When the artist Spencer Finch outlined plans for thousands of redwood trees, the tallest living species on the planet, to be placed in the concrete heart of Brooklyn, city authorities initially assumed he meant fake replicas. They were a little taken aback when Finch insisted that they be the real thing.
“The idea came pretty quickly, and then it was about figuring out if it was actually possible,” Finch said. Fortunately it was, crucially because the redwood forest was to be in miniature – an exact but tiny replica of the towering redwood forests of America’s west coast.
Finch has recreated a 790-acre section of California’s Redwood national park in downtown Brooklyn at 1:100 scale. The exact topography of the area has been replicated through tons of soil and an undulating wooden border. The eponymous waterway of the piece, Lost Man Creek, runs through its heart through meters of tubed irrigation.
The original trees can reach 380ft, taller than the buildings that surround the public square where the art project sits. Finch’s 4,000 saplings will, however, be pruned so they grow to no more than 4ft.
Finch’s 4,000 saplings will be pruned so they grow to no more than 4ft. Photograph: Timothy Schenck/Supplied
“This isn’t a destination for art – people have other things on their mind,” said Finch, as he looked around the MetroTech Commons, an unglamorous slice of the rapidly gentrifying New York borough. “I thought if I were to do something it would have to be a little unconventional, something that was new and adventurous.”
Finch said he has enjoyed bringing a touch of wilderness to a slate-grey landscape of offices and highways. “I can ride my bike here and work outdoors with trees. That’s better than being in the studio answering emails,” he said.
This is possibly Finch’s most ambitious work in terms of scale, but it isn’t his first use of environmental themes in his art. Finch created The River that Flows Both Ways, which charts a journey down the Hudson river and was one of the first pieces to grace the High Line, a linear park built on a disused railway line in Manhattan that has become a tourist favorite.
The artist is also known for Trying to Remember the Color of The Sky on That September Morning, a sprawling work created for the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Finch, who has been based in Brooklyn since 1990, has made his mark on the fabric of New York, although he shares commonly heard gripes about his adopted home.
The High Line is laudable but “just very very”, as Finch puts it. “It’s now in a very wealthy neighborhood, it’s mostly tourists. All this money comes into the High Line and there are parks in Brooklyn where there is no grass or
Areas of Brooklyn such as Williamsburg and Greenpoint have changed almost beyond recognition since Finch came to the borough, with average rents increasing 78% over this period in those neighborhoods.
“The income disparity is kind of mind-boggling,” Finch said. “It was never easy for young artists, it always felt expensive, I had to struggle. But it feels like it has got harder for young artists. New York’s energy is so dependent on people coming in, whether that’s young artists or immigrants or whatever. If that ever stops, the city will stop.”
Lost Man Creek, facilitated through the Public Art Fund and the Save the Redwoods League, is probably a sign of gentrification in itself. But it has a soothing quality about it, with a viewing platform providing an ideal portal to a place far from Brooklyn. “If you squint you can think, ‘Maybe I am in an actual forest’,” Finch said.
The sense of scale is crystalized by a group of small human figures and a campsite, measuring less than an inch tall, placed next to the trees. The faithfulness of the replica doesn’t gloss over the fact this area was disturbed – a section of the forest that was logged has smaller, stunted trees in place. A path through the center of the forest was mooted and then dismissed for fear of vandalism. “People do crazy things,” Finch explained.
California’s trees have endured a difficult time of late. Ravaged by drought and disease, more than 66 m have died since 2010 alone, with climate change a looming threat even to giants such as redwoods, which rely upon coastal mists and a certain temperature range to flourish. Finch’s miniature forest conjures the grandness of the redwoods, but also hints at their vulnerability.
Finch said he is concerned about the environment but invokes the Yeats poem On Being Asked for a War Poem to argue that his role as an artist isn’t to speak out against the potential devastation of climate change.
“I’m hesitant to talk about it in those terms,” he said. “This is in the tradition of a landscape, it’s like a landscape painting. I hope people will have a sort of reverie, that it’s an escape for them. So much about urban life now is about commerce. Maybe people can have a magical moment here.”