Posted on June 12, 2006
Eco-arrogance on exhibit
To hear Reinhard Reitzenstein tell it, you'd think nobody had ever seen a dead tree in Pittsburgh before. Reitzenstein is a German-born Canadian artist, who has created two exhibits for this year's Three Rivers Arts Festival. One of these works, entitled "Displacement/Inversion," consists of a series of uprooted trees, suspended upside-down over a downtown alleyway. The other, "Denied Viriditas" features a single specimen, resting sideways on a pair of metal props.
His reason for displaying these dead trees, as if you haven't already guessed, is to raise awareness of dead trees. "They're deliberately disturbing, and some people see them as such," he tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "while others see them as awe-inspiring."
Well, don't send in the grief counselors just yet. It's highly unlikely that the trees are eliciting the responses he claims they are, at least among the sober. Let's face it, a person can't get very far in life if he's going to be shaken to the core by the sight of moribund plant life. Reitzenstein would understand this, if he ever strayed outside the artsy community long enough to witness that quaint custom of ours known as Christmas.
He says he's motivated by the supposed endangerment of "urban green spaces," but Pittsburgh is itself one massive urban green space, located in Pennsylvania, a state whose name means "Penn's Forest." The suggestion that we have a shortage of trees in this city is about as absurd as complaining that we haven't got enough pigeons. So excuse us if we're not "aware" of the crisis.
As if oblivious to this fact, the artist set his "Denied Viriditas" exhibit in such a location that, from almost every angle, it is set against a backdrop of lush, swaying trees -- a whole mountainside full of them when the viewer is facing the Monongahela River. The fact that he brought a dead tree from out of town to put among them doesn't exactly signal the onset of ecological Armageddon. Even more comically, this "artwork" is surrounded by signs stenciled on the pavement, which feature a tree pleading, "Save Me!" It's too late, of course, because the artist has already killed him. Mr. Tree should have spoken up sooner.
In this trite, liberal morality play, the villains are those dastardly corporate developers, as usual. But when a developer cuts down trees, whether everyone agrees with him or not, at least he does it for a constructive purpose. Reitzenstein, by contrast, kills trees for purely symbolic reasons, and misguided ones at that. The hypocrisy might seem inescapable, but like a leather-clad animal rights activist, he is not at a loss for excuses. "They [the trees] are either dying or about to be removed," he explains.
Playing the role of the Lorax, the environmentally conscious sculptor speaks for the trees. The twist is that, on behalf of some of them, he says, "So long, cruel world." Mind you, he has a built-in bias, in that those trees must serve as his medium. Thus, the matter of whether or not a particular tree is worthy of life is basically left up to his own convenience. It's almost as if that other peculiar artist, Jack Kevorkian, had become as dead as he looks, and been reincarnated as a tree surgeon.
Reitzenstein claims to be concerned about a supposedly threatened wooded area in the Hays section of Pittsburgh, where a developer had tried to acquire a thoroughbred license in order to build a race track. It is unclear how the artist squares this worry with his own justification that his trees were "about to be removed." If a property owner wants to build something on his land, then any trees that are in the way have just been rendered "about to be removed" also. Nevertheless, the developer is not allowed to employ this same rationalization.
The difference is that Reitzentstein is a caring liberal, and therefore is not subject to the same rules he invents for others to follow. Because he considers himself to be a good steward of the environment, he has an innate sense of which trees are necessary to sustain the ecosystem, and which ones are expendable. Since his travels have brought him through Pittsburgh at least once before, he's taken it upon himself to make a drive-through ecological diagnosis. As a result, he can tell us how many of which kinds of trees belong in each part of the city.
It's a lucky thing for us common townsfolk that we have worldly, artistic people like him around to raise our awareness of such matters. Otherwise, what would we know? We just live here.-- Daniel Clark is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.
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