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Sunday, January 10, 2016

SMELL: Suspended Forest, an installation of discarded Christmas trees

For certain empathetic New Yorkers, the beginning of January can be bittersweet for an entirely different reason than the usual. In the first weeks of the year, the Christmas trees that have been the center of many homes—that have been bedecked with stars and candles, that have had carols sung around them, that have sheltered gifts and been touched by the mystical presence of Santa Claus—are cast out onto the sidewalk, to be rained, snowed on, peed on by dogs (and possibly humans), and eventually chucked into the back of a mulcher or sanitation truck, perhaps with bits of tinsel or even a stray homemade ornament still clinging to their branches.


In response to this annual abomination, for the past few years the local artist Michael Neff has been collecting a sampling of discarded Christmas trees from the streets of Brooklyn and displaying them. In 2012 and 2013, he hung them illegally from a drainpipe beneath the BQE, but the installation was fleeting, as the trees were promptly removed by the city. 

Image from Reyclart.com
This year, Neff found an authorized home for his trees at Maspeth’s Knockdown Center. Until the end of January, forty spruce trees will hang from strings from the rafters of the cavernous warehouse, filling the space with their resinous, tangy scent. 


In contrast to Neff's previous collections, most of this year’s trees remained unsold by vendors. They are, in other words, rejected Christmas trees: trees that were chopped down but never had the chance to be at the center of a home or to be strung with lights and serenaded, trees that were dismissed at the sidewalk stand with a “too short” or “too sparse” or “not fragrant enough.” This twist makes the installation all the more poignant: rather than giving already-celebrated trees an extra month of homage, this display is these trees’ moment to shine.


The spruce trees are arranged in a grid, spaced so that visitors brush against the branches as they wend between their pendulous forms, often releasing a cascade of dead needles, which are crushed by the feet of others, releasing yet more of the woody aroma. 


Suspended like this, the trees are at once triumphant and vulnerable. They are subject to the whims of passersby as they rotate helplessly on their strings a foot above the floor, yet they are also celebrated as these same visitors admire their scent, caress their needles, even lie down on the floor beneath their branches for a moment of stillness or meditation.


As I lost myself in the evergreen labyrinth, I heard a child remark, “This is like being in a car wash!” Which it was, with the bristles brushing against my coat on either side. Though several young guests were scolded by a guard for cavorting between the trees (really, who could blame them?), touching the branches appeared to be condoned, and it was surprisingly satisfying to take hold of a tree and give it a spin, feeling how lightweight yet substantial it was, how responsive, and how fast it spun—almost like a partner in a dance.


The fragrant and contemplative space contrasts with the neighborhood just outside the gallery’s windows, which smells of diesel fumes, tire rubber, and cheap baked goods from the surrounding warehouses and factories. But even industrial Maspeth isn’t immune to post-holiday nostalgia: in mid-January, illuminated snowflakes still swayed above Flushing Avenue.


Later that evening, taking a stroll through Brooklyn, I saw a family of three carrying their Christmas tree to the designated MulchFest drop-off site at the corner of a park. The tree was suspended between the mom and the dad; their daughter hung on behind, and their dog, on a leash, trotted alongside them. Their faces were dutiful—yet it was a family affair, everyone connected, leaving a trail of spruce needles in their wake that, briefly, perfumed the air.


Suspended Forest is on view through January 31, on Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 6 pm,  at Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Avenue in Maspeth, Queens.