The Ghost of 300 Million Dead Trees Hovers Over a Lake in Texas

Some temporary art installations -- you're glad they're temporary.

The half-submerged red sedan in the rhino exhibit at the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna is a good example.

So are the hokey light projections of Danish artist Asbjoern Skou.

Ditto the wind-battered half-mile of plastic trash bags that a white-booted woman named Sheri strung across Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man festivities of 2008.

As you can see, I can get annoyed easily in the presence of a temporary art installation.

Sometimes it's because the rationale behind the art work is way too rational for my taste. Skou, as an example, describes his work as...

concerned with investigating the peripheral and hidden structures of actual spaces and discourse, and communicating these in attempts to navigate and negotiate their identity.


Austin's "Ghost Tree" and the Lamar Bridge. Photo by BF Newhall

Even more annoying are the artists who take out their frustration with modern life by running roughshod over the viewer. The massive oil pump plopped ironically in the penguins' enclosure at the Vienna zoo, for instance, feels a bit mean-spirited to me.

And finally, I wonder if some artists fear their authenticity creds will be endangered if they venture to create something beautiful. So many works of art -- namely Sheri's string of 2663 trashy trash bags -- are just plain ugly to the eye.

That's what was running through my head as I took in the beautiful, thoughtful "Ghost Tree" hovering over Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas, last week.

Placed there by a group called Women & Their Work as a temporary art installation called THIRST, the "Ghost Tree," and the white prayer flags strung nearby, are my idea of a really cool temporary art installation. Here's why:

  • The Ghost Tree makes a statement -- that a shocking 300 million trees died in the 2011 Texas drought.
  • It evokes emotion -- grief at the loss of so many beautiful, nurturing living things.
  • Placed as it is at the heart of Austin, in the water between two bridges, the tree enhances rather than belittles its environment.
  • And, far from alienating its viewers, the "Ghost Tree" creates community through a sense of shared loss.
  • And finally, to my grateful eyes, the "Ghost Tree" is just plain beautiful.

Painted a ghostly white, the tree -- a 35-foot cedar elm that died in the 2011 drought -- stands a few feet above the dark waters of Lady Bird Lake (named for First Lady Lady Bird Johnson). The tree's thirsty roots, also painted a ghostly white, are just out of reach of the water below.

Complementing the tree are 14,000 prayer flags strung along a 2.5-mile loop from Lamar Bridge to the First Street Bridge and the popular Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge. Each flag is silk-screened with the image of a dead tree. (The flags are white, by the way. That means that, unlike the once-colorful prayer flags you see all over the Himalayas and Berkeley, they won't be fading to a dreary gray.)

The flags. Photo by BF Newhall

Collaborating with Women & Their Work on the creation of the installation were Beili Liu, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Texas, Emily Little and Norma Yancey of Clayton & Little Architects and Cassie Bergstrom, of dwg landscape architecture.

The project was supported by a grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Which makes the Ghost Tree the legacy of one of my favorite artists.

My Austin friends, who very kindly took me and my trusty point-and-shoot for a daytime walk along the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge last week, indulged me with a second, after-dark visit to the tree. (More pictures of the THIRST project at here).

My timing was fortunate. I happened to be in Austin for the Religion Newswriters Association conference, where the demographics of American Jews and Hispanics were the hot topics. The "Ghost Tree" won't be there long. Installed on September 29, the THIRST project -- temporary art installation that it is -- is scheduled to be taken down on December 16.

In the case of the "Ghost Tree," too bad it's temporary.