February 08, 2016

Art Unreal: A Suspended Forest

Words + Photos : RACHEL AMICO

Nothing quite says “the holidays are over” like 40 discarded Christmas trees hanging from the ceiling, slowly shedding onto the concrete below.

In both 2012 and 2013, Michael Neff, an artist and designer based out of San Francisco, collected discarded trees from Brooklyn sidewalks and strung them up underneath the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) as public art. Without the necessary permits, the installation only lasted days before being removed by the city. Installed in January 2016 at the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York, his suspended forest installation was hosted legally for the first time.

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“I kind of expected people walking between the rows and brushing the trees,” said Neff, “but some people were more aggressively spinning them – and that’s interesting for me. I’m a software product designer so I actually spend a lot of time observing people using things and trying to understand how people interact with systems.”

Highlighting an example, he gleefully described to me watching a group of slightly intoxicated men discover one of his more ephemeral works (in which he outlines aesthetically pleasing shadows with chalk) in Montreal. Struggling to understand exactly what he was seeing, one of the men dragged his foot across the chalk to test the illusion. Though the piece was technically “damaged”, Neff was pleased with the level of interaction.

“I’m interested in finding things that I think are interesting, figuring out the right way to elevate them to share with people, and I’m interested in letting go and seeing what happens. Art is only art if someone can see it or interact with it in some way – and I love that moment.”

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When I returned to the exhibit on the last weekend of its run, I was excited to see how a month of foot-traffic had altered the scene. I got up early and rode the bus out to Queens, enjoying the early morning quiet and the graffiti views. After a long brunch I walked into the exhibit and saw a group of contemporary dancers being filmed in the space. The room smelled lightly of pine and the afternoon sun streamed through the windows. The strange serenity I was expecting during the opening was upon me.

Needles littered the floor, but, all things considered, the forest was in good shape. A partial explanation for this, I learned from Neff, was that after a particularly bad year for tree sales, most of the forest was actually procured directly from sellers, spending little to no time out on the sidewalks. Without hundreds of other people to distract me, the effect of 40 trees in one place was more impactful. The scale of it made me understand the feeling that prompted Neff to start the project back in 2012.

“I had never lived in a place as dense as New York” he said. “After New Years and after the holidays, there are these stacks of trees – and in front of some of these high-rise buildings they’re big stacks of trees. And even if it’s not [high-rise buildings], there are trees littering the sidewalks everywhere. I’d never experienced anything like that… I saw these things and thought ‘wow – this is a reminder of how dense New York City is, and also, this is interesting – here is a material I can use. And it’s free.’”

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Driven to somehow work with what he saw as a strange and interesting New York phenomenon, he grabbed some hot pink twine from a previous project (which he later replaced, not liking the look) and set out to snatch trees and display them for other people. The project evolved over the next 2 years, with more friends and more trees involved, and eventually a hashtag with some press coverage in the street-art scene. People were curious, and excited, to see the forest swinging under the BQE.

What inspired Neff unfortunately inspired a bit of cynicism in myself. It was impossible for me to look at this huge collection of discarded trees and avoid thinking about some of society’s flaws: from the materialism and waste of the the holiday season, to the fact that 2015 was the warmest Christmas on record in New York. Humans seem unable to leave our environments unscathed – whether it’s at an art opening or in an actual forest.

But Neff made it very clear that his goal is not to critique society or make a political point. “My intention is to essentially highlight this thing for people to see and think about. I’m not saying ‘here’s a way to think about it.’ But-” he said, “if that’s the way you think about it, that’s great. You’re being thoughtful and conscious of something that you might not have been otherwise. That is my hope. I have no agenda.”

Learn more about Michael Neff’s art here.

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