If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? At the very least, it can make art. For Trisha Donnelly, it must make a sound as well, for art is always listening, even as so many refuse to hear. Much of the planet may be dying, like her two fallen trees at The Shed, but art can speak to that as well. She has the very first show in the cultural center of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, and it makes quite an impact. It puts to the test a gallery with, as yet, too few visitors, next to a shopping mall serving too little of New York. It looks beyond that very concentration of wealth to a fragile state of nature. It also risks drowning global warming and goodness knows what else in sounds of its own.
One enters through a side entrance to the galleries, past a black curtain, and into a vast room empty apart from a traffic cone at the far end. Early visitors must have wondered if the galleries were really open yet — much as with Closed for Installation, the sparest of site-specific art by Fiona Connorat Sculpture Center in Queens. The black curtain divides the room, in preparation for a show to come. Nothing beyond dates appears on the gallery’s Web site, not even a title, and no wall text hints at what is to come. Soon enough, though, Donnelly relented at least a little. Off the escalators on The Shed’s top floor, a guard in casual dress now points the way.
The guard also offers some much-needed advice: follow the opera. One can already hear it, the “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, in a fabled performance by Leontyne Price — and it grows in intensity as one crosses the dark empty space. An amp and two speakers share a second room along with two impressive tree trunks lying helpless on the floor. Donnelly has bound one trunk loosely with a pink ribbon and wrapped the broken limps of the other with plastic gauze. They could be bandages for a wounded planet.
The artist might indeed be trying to save the earth with her bare hands. Then again, the ribbon could come as a failed gesture or sheer mockery, and the plastic could stand for all the litter that refuses to biodegrade. More plastic covers the ends of the work’s messier fourth component — dozens of branches heaped in a corner and reaching to almost human height. Even so, this room, too, stands largely empty, and pools of moisture from the fallen trees are drying out. One might be grateful to slip behind the north wall for a view of the Yards and into the light.
Donnelly has a history of operatic conceptual and performance art, riding into one installation on a horse, and this is no exception. When she curated MoMA’s permanent collection in 2012, as “Artist’s Choice,” she did not shy away from big postwar art at that. Just what, though, does Carmen have to do with the death of trees? Are they both beloved but tragic heroes, like a model ecosystem in art by Anicka Yi or Maya Lin, and are she and nature alike the free spirits in a song titled “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (or “love is a rebellious bird”)? Is Carmen speaking instead for climate change deniers and an unfeeling humanity when she asks, “When will I love you?” Alas, she answers, “Maybe never, maybe tomorrow . . . / But not today, that’s for sure!”
Of course, ignorance for a critic like me is no excuse, even if I also had to rely on other reviews to know that one trunk belongs to a redwood and the other to a pine. Still, Donnelly is willing to sacrifice a degree of coherence in the interest of darkness and impact. The Hudson Yards itself plopped down to the north of the Chelsea galleries and the west of Penn Station like a very rude and very expensive intruder. By the time it is done, it will hold offices, apartments, shops, restaurants, an observation deck, and a hotel along with the arts center. One can already ascend a towering sculpture in its central plaza by Thomas Heatherwick, called for now The Vessel. Yet it feels like something dropped into the city from above — and from Asia, the Gulf States, or suburbia.
From a distance, a great building like the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building calls out a welcome, and tourists and New Yorkers alike respond. Hudson Yard simply ignores you. Its sheer bulk says that it is here, and you are not. The angled cuts at the very top of two of the five existing towers, as if they were leaning into one another, further suggests that they are talking not to you, but to each other. The residences set aside ten percent for affordable housing — or just over four hundred units. Set amid so much wealth, that, too, could stand for the threats to lives and the planet.
The Shed, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the Rockwell Group, takes the most risks, which is all to the good. Yet it looks like, well, a shed wrapped in shiny plastic. When New York’s ban on plastic bags finally kicks in, it should be the first to go. Its director, Alex Poots, formerly ran the arts program at the Park Avenue Armory, with overblown and woefully overpriced events, and star performers here are already on the bill. Donnelly does, though, suggest that the galleries hold real promise, along with the challenge to fill them more than halfway — and for now, but only for now, they are even free. Whether one can still love them after she is gone remains, like Carmen’s song, an open question.