Entering from Gasworks’ bright lobby, the exhibition engulfs me in darkness, and it’s thrilling. It offers a strange kind of comfort that harkens back to my late teen years growing up in the countryside of Ireland, away from the oversaturated light pollution of towns and cities. Struggling with depression and loneliness I would climb out of my window late at night in the grey light before dawn. I mostly just sat there, back against the wall, watching, listening and waiting. Eventually it was almost as though I could melt away, no longer an observer of this twilight world, but rather part of it.
The Wood for the Trees
Trees are central tenants of our folklore, mythologies and religions. Throughout history, our lives have been entangled with those of trees. They have provided us with materials to build shelter, offered us food and medicine and their ancient remains, in the form of coal, fuelled a revolution in industry and invention. In the case of Hampstead Heath’s gay cruising scene, the subject of Trevor Yeung’s exhibition Soft ground, they also provide a place to fuck and be fucked. Yeung’s work digs beneath the skin, or bark, of the Heath’s infamous ‘fuck tree’ to investigate the microsystem of relationships surrounding it. Through a series of new sculptural works and sometimes hidden interventions the audience is invited into a microsystem of the artist’s own making.
"no longer an observer of this twilight world, but rather part of it"
Yeung’s exhibition holds a similar feeling for me. I spent a long time just sitting, imagining what it might be like to drift amongst the trees and shrubs around Hampstead Heath. I had the whole exhibition to myself, the air filled with the smell of sweat and anticipation. I found myself waiting for someone else to walk in, almost willing it. I would be hidden from them, just a shadow or a noise until their eyes adjusted to this space. Only then might we commune.
"Yeung’s work digs beneath the skin, or bark, of the Heath’s infamous ‘fuck tree’ to investigate the microsystem of relationships surrounding it"
The atmosphere of the exhibition is guided by Yeung’s own experiences at Hampstead Heath, and the unnerving feeling that comes with being in an unfamiliar environment in the dark, when you’re forced to rely on other senses – touch, sound, smell – to navigate. For those who find this sudden shift disorienting, a warm glow provides a tender moment of solace in the form of a modified plug glowing with artificial mushrooms.
This pause in between light and dark gives way to a gradual change on the grey walls, shifting from flat colour to a gradient. On closer inspection I learn the painted gradient is an intervention called Soft Gaslighting (Twilight) (2023), which gives the effect of the blurring distance in a forest. The result – gaslighting yourself that your eyes are playing tricks. Suspended from the ceiling a dark constellation of acorns flows, invisible until your eyes adjust. This isn’t a constellation to guide you, but rather confirm you.
"the voyeur of the voyeurs"
When cruising this confirmation comes from encounters with others. Those who take part in action and those on the voyeuristic side who just like to watch. Yeung himself doesn’t fall into either of these categories but instead positions himself outside of the scene. As the artist says, ‘for me, I think that I'm the voyeur of the happenings, and I'm also the voyeur of the voyeurs.’
Central to the main space but hidden from immediate view by a dividing wall, the sculpture Soapy Fuck Tree (2023) holds court. Yeung scanned the original tree, bowed and worn smooth after decades of use as a gay cruising site, to recreate a section in soap infused with the scent of bark and foliage. This part of the tree could be an altar, a sacred place. It is fitting that the fuck tree is an oak tree, a sessile oak to be precise, one of two species native to the UK. It feels almost fated, as though there was some inbuilt magic that drew people to it. Of course, it could just be that it looked like a comfy spot to get off.
In Europe, oaks have been revered throughout many cultures and periods, from the Romans and Greeks to Celtic and Norse culture in Ireland and Scandinavia, all the way up to the present day. Before the onset of Christianity, Celtic marriage ceremonies would be held under their boughs. When weddings moved to churches, newlyweds would race from the ceremony to circle an oak three times, mark it with an X, and consume a drink of acorns. Their bark has also been stripped for love potions, at times bringing them to near death.
In other words, it is nothing new to find trees altered by our desires. Yeung later tells me of a tree in Hong Kong called the ‘wishing tree’. People would write their wishes on a long colourful piece of paper and fold it before tying it to an orange and throwing it up into the branches. The higher your wish reaches the more likely it is to come true. Over time, the compounded effect of these wishes resulted in the sickness and eventual death of the wishing tree, a fate that may be destined for the fuck tree. The loss of the tree does not mean the end of desire though, the ‘wishing tree’ was replaced with a plastic replica and the drive for sex will still pulse after the fuck tree is gone.
"like cheap Lynx body spray, held in the microclimate of the Heath"
From a smaller room, the sound of water trickling piques curiosity. By the time you navigate through a series of trunk-like columns, the water has stopped. The work is appropriately named Shy Fountain (2023). The sound emulates those that might be heard around Hampstead Heath at night, body fluids splashing onto soft ground. Throughout the entire space lingers a slight smell of sweat and soapiness, like cheap Lynx body spray, held in the microclimate of the Heath.
Yeung has approached this exhibition with subtlety, steering away from grand gestures and ensuring that we become attuned to the less obvious details. The codes are hidden but within view, a foot tapping, a stare held just too long, soft footfall on a path well worn. Soft ground rewards this patient observation, like the long hours of waiting for some action. Yeung implicates us in this nighttime system, offering us the chance to reflect on our relationship to our natural environment, and at times each other. Even those brief meetings in the woods can be nourishing, and after we’re gone our traces are held in place, waiting to be encountered by those who come after.
By Niall Farrelly
Soft ground is at Gasworks until 17 December 2023