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Suspended Forest: One Man's Christmas Trash is Another Man's Treasure

Artist Michael Neff's Suspended Forest takes discarded Christmas trees and recycles them into a beautiful public art installation.

Millions of fir trees are purchased every year in America to celebrate Christmas. The Christmas tree is something many people love, often wrapped up in family tradition and nostalgia. Growing up in Seattle, a place with a wealth of fir trees, I didn’t think much about our Christmas tree—where it came from or where it went. We picked it out in a parking lot and drove it home, and I was instructed to drag it to the curb on the day the Boys Scouts came around to take everyone’s trees away to wherever they went.

When I moved to New York City the population density made me acutely aware of just how many trees we consume every year. In the weeks after Christmas, sidewalks in Manhattan are an obstacle course of discarded trees. Residential high rises in particular often sport huge piles, discarded en mass when a pick up date is approaching.

Suspended Forest is my reaction to this post-Christmas phenomenon. A core tenet of my art practice is pointing out things that we may not be conscious of in our daily lives. Sometimes people mistakenly read this as a critique of our culture, but I am more interested in engaging with a viewer, making them aware of what they are looking at, and hopefully spurring them to think about it.

At its most basic, Suspended Forest, which was up January 6 - 17, was a piece of public installation art composed of discarded Christmas trees, suspended so they hovered near the ground. The piece was installed in a fenced-in plot of land under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This site was attractive because it is a large, open space but enclosed by a chain-link fence, which provides some separation between the viewer and the work. The subway stops nearby and Metropolitan is a thoroughfare through the neighborhood, so the site sees a lot of pedestrian and automotive traffic. This was a blessing and a curse, as this year I had to stop installing twice in order to speak with police officers inquiring about what I was doing.

To create the installation, I collected trees from nearby sidewalks and brought them to the site. Then, they were hung using a twine similar to that used when tying trees for transporting to a Christmas lot or home. The twine was tied to a rock, which was thrown over a drain pipe attached to the underside of the BQE. Once looped over the pipe, the twine was tied to the top of the tree which was then lifted into place—about three feet off the ground. The twine was tied off near the base of the tree to secure it and then tucked in close to the trunk to allow it to hang as close to vertical as possible. I repeated this approximately 34 times.

People don’t give you much flak when you’re shoving discarded Christmas trees into the back of a vehicle, but there are some hazards. Because of where Christmas and New Year's fell in relation to weekends this year, most of the trees had been on the street for days. That means that along with the usual dangers of pitch and super-sharp dried needles, dog pee was a big factor this year. Dogs love to pee on discarded Christmas trees.

This was my second iteration of Suspended Forest. Look for it again in 2014!

Michael Neff is an artist, born in Seattle, Washington in 1976. He received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Neff is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of NSFW Magazine. His work has been exhibited and published in the U.S. and abroad.

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