You enter Klara Liden’s portentous cemetery of trees and wintry imminence through a small door in a police-barricade-blue plywood wall. Immediately inside, you’re confronted with the startling sight of a space filled with discarded Christmas trees, all scooped up from the sidewalks of New York by Liden and her cohorts. A disruption of the senses comes, thoughts of the Brothers Grimm, the foreboding of forests, inchoate uneasiness. You see only a few feet in front of you. Still, there’s space enough between the trees to proceed. Make your own way in, push trees aside, slide through. To where? It’s too much of a conceit to be Dante’s Wood of the Suicides, where spirits of the self-destroyed speak only when wounded. Yet walking in Liden’s wood makes branches break and needles fall. The floor is wet with water spilled from tree stands and buckets. The air is cool; the windows may be open. A gray mist seems to rise with the pine smell as pungent and out of place as a taxicab air freshener’s.
Unlike almost all artists who fill a gallery with one thing, be it glass jars, wooden beams, or cotton bales—a trope so worn-out it should be banned—Liden places a leather couch in the center of the room. It churns up everything, getting you to stop, look, listen, smell, and maybe shudder.
When I visited, I sat down fearing grubs and bedbugs, feeling lonely, unable to see anything but the trees in front of me, cocooned, a living chrysalis. I lost my center. Ghosts of this Christmas past appeared as noticed bits of tinsel, parts of ornaments, discarded strands of stuff. I thought of lives lived around these trees, desires met and not met, parents, children, being good or bad, arguments, gifts. Time tunneled. I thought of the fields cultivated for these trees; trucks bringing them to the city; temporary street economies; the trees appearing back on the street. It recalls the late Mike Kelley’s 1987 masterpiece More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, his large hanging assemblage of plush toys and its mystic recycling system.
Then I thought of other art incorporating trees or nature. Joseph Beuys’s planting of oaks next to chunks of basalt; Gordon Matta-Clark’s planting a tree in a hole in a gallery floor; Robert Gober’s tree trunk outfitted with a dress; Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Although it’s inherently temporary, Liden’s Pretty Vacant, as the installation is called, still has an earthwork’s psychic grandeur, ambition, and presence. Her vision, forlorn, filled with pathos and unexplained shamanic transformations of emotion into objects with objects returning feeling to us, induces a response that verges on entropic collapse. I still feel the anxiousness of Liden’s installation, the restlessness, disequilibrium, and odd awe. Art’s strangeness still reigns.