But is it Art?

The tree that ate LA

Here in Western New York, we think of the ficus as a resilient house and office plant. Over the course of my travels, however, I’ve seen how gigantic this cultivar can be in the wild, so I was intrigued when I heard a West Coast artist was creating a ficus-related installation for Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center (the same place that gave us art about worm composting in January).

Ruben Ochoa has been documenting and interpreting various cultural phenomenon in Southern California for some time; this is his first major exhibition in the Northeast. Ochoa was interested in how ficus microcarpa nitida (I think that is the name), an invader from Asia widely used to shade the streets of Los Angeles, was making itself part of the manmade as well as natural landscape by tearing up the sidewalks. Ochoa has made a series of photographs of this, as well as a huge photoshopped ficus tree on canvas that looms over much of the installation. At the opening last night, Ochoa noted that while in some areas strategies such as rubber sidewalks (cool!) were being employed so that the trees and hardscaping could coexist, in other districts (like South Central) the tree roots were simply allowed to have their unruly way with the concrete. Ineffective patching with tar and other materials can also be seen. Clearly, Ochoa is exploring the purely formal aspect of how the trees are contributing to an inadvertant root/concrete sculpture, as well as recording a major landscaping problem.

What interests me is the age-old struggle Ochoa documents. Humans attempt to bend the natural world to their benefit with the usual result: nature has its own ideas. Then the retribution: in LA, many mature ficus trees are being removed, along with benefits of their oxygen-producing and cooling canopies. What trees can replace them? Many of the alternatives, like the suggested pink trumpet (Tabebuia impetiginosa) come with problems of their own.

Tree management is an integral and essential part of urban life. Decades ago, Buffalo lost its elm canopy. Many of the trees that replaced the elms were inappropriate; in some cases too many of the same trees were planted. It’s a decision that affects generations to come, and often we don’t put enough thought into it. To me, the ficus trees of Southern California look graceful and beautiful, but I can see why some feel the planting of these non-natives might have been a mistake. Trees and people: having difficulty getting along in LA and I’m sure other places as well.

Posted by on April 22, 2007 at 6:21 am, in the category But is it Art?.
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8 Responses to “The tree that ate LA”

  1. margarita says:

    What do you think of the Wollemi Pine being made available to the general public? It’s a fairly fast-growing tree that gets to be about 65′ tall. Don’t you think we’ll have problems because people will want to own a bit of history? Is there a better solution, though, to this tree’s conservation?

  2. eliz says:

    65 feet!! Yikes!

    That is exactly the type of tree burbites here would plant in a big long row to shut out their neighbors.

    Interesting, Margarita. I have to admit I had not heard of this.

  3. Art is good.
    I applaud anybody’s attempt at making art and Ochoa is creating discussion by bringing to light the challenges of urban ecology through his photography exhibit.

    I’m less than thrilled with the political metaphorical commentary of immigration that the curator at Hallwalls Art Center had to ‘reach’ for to validate the exhibit though.
    When I read such a far reaching crap filled synopsis it does nothing but causes alarm that the art work cannot stand on its own, – it requires explanation to validate its worth.

    Ochoa documents an urban environmental growth management dilemma , complete with a dog turd resting proudly on the side of the curb.

    If he is truly interested in learning how horticulturists and landscape architects are solving the problems of urban forestry he might take his camera to New York City to photo document some of Geraldine Weinsteins inventive solutions to street tree planting or attend one of her lectures.

    Weinstein was once the director for New York’s Central Park.
    Because of her innovative urban forestry work she was nominated and served as a Loeb fellow at Harvard University’s GSD and the Arnold Arboretum where she educated scores of budding landscape architectural and horticultural students how to solve and plan for urban tree growth management.

    The city of L.A.. might also find it beneficial to do some research on her work. It may just save their carbon footprint, and in a city like L.A.. they can use all the help they can get.

  4. eliz says:

    I agree that no curatorial statement can validate an exhibition, but I’d also caution against judging it from my photographs of a couple of his photographs. I probably should have tried video, as it’s more an installation than a photography show.

  5. Ellis Hollow says:

    The Urban Horticulture Institute at Cornell University (full disclosure: I work there) focuses a lot on site assessment and chosing trees that fit tough urban environments. The website is: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/uhi/

    See especially: “Recommended Urban Trees” http://www.hort.cornell.edu/uhi/outreach/recurbtree

    The specific species are focused on the Northeast, but the general principles can be applied more widely.

  6. ches says:

    Im a hoticulturalist out of LA and i love the ficus they have in beverly hills and in LA, the tree in you picture is located not far from a place i frequent. they are destructive in their rugged beauty, in that they survive in pollution, severe over pruning, and graffitti, not to mention not enough root space. and yet, they survive and go on breaking up the streets and sidewalks. I LOVE IT.

    they are idiots for planting ficus in such small places and deserve the work that they have generated for themselves. i like seeing the sidewalks in downtown broken and mangled because it remind me of how trivial this all is, its the wilderness fighting back, peice by peice, through the cracks, it will recalim the that southern californian swamp that we now refer to as LA county.

  7. KAY RENDINA says:

    I READ WITH INTEREST ABOUT THE TREES IN L.A.AND WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE SIDEWALKS. I’VE VISITED SOME OF THESE AREAS AND USED THEM AS A COMPARISON TO OUR BRADFORD PEAR TREES IN OUR SMALL COMMUNITY HERE IN PA.WHERE THEY CAUSE SOME SIDEWALKS TO SLIGHTLY RISETO THE DISMAY OF MANY WHO FEEL WE SHOULD GET RID OF THE TREES.(OVER MY DEAD BODY).BELEIVE ME, OURS ARE PERFECT COMPARED TO WHAT I HAVE SEEN IN L.A.,CHARLESTON S.C. AND BETHLEHEM,PA.
    HAVING THEM PLANTED WITHOUT ROOT BARRIERS WAS A MISTAKE BUT THEN, WHO KNEW ABOUT SUCH A THING WHEN THEY WERE PLANTED?
    YES IT’S A LIABILITY BUT IF WE DON’T WANT ANYMORE GOVERNMENTS TELLING US HOW TO LIVE OUR LIVES, THEN LETS LOOK OUT FOR OURSELVES AND WATCH WHERE WE ARE GOING.
    BY THE WAY, THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT WE EVER RECEIVE ABOUT OUR TOWN IS, “HOW BEAUTIFUL THE TREES ARE” AND I’M PERSONALLY PROUD TO HAVE TAKEN A PART IN THEIR EXISTENCE.
    KAY

  8. Tony says:

    What are some problems that the tabebuia impetiginosa have? I have one on my property and would like to find out the best way to care for it.

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