Maya Lin’s Insufficiently Haunting Ghost Forest

Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest. Photo: Elliot Sperber.

Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest is a temporary public art installation in New York City’s Madison Square Park. On a stretch of green, ten blocks south of the Empire State Building, it consists of a group of 49 dead Atlantic white cedars (of the 50 intended to be displayed, one didn’t make it over in suitable condition).

Culled from a stretch of New Jersey’s Pinelands, an area destroyed by saltwater from rising sea levels and other manifestations of catastrophic climate change (like 2012’s Superstorm Sandy), Ghost Forest is a solemn affair. Considering its subject, this does make sense. After all, these cedars, and the forms of life they supported, once covered hundreds of thousands of acres of this region. And now, like so many other species disappearing amidst the mass extinction event we’re living through, they’re fading away. Like so many other victims of modern capitalist history, these trees weren’t merely destroyed; their value was violently concentrated into immense wealth and power for a very few, and a concomitant impoverished wasteland for everyone else. So, solemnity is in order. However, Ghost Forest may be too solemn, or perhaps it’s just too sedate.

Solemnity, of course, worked profoundly for Lin’s most famous piece, her iconic Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Not to be too blunt about it, though, that work honors the already dead. Ghost Forest, we’re told, is supposed to warn the not-dead-yet about our rapidly approaching fates (fates caused by our capitalist world system, of which Ghost Forest is silent). With all of this in mind, Lin’s installation could benefit from a bit less silence and a dash of alarmism. Although audio will soon be introduced to the installation, adding the sounds of birds already lost to our all-devouring political-economy, I’d personally like to see, and hear, little ringing alarms on each tree. Such, of course, is not Lin’s aesthetic. In Ghost Forest, however, her aesthetic, sedate as it is, verges on the anesthetic — arguably preparing us more for a comfortable sleep, after a disposable mass-produced picnic on the grass, than waking us up.

On view through November 14.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber