Early January: The last presents have been given, the last champagne quaffed. And everywhere, street corners and back alleys are littered with sad, brittle Christmas trees.
It’s a depressing time of year. But for the artist Michael Neff, it’s the highlight. Starting in 2012, Neff has spent early January collecting discarded Christmas trees from sidewalks around Brooklyn and using them to create a post-holiday installation called Suspended Forest under the BQE, an elevated freeway that bisects the borough. Using only twine and discarded construction debris as ballast, Neff strings up the trees so they appear to float over the sidewalk, a process he says "returns them to their former glory."
The annual installation has always been unauthorized—Neff, his wife, and a friend would drive around the borough picking up trees and installing them over the course of a few days—but as it has grown in scale, it has become a tradition in the neighborhood. This year, for the first time, it will take place in a real art space: The Knockdown Center, a 50,000-square-foot former factory in Queens. Evidence of its local popularity? More than 3,000 people RSVP'd to the opening night of the installation on January 9 (and 11,000 more expressed interest).
Inside the space, Neff and his co-collectors installed 40 trees, floating just above the concrete floor of the building. The new venue gives the installation a mesmerizing stillness, as though the trees really were floating–-until visitors arrive, brushing through the rows of pine and setting the trees to slowly spin.
For the first time, not all of the trees in the installation were discarded from living rooms around Brooklyn. 2015 was a horrendous year for Christmas tree sales in New York, and Neff says almost 80% of the trees he used this year were simply left behind by sellers after the holiday passed. "There’s speculation that it’s because it was so warm," Neff says. "There were tons and tons of trees that were still bundled up that sellers had just abandoned."
Neff, who studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and whose other public art pieces have gained attention before, is hesitant to attach any specific meaning to the piece. Some people might see it as a sad reminder of holidays past. Others might see it as a commentary on disposable culture. As symbols, Christmas trees are loaded with meaning, and ArtNET points out that Neff isn't the only artist using them as found objects.
But for him, the piles of dead trees were simply "a material there to be used," though he does enjoy seeing locals’ reactions. This year, an elderly Brooklynite noticed them collecting trees on her block and stopped them to tell them how much she looks forward to seeing the trees beneath the BQE every year. "That’s one of the things that I really enjoy about working in the public sphere," Neff says. "I love that."
You can check out Suspended Forest at the Knockdown Center until January 31.