There are rustic parts of New York City where you can forget you’re in the bustling metropolis; Downtown Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons is not one of them. Until March of 2018, though, the plaza is getting a lush improvement with Spencer Finch’s Lost Man Creek. The artist’s miniature forest recreates, at 1:100 scale, 790 acres of California’s Redwood National Park.
The installation is organized by Emma Enderby, associate curator at the Public Art Fund. The nonprofit has staged a series of projects in the concrete-heavy space, including Hank Willis Thomas’s interactive, conversation-oriented The Truth Is I See You, and Katharina Grosse’s colorful sculpture jumble Just Two of Us. Finch’s is a gated experience. While you can climb the steps of a small wooden overlook, or peek over the undulating wooden fence holding in the soil and irrigation system, the red-trunked trees remain untouchable (unless you grasp a tiny needle of deciduous foliage from a border branch).
The Brooklyn-based Finch’s work can often edge into twee (see: sunset-colored ice cream), yet does have a core earnestness for engaging his audience with surprising moments of connection with nature. The High Line recently closed his long-term “The River That Flows Both Ways,” which captured 700 minutes of the adjacent Hudson River’s changing hues on window panes. Lost Man Creek does not have an overtly environmental message; there are no calls for becoming a Lorax for the trees (although Finch did partner with Save the Redwoods League for the project). Rather, it offers an unexpected incursion of natural serenity in an otherwise highly urban area of the city.
I don’t want to disregard the fact that there are already trees in the MetroTech Commons, with honey locusts and London plane trees in neat lines. As the exhibition text points out, Finch’s specimens are dawn redwoods. What it doesn’t state is these are a part of our New York City ecology, and not California’s Redwood National Park. I’ve been on a years-long quest to see all the city’s official Great Trees, as listed by NYC Parks, and was surprised to find an over 100-foot dawn redwood on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, not that far from Lost Man Creek.
It was only in the 1940s that dawn redwoods were rediscovered in an isolated valley of China. Previously, they were considered extinct, only identified by fossils. Yet they took off as urban trees, including in New York, as they maximize space and are resistant to the the destructive Asian long-horned beetle. You can find them towering at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, and presiding over Liz Christy Community Garden on East Houston in Manhattan. Trees are rooted in a deeper time than us. It’s likely, pending catastrophe, that many of the trees we see each day will outlive us. After the close of Lost Man Creek, the trees will be “rehoused” elsewhere. It may be designed to represent a California landscape, but it also connects us to New York City by encouraging an appreciation for the beauty of even the tiniest tree.
Spencer Finch: Lost Man Creek continues through March 11, 2018, at MetroTech Commons (between Jay Street and Flatbush Avenue at Myrtle Avenue, Downtown Brooklyn).