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Treats among the Trees
Richard Dorment reviews Ron Haselden's Electric Tree for the Daily Telegraph, 1987

THE LAST time I tuned into the activities of the artist Ron Haselden, I almost wrote to my MP to complain. That was two years ago on the television documentary "There are no Plugs on Dartmoor", in which cameras followed Ron, a Londoner, as he brought huge earth-moving tractors into an unspoiled forest clearing to excavate the foundation of a 75 ft iron tower he had conceived as a work of environmental art. I can still remember feeling a sense of physical revulsion at the sight of his assistants using pickaxes to dig up the roots of fir trees, and the sound of his trucks roaring into a silent wood, cracking branches and flattening undergrowth. It was an outrage. Imagine then my astonishment at finding a work by Ron in the pious little touring exhibition The Tree of Life, which has been mounted by the arts/ environmental group Common Ground in association with the South Bank Centre. Common Ground aims to "emphasise the need to value and care for our everyday environment", and, true to their ideals, they haven't entrusted Ron with so much as a potted plant. As a result, he has done no particular damage this time- unless of course one counts the affront to one's eyes represented by his awful Electric Tree, a blinking object as hideous as it is banal.

The show has a heavy iconographic underpinning, with a learned catalogue essay by Marina Warner tracing the ancient Babylonian symbol of the tree of life through the history of art. My advice is to ignore this, and think of the show as a pleasant and unpretentious exhibition on the theme of trees.

My favourite work was Bill Woodrow's sculpted collage, See-saw, in which he took an old-fashioned pair of kitchen scales, placed the handle of a saw on one side and a frail sprout of tree fashioned out of beaten metal on the other. Between the forces of life and death, Woodrow has no doubt about which side is winning. The scales are tilted on the side of the saw. As always, he combines sharp wit with social comment.

Simon Read's sensitive pencil drawing Growing Dark shows a spreading oak tree merging imperceptibly into the surrounding dusk. Perhaps it is time for the Whitechapel or the Tate to do a show of contemporary British draughtsmen, which would include artists like Read and the inspired landscape artist John Virtue, who is also represented here.

The exhibition is in the main foyer of the Festival Hall until August 28 and really is entertaining.

Richard Dorment

Richard Dorment
The Daily Telegraph
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