Partly, he was spying for sections that needed adjusting before “going live”: snaky water lines were still visible, piping elbows were peeking out at the edges, and a few trees were turning brown from shock. Others were tipping over, and more needed to be planted to fill gaps. Some had their tops lopped off. “An eager intern,” explained Finch, “went in there and chopped a bunch of tops off. We noticed a little late.”
But he was also squinting to see if it worked, to place himself simultaneously inside the installation and inside the experience of someone seeing the installation. Did it really look like a section of Redwood National Forest shrunk to 1:100? Was the trick working?
Viewers won’t be able to enter the forest, because in many ways that would ruin the experience of looking, which Finch is infinitely interested in—but Finch and I broke the rules and took a stroll inside, towering like thick-limbed giants in the field of fresh baby trees. We followed the Lost Man Creek bed, which will be dry in the installation but flows and forks in the real version. “The largest tree would be higher than that building,” he said, and pointed to one of the scrapers at the edge of the park. He touched the tops of the trees obsessively, petting the fronds and fingering the ones that were lopped off, looking and re-looking at the configuration of plants.
Finch’s prior installations have played more with light and color than with trees (actually, he’s never worked with trees, or even with landscape) and most involve capturing or entertaining a natural phenomenon for a carefully planned, carefully measured moment.
His recent installation at the Morgan Library mimicked seasonal colors by catching natural light on glass covered with tinted film at minutely calculated moments. He is notorious for his precise calculations and scientific approach to making work; he’s also interested in “the impossible desire to see oneself seeing.”
Here, though the materials are different, the same descriptors apply: Finch is still capturing a natural phenomenon for a carefully planned, measured moment. Using topographical maps provided by the Save the Redwoods League, the landscape was almost exactly replicated. “I might hide a camping family in there to complete the Gestalt effect,” said Finch. The tiny family would be visible from the lookout perch, which is normal human size, and where Finch also wanted to put a classic fixed viewfinder telescope—with glass removed, the view would look magnified, as it would in life. Turns out the used ones are prohibitively expensive to buy.
Though the forest service doesn’t release the exact location of the tallest trees in the forest for fear of vandals (and to avoid over-visiting and stressing out the giants), Finch matched the maps as closely as possible, placing the miniature 1 to 4-foot twins of real trees ranging from 98 to 380 feet tall throughout the landscape.
When I visited, a chain link fence surrounded the work area, but that disappeared at the official opening on October 1. I wondered what would happen if the installation is vandalized, and we laughed at the idea of a voodoo forest. Finch said there will be police around, and if trees get stolen, he can replace them. “Rats too,” he said. “We’re worried about rats burrowing in the dirt.” When I started imagining terrifying bear-size rats running through the redwoods in California, I realized the trick was working.
Go see Spencer Finch’s Lost Man Creek through the winter—the trees will lose their needles, exposing the snowy landscape—and through every season until March 2018.