There’s Something About the Environment

Submitted by ecoartspace member Chris Costan

Mission Statement from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: Our vision is to create and sustain thriving parks and public spaces for New Yorkers. Our mission is to plan resilient and sustainable parks, public spaces, and recreational amenities, build a park system for present and future generations, and care for parks and public spaces.

Madison Square Park is a jewel of nature surrounded by beauties of historic architecture such as the Flatiron Building. This happy combination makes for a spectacular location, especially for me, as I live one block away. It is a refuge from the endless cement of my beloved city. The surrounding neighborhood has become highly desirable, and the park is well-funded as an open-air cultural destination. According to the Parks Department, Madison Square” inspires dialogue and reflection.” Since 2004, Madison Park Conservancy has featured rotating outdoor public artworks.

The latest, Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest, a grouping of forty-nine Atlantic white cedar trees, elegantly and urgently delivers a climate crisis message. It is the first public art project in Madison Square Park that I embrace with gratitude. A ghost forest is the remains of a dead woodland that was once alive. Endangered Forests worldwide include white cedar populations of the East Coast. The extreme weather events of climate change produce devastation along with lumbering practices that plundered these trees. The cedars in Ghost Forest were cleared to renew the fragile ecosystem of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. An auditory component of Ghost Forest involves the sounds of animal and bird species which were once common to this island, known as Mannahatta by the Lenni Lenape tribe. Ultimately, Lin’s project is a lamentation on the trees and species that are now all but gone.

Representing nature today is not easy for the artist, who sees nature being recreated everyday by the likes of geneticists, computer programmers, and real estate developers.–Jeffrey Deitch, Artificial Nature (1990)

Despite this frightening message of destruction, Lin’s installation holds a serene beauty and provides a natural harmony to the oval lawn.  Birds and squirrels are already nesting in Lin’s “forest” because the installation seamlessly blends with the park. Ghost Forest is the first of the rotating art pieces that address the cataclysmic effect that humanity has rendered on the environment. In essence, Lin says, “Let’s talk about this problem.” I say, “Madison Square Park Conservancy, “let us continue to be inspired to dialogue and reflect on Ghost Forest for as long as possible. The environmental problems are too important to be held to arbitrary and disturbing schedule of artistic rotation.”

Rotating giant public artworks are inherently disruptive to the residential nature of the park. The dramatic disruption of small park life when countless times, teams of workers and sizeable intrusive machinery deinstall one piece of art and install another cannot be overstated. Walkways are cordoned off for weeks to remove the old artwork and replace it with a new generally giant metal public art. Holes dug, grass destroyed, habitat dug up and reworked endlessly, traumatizing flora and fauna, most noticeably our birds and squirrels.

Madison Square Park’s public art installations have not been congruent to Maya Lin’s message. Lin’s installation coexists with the nature of the park and is both subtle and shattering. She has created a relevant and high-quality piece of public art while remaining respectful to the environment—and it’s a reminder of what we will lose if we continue along this path of the destruction of our environment. I don’t want more corten steel unless it remains in the park and allows the park’s fauna to make use of it. Useless corten steel projects are counterintuitive. In an era of worldwide awareness of climate change, pollution, and the effect on the earth, our only home.

We in New York could provide a model for other cities, increasing recognition of impending ecological catastrophe. Why not carefully select a unique and artful public art project that harmonizes with the park’s natural ecosystem? The destruction and displacement of plant and animal life are typical of what is happening across the world. Large steel installations placed in controlled nature for  “reflection and discourse” are part of the problem. Why should we continue to do this in Madison Square Park in the name of art? Let us choose a fitting art piece that can remain to speak to us of what is most important. Future generations can choose another to match their most pressing needs.

I suggest that we place a permanent installation that blends harmoniously with the environment in the park. Let the destruction end now with a piece that speaks directly to it: Lin’s Ghost Forest could be that choice. 

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ecoartapace was conceived in 1997 by Patricia Watts in Los Angeles. In 1999, Watts partnered with east coast curator Amy Lipton, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of SEE, the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs in California. 2019 marked twenty years that Watts and Lipton have curated art and ecology programs, participating on panels and giving lectures internationally. Combined, they have curated over sixty art and ecology exhibitions, many outdoors in collaboration with artists creating site-specific works. They have worked with over one thousand artists from across the United States, and some internationally. Starting 2020, ecoartspace became an LLC membership organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999

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