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Maya Lin’s installation “Ghost Forest” (2021) in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park opened to the public on May 10. I set out to view the work on opening weekend, and it seemed I wasn’t the only one eager to emerge from where I’d been cocooning for the past 14 months of the pandemic. The park was crowded with picnickers underneath the trees — the living Chinese elms and Lin’s “forest” of 49 dead Atlantic white cedars. Accompanied by a soundscape of recordings of animals commonly found more than 500 years ago on Manahahtaan island, the work vivifies scientific data to draw public attention to habitats and species that are disappearing primarily because of disruptive human activities.
But “Ghost Forest,” like Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is also a work of decolonization — actively seeking out what has been lost in the ravages of colonialism and acknowledging the trauma that remains in order to heal and find pathways forward. It’s significant that Lin has referred to her memorials as “antimonuments,” which aren’t “about the past for the sake of the past.” “Ghost Forest” itself is surrounded by monuments to United States expansionism — from the eponymous James Madison who facilitated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and set the precedent for Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removals”; to the statue of William Henry Seward who brokered the illegitimate cession of Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan, and Tlingit lands in 1867.
As a Filipina American, I’m haunted by other ghosts. West of Madison Square Park once stood the Fifth Avenue Hotel where Jose Rizal, father of Filipino nationalism, stayed in 1888 during a trip campaigning for the Philippines’ independence from Spain (deplorably, Americans who had championed him turned around and took the islands for themselves after the Spanish-American War in 1898). South of the park looms the landmark Flatiron Building. Its entry in the AIA Guide to New York City notes the architect’s name (Daniel Burnham), the year it was built, and the styles and materials employed, but like the guide to the park’s monuments, it leaves unexhumed the architect’s role in history.
As a postcolonial subject, I can’t look at the Flatiron without thinking about Burnham’s legacy as Insular Architect of the Philippines, reconstructing his “White City” in the Cordillera highlands where American government officials and opportunists could retreat from the heat and humidity of Manila summers while carrying on with the business of empire. That indigenous Ibaloi already inhabited those lands was an inconvenient truth paved over by Burnham and the US colonizers.
I was born and raised in that mountain city, Baguio, which still bears the appellation “summer capital” as well as American place names. Google Burnham Park, Forbes Park, Camp John Hay, Kennon Road, Brent International School, Bell Amphitheater, Leonard Wood Road, and Melvin Jones Grandstand, and you’ll get a brief history of American military occupation, capitalist exploitation, proselytism, reeducation, and acculturation in the Philippines. Yet, indigenous place names have survived as well: Chanum Street, Kisad Road, Bokawkan Road. And by uplifting indigenous knowledge, practices, and narratives in their work, intergenerational Baguio artists such as Ibaloi painter Roland Bay-an and street muralist Venazir Martinez symbolically are tearing down those monuments to US imperialism.
As New Yorkers begin to surface from our losses in this pandemic year, I wonder whether we’ll “reflect on our past in order to help guide us to a different future,” as Lin urges, or instead, as a park visitor remarked, “return to BC (before Covid)” because introspection, community building, and envisioning a sustainable, equitable future different from the reality we’ve known is hard work. Observing picnickers who didn’t seem to notice the addition of the dead cedars in the park, one might have cynically concluded that people just don’t notice or care about their environment. But I believe the opposite: The ghost trees and animals simply blended into the living surroundings, reminding us of a pivotal conviction that is held by many indigenous cultures. We have the ancestral memory to restore the Earth and our relations if only we committed to valuing and nurturing that knowledge.