Art

A Sculpture Conjures the Secret Life of Trees

Jean Shin’s “Allée Gathering” at Storm King shows how little many of us know about trees and nature.

“Allée Gathering” by Jean Shin (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

NEW WINDSOR, New York — I’m sitting at a massive picnic table in the middle of Storm King Art Center. Two sets of long wooden sheets abut each other, forming a 50-foot-long tabletop. The benches, too, are made of hewn trunks, their undersides showing the rough bark of the trees. It’s unlike any other bench at which I’ve sat: it’s as if one giant tree were cut down, then split down the middle and unfolded like paper.  

The picnic table sits on a slight incline, the only sculptural work in the area. It runs parallel to what was once the Maple Allée, two rows of old maple trees standing on either side of a sloping road. But the maples are gone. They were planted just after the Art Center opened 50 years ago, and they’d reached the end of their life cycle. All that’s left of them are stumps; these seem ironic, even tragic, alongside the row of saplings planted to replace them. The soil around the saplings is still dark and fresh. We are sitting at the corpse of some giant beast, while the life cycle continues onward, indifferent to the towering body.

The artist Jean Shin, whose exhibition Outlooks is on view here, sits at the table across from me, next to Senior Curator Nora Lawrence, while the rest of us on the tour (writers, photographers) sit around. It’s springtime, but it’s chilly and the sky is gray. The center lives up to its name: when clouds gather around the great mountain, it’s a sure indicator of storms. Our group was almost rained out earlier in the day, and before we arrived, a team had come to wipe down the bench so we could sit on it.

Shin has to speak loudly over the wind, as it carries sound up and away from the table. She calls the piece “Allée Gathering,” explaining that she wanted to create “a memorial, a place of remembrance and gathering,” where people would “spend time with art and nature.” That is, of course, what we’re doing in this moment.

Stump of a maple tree at Storm King Art Center (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

That morning, I’d seen the table from a distance. We were in the stone mansion that holds Storm King’s galleries, previewing the exhibition Mark Dion: Follies, which also just opened. One of the second-floor galleries has a window looking out onto the grounds, with a clear view of the former allée. It felt a bit like looking back in time, into the kind of view I imagined from an English manor — the low sky, the green lawns, the symmetrical landscaping, the country road disappearing at the crest of the hill.

But, of course, it was different. The saplings from a distance looked scraggly, fragile. It was hard to imagine them growing into full trees. And the table was hard to place. From that distance, it looked small, like a misplaced toy block. It looked different from the pieces I’d previously seen by Shin: large-scale installations made up of a plethora of smaller everyday objects — hundreds of lottery cards leaning on each other to create a miniature city, military uniforms turned into a mural-sized mosaic, orange prescription-pill bottles stacked into a tower. This piece was its own sort of assemblage, but one that came from nature.

Jean Shin with her installation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Up close, the table is impressive. I found myself staring at the wood grains, photographing the table at close range to capture its length, the way its two sides join together. From the side, it cuts a dramatic shape against the landscape, echoing the sloping line where treetops meet the horizon.

Shin moves onto the second part of the exhibition, telling us she was inspired by the fallen maples to tap the trees around Storm King for syrup. She presents three bottles, one from a “distressed” tree, one from a green maple, and one from a healthy, adult tree. She and the curators pass around the three bottles, which we pour into metal spoons to taste.

The first, the distressed tree, has a woody, almost smoky flavor and is a light amber color. The second feels closer to what I think of as maple syrup — sweeter, a little richer. And the third, from the healthy tree, is the closest to what we buy in stores, a dark, reddish brown, more viscous on the spoon.

Shin points out two maples at the far end of the allée that were spared. The one on the left, she says, is distressed, while the one on the right is healthy. I hadn’t noticed, but now I can see the branches of the left tree have gaps between them, like bald patches. I realize how little I know about trees, about how we get this thing called syrup, and that syrup from different trees will taste different. The whole experience has a melancholy quality, trying to extract sweetness from trees, dying trees.

Maple syrup tapped for “Allée Gathering” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Later, when we are indoors, I ask Shin about the process of creating the table. I was struck by how the sculpture seemed both simple and very difficult to make. She describes the long process of more or less inventing a method for creating the piece. She was told that nearby mills wouldn’t accept the job, so Shin and the Storm King staff had to figure out a way to make the table on site. “I said, what are my options?” she explains, “And the builder said, ‘Well, there’s a chance we can do vertical cuts.’ I don’t know much about carpentry, but I know you don’t do that.”

Nora Lawrence excitedly pulls up a video on her phone. I watch a man holding a chainsaw, standing on a forklift next to a trunk that’s been shaved of its branches. In one dramatic movement, he cuts down the entire length of the trunk, and the thick slab of maple falls onto the ground. We laugh at the suddenness of it, the mix of elegant skill and brute force. 

She describes going up to touch the inside of the tree the minute it opened. “I was filled with beauty,” she says. “I was weeping.” It was a hot day, but the wood was “cold inside, a different surface hidden from world.”

Outlooks: Jean Shin continues at Storm King Art Center (1 Museum Road, New Windsor, New York) through November 24.

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