Art sounds alarm on climate – but who will hear it?

Philip Kennicott

THE WASHINGTON POST – The trees in Maya Lin’s new public art installation ‘Ghost Forest’ don’t seem particularly ghostly. They feel sculptural, even playful.

Perhaps that’s because the people lying on the grass beneath them look so happy, so comfortable and at ease. They are New Yorkers and tourists gathered in Madison Square Park, scrolling on their phones, zoning out to music on their ear buds, staring up at the sky framed by the high-rises of midtown Manhattan.

They are laughing, cuddling, chilling and sleeping, and it’s almost as if they have no idea that the 49 dead trees carefully installed around them are meant to be art.

That art is issuing an urgent warning about the environment and climate change. ‘Ghost Forest’ uses towering dead Atlantic white cedars to create a temporary copse of arboreal skeletons. Removed from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey as part of a forest regeneration project, the lost trees rise up some 40 feet, straight out of the grass, and terminate in a spectral canopy of leafless branches.

Like other trees, Atlantic white cedars are threatened by a dizzying array of forces, including encroaching urbanisation and development, sea-level rise and salination and other impacts from climate change.

Maya Lin’s ‘Ghost Forest’ trees tower above Madison Square Park. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
People gathering at the ‘Ghost Forest’ exhibition in Madison Square Park

They were once abundant on the East Coast, but now healthy tracts of white cedar forest in this region have shrunk to less than 50,000 acres, according to the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which commissioned Lin’s work. The name of the installation is also the term commonly applied to large tracts of degraded or dead woodlands – ghost forests – that are now a common site, especially in coastal areas where salt is leaching into the groundwater.

In Lin’s installation, life and death confront each other, transforming the park and making it difficult to sort out things that are not alive yet permanent – statues, a fountain, paving and fencing – and things that are living but impermanent – grass, flowers, elms, oaks and redbuds, and people.

In between, in some category all their own, are Lin’s white cedars, which confront the living greenery rather like a photograph confronts the subject captured in its image: We are lifeless but beyond change; you are growing but will die.

Life imitates art, and our reaction to tropes familiar in contemporary art influences how we perceive Lin’s work. Her trees recall a bit of Roxy Paine’s dendroid sculptures, leafless metal trees made of rods and pipes, often buffed to a fare-thee-well (one of Paine’s tree-based works, ‘Conjoined’, was installed in the same park in 2007). Both Paine and Lin abstract trees out of life and reduce them, elegantly, to their basic, fractal structure.

Encountered in a sculpture park, Paine’s trees feel luxurious and decorative; confronted in Madison Square Park, Lin’s dead trees seem almost whimsical. The same slippage happens elsewhere in the art world: Photographs of dead lake beds, covered with mineral deposits, look oddly like Andy Warhol’s Oxidation paintings; aerial images of suburban sprawl resemble the lines and grids of geometric abstraction.

Therein lies a problem that haunts contemporary art, especially art made about the natural world and climate change. Humans have an almost homeopathic reaction to the urgency embedded in certain artistic messages, especially those that unsettle us most deeply. There is something toxic in the world, said the artist, and then the toxin is lived with, processed, contained, marginalised. The organism (the individual viewer, the art world at large) survives, and the message begins an often rapid decay, from jeremiad to desperate warning to urgent manifesto to melancholy poetry to… pretty dead trees, serving as a backdrop to drinking latte on a nice afternoon.

That isn’t Lin’s fault for crafting a message insufficient to alarm us, nor is it the fault of ordinary people enjoying a few moments outdoors in a peaceful city park. But it does force us to confront the sad fact that we can’t rely on art to change the world at the rate the world needs changing. The crisis has outpaced us, and it seems the people empowered to make change are more than ordinarily immunised to the urgency of works like ‘Ghost Forest’.

Zillow, the addictive real estate website, lists a three-bedroom apartment at 10 Madison Square, “overlooking the tree tops of Madison Square Park”, for USD9.25 million.

It’s possible, perhaps, that you can make that kind of money without despoiling the environment and consuming resources beyond your worth or portion. But it isn’t likely. It makes no sense to be impatient with environmental artists for failing to wake the world, nor the audience for failing to be woke, when there are people right now, surveying ‘Ghost Forest’ from their living rooms, whose wealth is pre-conditioned on the fundamentally unsustainable ecology of capitalism.

I sometimes try to imagine people in the future writing a history of today’s art world, and how works like ‘Ghost Forest’ might be addressed.

Perhaps the world will take a turn for the better – we will finally address climate change and bequeath a habitable planet to our children.

Looking back from that happy place, ‘Ghost Forest’ may be seen as one of many small prophecies that became a cascade of motivating energy. But more likely, greed and stupidity will prevail, and the history we want to read won’t be written because the scramble for basic survival will overwhelm all other ambitions, including writing history and, ultimately, making art.

And we will never know something we would like to know, which is unknowable: Will the last livable day on planet Earth come a little later because works like ‘Ghost Forest’ existed? Or did they make no difference at all?