Whether it comes in the form of a wide ocean, a tall mountain, or even, ironically, a microscopic virus, there’s nothing that can make a person feel quite so small as the natural world. At the same time, the fate of the planet is inextricably intertwined with our actions. Our relationship with nature—and, in particular, trees—is the subject of a new exhibition, Human+Nature, at The Morton Arboretum, in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, Illinois.
For the recent opening of the show, South African installation artist Daniel Popper scattered five towering outdoor sculptures, standing as tall as 26 feet and including a walk-through Mother Nature figure and a root structure with human facial traits, throughout the 1,700-acre botanical garden. Popper, who has put on similar exhibits in locations ranging from Mexico to Indonesia, envisions the works as a sort of interactive playground for visitors. “People will be touching them,” he says, “and there’s going to be a tactile conversation going on when they start to understand the organic shape trees can make, as well as the human form.”
Popper’s creative process began with pencil sketching and 3-D modeling. He then sourced components made from concrete, steel, and glass fiber from around the world and shipped them to Chicago, where he and his team spent about a month erecting the figurative pieces. The sculptures weigh several tons and are built to survive the Midwestern winter, as the exhibition is planned to remain on view at the arboretum for at least a full year.
While the pieces are monumental in size, they’re not only meant to inspire awe; rather, Popper aims to encourage contemplation and provide immersive spaces where people can sit and reflect on their connection with the artworks, the natural world, and their imaginations. “It’s a moment,” he says, “that they’ll want to hold on to.”