Walking into Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen's installation at the Dumbo Arts Center
(DAC) is like entering an uncannily organic and completely original environment. And like any environment, their sprawling, climbing, splaying and merging forest crafted from bright red paper feels different every time you pass through. On a cold weekday afternoon the quiet space's red glow provides a warming, re-energizing temple. During the Art Under the Bridge Festival
, when the line to enter the DAC's fragile ecosystem stretched down the block, it was a forest buzzing with life, sheltering a teeming community of inhabitants big and small: kids love the installation, which seems custom-built for games of hide-and-go-seek. On a rainy day the towering paper trees prove a pleasant, crinkly, dry refuge. Part of what makes the piece, titled The Experience of Green
(through November 29), so lively is its complex relationship to a real forest and the environmental issues that intertext raises.
The various meanings the work evokes come from the many connections that grow between its title, material properties and the larger social issues these tap into. With the title and the massive forests it alludes to, Kavanaugh
are playing with the multiple and often opposite meanings of red and green as passionate and calm, destructive and creative, or, more simply, stop and go. Their latest installation (the two have collaborated on several projects
over the last four years) elicits a stylized version of the experience of green (meaning nature, growth) made from thousands of sheets of red (meaning fire, destruction) paper, which in turn are made from trees. In other words, it's a project about the environment that uses processed materials from a destroyed ecosystem to create an artificial reinterpretation of that natural organism. For some the use of so much paper to create trees might seem a gross indulgence, but to construe Kavanaugh and Nguyen's work as such is to misread its purpose and underestimate its intricacies.
Coming into The Experience of Green
off Washington Street produces a series of sensory continuities and disjunctures that facilitate the strange ease of becoming immersed in this environment. The picturesque street's red brick buildings match the red of the paper, as if the stacked architectural forms had warped into organic shapes. The striking verticality of Dumbo also, improbably, continues indoors, implied by the massive girth and spread of the paper forest's tree trunks. These subtle similarities between the artwork and the streetscape give way to a radical new and quiet atmosphere, isolated from the noisy Dumbo streets and clanging subways on the bridge overhead. The quality of the light inside The Experience
, an appropriately dramatic title, is anything but natural: judiciously placed spotlights give the hulking, playful red tree forms a theatrical allure, as if they're truly giant living organisms. This is a very different approach from the landscape installations of Nam June Paik
or Maya Lin
, for instance, whose appeal derives in part from the strange juxtapositions of forms from nature replicated using man-made materials like televisions and plastic toys. There's a certain degree of realism at work in the proportions, textures and, if you'll pardon the pun, material roots of Kavanaugh and Nguyen's trees made out of paper.
This is also a heavily stylized landscape, though, and as much as it evokes a magical forest it's also a beautifully crafted and formally exquisite piece of art. Each hulking trunk is made of the same red kraft paper treated in a different manner. The most impressive may be the form at the front of the gallery, which consists of endless layers piled vertically with their edges facing out, giving the impression that one could just pull apart two pages and slip into the tree like an engrossed reader becoming lost in a book. Besides the desire to go hiking, The Experience
's most lasting after-effect is an intense need to leaf through a book. Indeed, moving around the form it pulls apart to reveal an inner chamber, a womb-like sanctuary with a skylight that lets in enough light to make out the domed inner walls. Another tree formed out of molded sheets of paper opens to reveal a set of twisted, hanging strands projecting from some imperceptible ceiling. There's a strange sense of voyeurism to this moment, as if this is a part of the tree we're not intended to see. The only massive trunk that doesn't rise into the ceiling features similar outstretched, twisted strands of paper jutting from its bark, and splays out into branches so that it resembles a giant hand. The effect is at once whimsical and violent, as if the thing is exploding or reaching out in its dying breath.
The tortured, twisting forms of that stumped trunk are the closest Kavanaugh and Nguyen come to articulating the implicit environmental message that runs through the show. Their work has all the grandeur and drama of a beautiful tragedy, recreating a landscape few of us have ever seen in nature and that might disappear within a few decades because of us. Seen in this light, the installation's title takes on a cruel, cutting edge. To experience a green landscape today means very literally to experience an environment that is in the red. Like its cousins out there in nature, this calm and intriguing forest is bleeding. Leaving the DAC and walking back out into the noisy, jarring city after being transported to such a peaceful, melancholic place is difficult. You'd almost rather hole up in one of The Experience of Green
's red cocoons and wait until things get better.
(photo credit: Dumbo Arts Center)