Examining Isolation Within "Ghost Forest"

Article written by Yasmine Chokrane

Now, more than ever, there’s a temptation to represent the feeling of isolation.

That wasn’t Maya Lin’s only goal in “Ghost Forest,” her public installation piece patiently placed in the center of Madison Square Park.

It reflects the skyscrapers jutting into the horizon by using forty-foot trees stretching into the stratosphere. They are (naked, imposing some illusion of vulnerability) distinct: ashen, desperate. There’s a sense of fatigue walking through, not the uncommon sensation of the sun seeping through your skin, but the empathy felt from a Mother jaded, an Earth made weary.

And it is the Earth that is Lin’s audience in this piece, in addition to its inhabitants. The forty-nine Atlantic White Cedar trees are dispersed evenly throughout the center of Madison Square Park, soaking in life, projecting death. It’s uncomfortable, blended into the shades of green and blue normally coloring Madison Square. Juxtaposed by the heat, a chill trickles down.  Lin captures what it feels to be haunted: the eerie silence, the threat of cold. Her ghost forest is patient, the sort of patience that erupts from despair.

It will only grow more ghostly, according to Lin. As quoted from her website, “this majestic grove of cut trees will slowly turn grayer and more ghostly as the park’s grand  living trees go through all seasons- starting in winter and returning to winter by the end of the installation.” 

As defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a ghost forest is “the watery remains of a once verdant woodland.” This definition makes sense in the context of Lin’s public artwork, characterized by fluidity, a promise of impermanence. It’s off-putting, the installation positioned alongside buildings that have been permanently seared into the collective image of New York City (the Flatiron building, the Met Life tower). 

Beyond the unconventionality, this work incites anxiety visually. Lin intended a disappearance into monotone shades—gradually growing grayer—which recalls a lack of autonomy in itself. However, it’s the vulnerability that intimidates. A sort of natural nudity, the bareness of the trees reflects a decaying ecosystem. The tragic irony is in the fate of the trees used in “Ghost Forest,” which were intended to be destroyed to revitalize New Jersey’s Pine Barrens’ ecosystem.

Due to climate change, there is an intense increase in the number of ghost forests. Dramatic environmental changes and particularly rising sea levels have disturbed lush landscapes, resulting in the image of a forest like the one Lin depicts in her piece. She underlines this growing crisis in this grand metaphor. 

Of course, this piece isn’t the first time that Lin has used her art to draw attention to an environmental issue.  In collaboration with the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Lin organized an interactive project entitled “What Is Missing.” For the past ten years, she has been documenting the ecological loss in New York and other relevant locations in order to raise awareness of the sixth mass extinction of species. This mass extinction is exacerbated by dramatic ecosystem degradation and habitat loss. 

Lin’s works are known to involve the natural world. Nature and its future state are a significant concern for Lin. Having graduated from Yale University in 1981, where she earned a Master of Architecture, she continues concerning herself with construction. Both in regards to large-scale artworks and architectural pieces that draw attention to incredibly intimate emotions and the building of a future for our planet, the fate of which looks hopelessly bleak.

Lin is perhaps most well-known for her Vietnam War Memorial. In the fall of 1980, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation (VVMF) hosted a national competition available to any US citizen over the age of 18 years old. At the age of 21 and an as ambitious undergraduate, Lin produced the winning design and was selected among 1,421 other entries.

Her idea for a “park within a park—a quiet protected place unto itself," as described by the VVMF websitemanaged the perfect vessel for the foundation to commemorate the warriors without unintentionally endorsing the war. To manage this, she—once again—relied on natural components: black granite as a reflective surface, the trees offering the symmetry of the surrounding lawn, and the no-longer isolated monuments.

When the pedestrians pass by, they’re not only confronted with the individual names of soldiers lost to the Vietnam War (the dates of their deaths, the recognition of their sacrifice), but their own images framed by the context of this historic moment.

She attempts a similar effort in “Ghost Forest,” where the even distribution maintains some illusion of symmetry and where—walking through—you almost feel like you’re walking through a mirror, disturbing the balance. 

At the very least, that’s how I felt. I was with people when I happened upon “Ghost Forest,” so there was a stark contrast between the emptiness echoed by the installation and the fullness of the friendship I felt. The space itself was preoccupied, made busy by people desperate to get out under the sun.

I didn’t experience any of the silence, but I experienced a similar introspection that is often born out of that stillness. That was mostly spurred on by the excess of noise—the rushing of cars, the cacophony of barks, the conversation—that was so unfamiliar.

After a year and a half of isolation, I was both excited and uncomfortable by the presence of others. Not because I hadn’t missed socializing, but because my new normal became solitude, against my wishes.

Lin, in her piece, engages with this idea of “normalcy.” She confronts conventions in a climate context—imploring us to question how our “standard” daily lives have contributed to this growing global catastrophe. She also asks us, in a sense, to consider her trees and whether we’d be comfortable with their decay becoming our new normal.

She doesn’t provide a solution to this threat, but this space her piece inhabits does. Hence, the unrealized advantages of public art. Thus, the swarming crowds, excited to inhale air not trapped in their own home, present a possibility. Just as we are/have been collectively capable of contributing to this crisis, we can prevent it from intensifying any further.

But Lin doesn’t say any of this. Instead, she lets the trees whisper for themselves: pressing shadows into social scenes and their looming presence, their feeble arms extended outwards, as they struggle to breathe against the breeze. 


  • Have you visited Maya Lin’s “Ghost Forest”? What were your reactions? Do you think its establishment as a public piece of work affects your understanding of the art? Why?
  • Did quarantine change the way you engaged with the arts—fine or otherwise? If yes, in what ways did they change for the better? In what ways did they change for the worse?
  • What should be the goal for artists, like Lin, who are concerned about the global climate crisis? Should the goal be more education? How has the imperative shifted the general focus for artists like Lin? 











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