Trees have returned to Times Square in a new public art installation on view through September 23. Charles Gaines’s sculpture “Roots,” unveiled this week, encompasses seven sweetgum trees turned upside down, their roots becoming their canopies.
Sweetgums are native to the eastern region of the United States and likely grew in Times Square before the area was colonized and began its transformation into the lit-up symbol of commercialism it is today. Gaines’s project seeks to engage with America’s history of oppression, enslavement, and ultimately its contemporary economy, one built upon the nation’s racist past and present.
Painted a matte gray, the trees stand in stark contrast to the neon billboards above them, bearing more similarity to the cinderblock exteriors of the tourist hub’s office buildings than to its flashy, ever-changing pixelated displays.
“The subject is really a critique of America’s version of capitalism, and particularly, America’s version of capitalism that was fueled by slavery and colonial occupations,” Gaines told Hyperallergic.
“This is precisely what’s curious about American capitalism — slavery lasted a long time in the United States,” the artist continued. “And when the rest of the world stopped doing it, the US was still doing it. It’s really the bedrock of the economy: It gave the American economy an advantage over the other countries.”
The fact that enslavement in America outlasted other nations was cemented in a performance at the July 13 unveiling ceremony. A seven-part musical ensemble “translated” the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that descendants of enslaved people were not citizens of the US. The text of the decision was displayed on a projector, and as each line inched upward, the musicians played a corresponding note for each letter. The dehumanizing nature of the paragraphs’ contents was made even more jarring by their slow progression up the screen.
“Roots” is part of Gaines’s first public art installation in his decades-long career. The American Manifest, presented by Times Square Arts, Creative Time, and Governors Island Arts, is a three-part project that will be exhibited over the course of the next two years. In October, the second phase of The American Manifest will go on view on NYC’s Governors Island, and next summer, the final piece of the project will be exhibited on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati.
The upcoming installation “Moving Chains” on Governors Island will invite visitors to walk through a 100-foot tunnel that mimics the hull of a slave ship. Above their heads, chains will move with the currents of the Hudson River, and outside of the wooden space, visitors will get a view of the Statue of Liberty.
Both New York Harbor and the Ohio River played important roles in the history of slavery in America. Enslaved individuals were transported into the port of New York City, where slave markets awaited them. Decades later, enslaved people crossed the Ohio River into Cincinnati to secure their freedom.
Both New York and Cincinnati are located in Northern states where slavery was prohibited in 1787, and the ways in which they benefited from it are often left unspoken. But Gaines’s momentous public works — strategically situated in high-traffic areas that see hundreds of thousands of passersby each day — will make it very difficult to ignore these legacies.