There's a New "Ghost Forest" in Madison Square Park
Take a walk through Madison Square Park today, and you might see something startling. If you’re familiar with the park, you have come to expect a rotation of art installations. A few times a year, there’s a new public art exhibition, thanks in part to the Madison Square Park Conservancy.
Remember Jaume Plensa’s Echo in 2011? The surreal (and massive) sculpture of a Greek mythological nymph. Its serene, dreamlike face towered above us, inviting a sense of introspection and calm.
Who could forget Martin Puryear’s Big Bling that appeared five years ago? The 44-foot sculpture demanded attention. And its messaging challenged New Yorkers to think about abstract concepts like identity and democracy.
The artist Maya Lin wants you to think about climate change. This is what makes the designer’s latest work so arresting: At first glance, you might think a new forest suddenly jutted up out of the ground, in the middle of what was once a flat, open patch of grass.
Known as Ghost Forest, the installation includes 49 Atlantic white cedar trees. Their bare branches create a somewhat eerie and disorienting scene, situated among an otherwise vibrant and lively green park. Originally set for June 2020, Ghost Forest was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When I strolled through Madison Square Park yesterday, I was shocked by the sudden appearance of these dead trees. They appeared real - as if they were rooted in the earth, but I knew they couldn’t be. Trees don’t grow overnight!
The trees came from the Atlantic Pine Barrens in New Jersey. Most of them are around 80 years old, and they were slated to be removed as part of a regeneration effort. The term “ghost forest” isn’t something that Maya Lin made up, though. It’s a term used by forestry professionals to describe woodlands that dry out, often due to rising sea levels. The increase in saltwater jeopardizes the trees’ ability to stay alive.
Maya Lin’s work has a history of climate activism. Her ongoing project, What Is Missing, explores the loss of biodiversity on our planet.
Maya Lin told Frieze:
We have become so disconnected from nature that many of us do not even realize what we are losing. Many common songbirds are declining at a rate of up to 80 percent, so what’s missing are the soundscapes we knew as children, yet we might not always notice that absence.
Ghost Forest was unveiled on May 10, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. With spring in full bloom, and the weather in New York City finally reaching temperatures in the high 70s, the stark visual of the bare Atlantic cedars is highly effective.
Nearly every dead cedar tree had a person leaning against it, getting support for their backs while they relaxed under the sun. Were they thinking about climate change, as Maya Lin intended?
Although people seemed to be embracing the installation as if it were a natural feature of the park, many others snapped photos and gawked at the strange display. A large plaque stood at the perimeter of the exhibition, attracting a steady stream of people, looking for more information.
If you visit Ghost Forest at Madison Square Park, you can hear some of these lost soundscapes that once characterized Manhattan. As part of the installation, there’s an audio track available by scanning a QR code with your phone. Sounds include animals that were once native to New York City, such as a cougar, gray fox, and black bear.
Are you a fan of the public art exhibitions in Madison Square Park? Do you have a favorite?