Wednesday September 12, 2012

Six flame maple trees are suspended in space; the tops -- or would that be the bottoms? -- hang some eighteen feet above its grassy floor, growing toward the ground instead of the sky.

It feels a bit like one of those troublesome wordy math problems: if there are six trees, 18 feet in height when they were first planted, hanging from buckets 36 feet from the ground, and the trees have grown six feet, how far up in the air are the tops of the trees now? Appar ently still 18 feet, as the trees' growth has been inverted and now loops back toward the sky.

This particular set of trees, a second generation installed in 2007, has replaced the first set -- the first generation envisioned in 1999 by Natalie Jeremijenko, the Australian born artist. (A perhaps little known fact: the four surviving members of the first generation of trees have been replanted in the forest on the Clark Museum campus in Williamstown and can be spotted on the walk up to the recently built Stone Hill Center.)

Initially, the trees were to be installed indoors at Mass MoCA, still upside down of course, a temporary art sculpture that was as much forestry experiment as art project.

But as fate would have it, one of the front buildings on the site at Mass MoCA was torn down, and the trees were able to move outside. The museum hoped they would have a longer life -- perhaps even as long as two seasons, was the thinking back then.

They proved more resilient, ultimately becoming a permanent and, some would say, iconic fixture for the new museum.

For Mass MoCA's director Joe Thompson, the trees have become a sort of symbol for how the museum tends to invert people's expectations of what art is and isn't, turning it, literally, upside down.

"It was immediately the most photographed piece at Mass MoCA. Almost everyone who came or left would photograph themselves with the trees," Thompson said. "I love them as a symbol for the museum, how they invert people's expectations -- located between nature and culture, a natural and a built environment. I like their edginess."

Thompson said he also enjoys the way many people who come to the museum often don't see the trees at first, even those who are looking for them. Most visitors, he says, ask at the front desk where these upside down trees are that they've been hearing about, having just walked underneath them -- a fact that those working at the front desk must then point out.

Perhaps it serves as a reminder to those entering that they had best pay attention: Art is everywhere now, literally "in the air," and so you had better look out for it.

While children love the trees ("the fact that they can run under them," says Thompson, "and that you can get shade, unencumbered by trunks -- it's a good idea to have floating trees,"), adults can find them disturbing.

Some feel that the trees look as if they're suffering, perhaps even being tortured. Hanging there. Unnatural.

But the artist, Jeremijenko, has wondered how any of us could know what a tree does or doesn't feel. Isn't it possible to imagine trees somehow aspiring to be as these rare ones are: hanging in space, above ground -- the only free flying trees in the world as it were, looking down on everyone, there with their five familiar friends?

"Clearly," Thompson said, "we project our own feelings onto the trees."

Having frequently visited many of the fine museums in the Berkshires, I've often wondered about certain familiar pieces of art, whether a painting from one of the longstanding collections or a sculpture serving as a landmark to the museums themselves.

Inspired by Timothy Cahill's award-winning column, "Pri vate Tour," in Berkshire Living magazine, which also looked more closely at a single piece of art, I thought -- why not do the same, only with a more unencumbered approach?

Or, in other words, with almost entirely no art history or visual art experience background and with very little or no previous information about the piece I decided to focus on -- much as, I suspect, most viewers who visit these wonderful museums are doing every day.

I decided to start with the upside down trees outside the entryway of Mass MoCA in North Adams, an installation project called "Tree Logic" that I've long wondered about. It was conceived by Natalie Jeremijenko and installed in 1999, the same year Mass MoCA first opened its doors.

Here is what I saw and some of what I found out when I revisited the trees some 13 years later.