An artfully inconvenient truth: Art that educates about our dire climate situation

On a recent nice warm Summer’s day, park goers at Madison Square Park could be seen soaking up the sun under some forty-foot tall Atlantic white cedar trees. This might sound like an absurd statement because trees are supposed to provide shade, however, these are not your ordinary standing trees. They are dead trees, repurposed as part of a public art installation by May Lin, who is renowned for her memorials and contemplative earthworks.

The artwork is titled Ghost Forest, and its intent is to symbolically show the damaging effects of extreme weather due to climate change and the impact that human behavior has on the natural environment. This artistic goal is supported by the placement and scale of the installation for several reasons. It highlights the nonchalant response to the installation’s contextual prowess by everyday people considering and claiming it as another recreational spot within the park. While this carefree response was more than likely unintended, the relationship between the public and public art is directed by the attitudes, experiences and perceptions of the populace that interacts with it on a daily basis. Of course, not everyone responds similarly. The dichotomy of those who express contemplative concern by carefully scrutinizing the work and its meaning and those who pass it by, is an apt metaphor for the current discourse and sentiments around climate change.

Furthermore, the forty-nine trees comprising Ghost Forest feel lost in their new temporary setting, engulfed within both the adjacent urban space and the surrounding park ecosystem, which really serves its message of nature’s vulnerability in light of the climate crisis well.

The expired cedar trees were relocated to the New York City park from the awe-inspiring Pine Barrens in New Jersey, which has unfortunately become a rare natural landscape due to extreme weather conditions leading to harsher wildfires, and rising sea levels that contribute to saltwater intrusion (Kennedy, 2017). The title of the artwork is synonymous to the name the scientific community gives to thriving woodlands, like New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, that have been subjected to decay and ruin because of unfavorable environmental conditions brought about by climate change.

View north from a fire tower on Apple Pie Hill in Wharton State Forest, the highest point in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Photo by Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35352569

The Pine Barrens have a long history of naturally occurring fires and controlled fires. These types of fires have actually been beneficial and necessary for regulating the growth of plants within the Pine Barrens ecosystem. Species like pygmy pitch pines rely on fire to reproduce. However, after the arrival of European colonizers, the fires have been more detrimental as a result of deforestation to build settlements using building materials that are highly potent as kindling (Hughes, 1980 and Scheller et al, 2008). The process of suburban sprawl, including the development of housing, agriculture and roads have influenced the way the Pine Barrens’ ecosystem functions. Today, the risk of severe forest fires, comparable to those experienced in the Western United States, remains plausible among the Pine Barrens and the surrounding region. However, efforts to keep the natural area largely free from development has been significantly effective in preserving the natural space and keeping humans, plants and wildlife safe.

Lin and a team of environmental experts, which included foresters, were extremely careful and conscious in selecting the trees used for the artwork. They had to be certain that each fallen tree was free of any invasive beetles or other problematic insects, that if transplanted to another ecosystem, would then be set loose to run amok and threaten New York City’s existing flora. The trees they chose were all killed by conditions related to expedited climate change. 

The presentation of Ghost Forest via the Madison Square Park Conservancy, is in line with the non-profit organization’s mission of ecologically-centered stewardship and innovative uses of public space. Their cultural program takes into account the past, present and future environmental concerns and educates through considerate plantings and critical art exhibitions. The transplanting of dead Atlantic cedar trees in the middle of New York City is symbolically connected to the city’s past prehistoric and precolonial legacy. Areas that are currently covered in asphalt and steel were once natural landscapes with marshes, swamps and thick forests akin to the Pine Barrens and wetlands along the Atlantic coastline.

I have learned a lot about native, vulnerable and resilient species alike through Madison Square Park’s botanical programming. Ghost Forest inspired me to look further into the intricacies of our region’s unique coastal ecology. I admittedly was not too familiar with the wetlands and Pine Barrens, nor did I know much about the way these environments have sustained themselves prior to and in spite of our presence. Other installations in the city, like Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (see: Back to Nature), give us a glimpse of the lush land before our time. However, unlike Sonfist’s thriving installation of revived and reintroduced precolonial plants, Lin’s Ghost Forest is not nostalgic, nor does it take on a preservationist role. It should be considered in line with her previous work of creating memorials that honor and remember those we have lost. The skeletons of Atlantic white cedar trees are a stark assessment of the overzealous manner in which we take our natural spaces for granted, or even consciously inflict pain and destruction upon them. The installation’s bareness lends itself to become second nature to the formidable architecture alongside the park and voluptuous greenery of the surrounding living trees. If a ghost is a nebulous image of the living, then Lin’s arboretum-cum-graveyard is a truly haunting experience.

In conjunction with Ghost Forest, the Madison Square Park Conservancy has planted flora that are native to the Pine Barrens. The botanical exhibition is replete with signage explaining the types of plants native to the region and the threats that these species and ecosystems face. The organization elaborates on the importance of reintroducing native species, stating “Urban areas are often replanted with exotic plants from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. The bugs, birds, and other wildlife that depended on native plants are declining as their food and habitat no longer support them. By using native plants as ornamentals, we can create beautiful landscapes that support wildlife. It is time for American gardens to return to their roots and embrace the beauty of our natural heritage.”

Jean Shin, Fallen, 2021, Salvaged Eastern hemlock tree, leather remnants, upholstery tacks, boulders (gneiss, quartzite), 40 feet long. Installation at Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY. Photograph by Peter Aaron.
Courtesy of the artist and Olana State Historic Site.

120 miles north of Madison Square Park, in the town of Greenport, New York, another outdoor art installation speaks for trees that are casualties of the Anthropocene. Fallen by Jean Shin features a cut down conifer (eastern hemlock) wrapped in colorful swatches of leather. The fallen tree is situated on the grounds of Olana, the historic 19th century estate of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. Olana’s 250-acre setting is full of thousands of plants that are native species to New York’s Hudson Valley region. Church was as much of an important environmentalist as he was a renowned artist. In his lifetime, he advocated for the maintenance and appreciation of the natural environment through both his paintings that carefully observed and depicted the wilderness, and his direct horticultural activism. He planted thousands of native trees, including eastern hemlocks on a hillside near his home that was previously deforested by the highly prosperous tanning industry, which needed to satisfy the commercial demands for leather goods. Hemlocks were particularly useful to the tanners because they used the tannin found in the tree’s bark to turn raw animal hides into leather products. The industrial devastation of old growth forests throughout the Catskill region was happening in real-time while Church was living and working at Olana. His sketches document logged hemlocks, chestnuts and other species that are endemic to the area.

Frederic Church, Trunks of Chestnut and Hemlock Trees, New York, 13 May 1845, oil on light brown cardboard. Collection of Olana State Historic Site, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1978.27.

With Fallen, Shin shines a contemporary light on the effects our industrious and enterprising actions have on the environment. The cast-off leather juxtaposed with the fallen eastern hemlock symbolize the excesses of capitalism and its lingering implications on nature. The hemlock tree was sourced directly from Olana’s East Lawn. Despite efforts to preserve it, the 140-year-old tree died due to natural causes. The tree was one of the many planted by Church in response to the burgeoning environmental crisis of his era. Today, the romantic treatment of the environment within Hudson River School paintings seems otherworldly, considering how much our natural world has been transformed by the existential climate emergency.

It is fortuitous that Ghost Forest and Fallen are simultaneously on view. The two site specific works of art poetically document and respond to past, present and future environmental concerns at a time when New York has experienced some of its most severe weather on record. Contemporary art with environmental themes can no longer afford to portray the pristine qualities that graced the landscapes of yesteryear. As Shin explains, contemporary artists have a difficult time idealizing the natural world like their artistic predecessors, “We don’t have the ability to romanticize nature because of climate change” (Kapambwe, 2021). In actuality, both historic works such as paintings from the Hudson River School and contemporary installations like Ghost Forest and Fallen, provide insightful visual narratives that are useful for teaching and learning about the vital signs of an environment in flux.

The artistic lineage of representing the environment has multidisciplinary benefits. While scientists have an array of powerful tools at their disposal to investigate climate change, they have also turned to fine art to understand the subtle and not-so-subtle transformations of particular natural phenomena. Paintings of glaciers from the 18th century, like Casper Wolfe’s The Lower Grindelwald Glacier with Lütschine and the Mettenberg (1774), have been useful to compare with current observations of glaciers, in order to determine how big a glacier was and how they behaved prior to global warming (see: Zumbühl and Nussbaumer, 2018). Paintings of sunsets also help to determine how bad air quality has gotten over time. In a 2014 study, researcher Christos Zerefos noted that when artists paint the sun setting, “it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information.” (Arguedas Ortiz, 2020 and Zerefos et al, 2014).

Art compels us to be careful observers and to also respond with our emotions, which is important for becoming more aware, involved and critical of the world around us. It can be argued that the connection between art and science traces back to each subject’s origin (see: Bellot, Seeley and Davies, 2017). Both disciplines have been effective in formulating abstract and tangible understandings about the physical environment and explaining natural phenomenon (see: Miller, 1995). In many cases, a journey through art history is a visualization of scientific discoveries and insights. While it is likely that they will elicit different responses, we can look to the environmentally themed paintings of the past and present for a sense of what is worth fighting for and the urgency at which we must act to protect our natural ecosystem so that future generations will be able to revel in its glory.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Arguedas Ortiz, Diego. “The climate change clues hidden in art history.” BBC Culture, 28 May 2020. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200528-the-climate-change-clues-hidden-in-art-history

Bullot Nicolas J., Seeley, William P., Davies, Stephen. “Art and Science: A Philosophical Sketch of Their Historical Complexity and Codependence,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Volume 75, Issue 4, November 2017, Pages 453–463. https://academic.oup.com/jaac/article/75/4/453/5981273

Hughes, Joseph. “Development in the Pine Barrens: A Design for Disaster.” New Jersey Outdoors 7, No. 4 (1980): 22, 23, and 29.

Kennedy, Sarah. “As sea levels rise, ‘ghost forests’ expand.” Yale Climate Connections, 6 December 2017. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2017/12/as-sea-levels-rise-ghost-forests-expand/

Kapambwe, Mazuba. “#HudsonInspired: Artist Jean Shin Reimagines Fallen Trees.” ScenicHudson.org. https://www.scenichudson.org/viewfinder/hudsoninspired-artist-jean-shin-reimagines-fallen-trees/

Miller, Arthur I. “Aesthetics, Representation and Creativity in Art and Science.” Leonardo, vol. 28, no. 3, The MIT Press, 1995, pp. 185–92, https://doi.org/10.2307/1576073. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1576073

Scheller, Robert M.; Van Tuyl, Steve; Clark, Kenneth; Hayden, Nicholas G.; Hom, John; Mladenoff, David J. 2008. Simulation of forest change in the New Jersey Pine Barrens under current and pre-colonial conditions. Forest Ecology and Management. 255: 1489-1500.

Zerefos, C. S., Tetsis, P., Kazantzidis, A., Amiridis, V., Zerefos, S. C., Luterbacher, J., Eleftheratos, K., Gerasopoulos, E., Kazadzis, S., and Papayannis, A.: Further evidence of important environmental information content in red-to-green ratios as depicted in paintings by great masters, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 2987–3015, https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-14-2987-2014, 2014. https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/14/2987/2014/acp-14-2987-2014.html

Zumbühl, H.J., & S.U. Nussbaumer. “Little Ice Age glacier history of the Central and Western Alps from pictorial documents.” Cuadernos de Investigación Geográfica [Online], 44.1 (2018): 115-136. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. https://publicaciones.unirioja.es/ojs/index.php/cig/article/view/3363/3002

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