, accompanied by QR codes that offered insight to them, were excellent. There is a gloriously twisted sculpture of a Bristle Cone Pine, bathed in shifting, ever-changing colored light. There is an infinity mirror well that replicates the descent below ground of an ages-old tree. Viewers can take turns standing on the plexiglass surface of this well, and the illusion of great depth is magical.
A multi-tiered simulated controlled burn, all dancing wisps of water vapor smoke and red light is stunning. Every few minutes a show takes place involving gracefully solemn music from the High Seas collaboration, and the wavering water vapor rising and falling to match the score. Between shows, viewers can approach the exhibit, stand on a certain spot, and raise and lower their arms, triggering a motion sensor that makes the flame illusions rise and fall. It’s a terrific effect, almost hypnotizing.
At the farthest end of the main exhibit space, is the actual tree trunk from the 144-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree that collapsed along Olvera Street in 2019. That trunk and some of the limbs are combined with steel cubes, a kind of scaffolding that connects the sections of the tree. On those steel cubes are reflective light panels. Here, too, there is a show that runs periodically. Visitors sit on log seats, and watch the light panels change color, moving from autumn oranges to vibrant spring pinks and purples. It’s a gorgeous light show, best viewed from a back row. From that viewpoint, the tree truly looks as if it has come to life again, filled with flowers and leaves, passing through the seasons.
A Forest for the Trees is a tribute to the wonder of nature and a genuine plea for humankind to recognize it, take care of it, and preserve it. It is a profoundly worthwhile message, and likewise, the exhibition, part theme-park ride or not, is worthy of viewing. For every admission purchased a tree is planted, one small contribution we can make while enjoying installation art.