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Under the current administration, national parks face massive budget cuts. Protected U.S. monuments are shrinking, and as the budget for national parks decreases, admission costs are rising. Next year, entry to parks like Yosemite could cost as much as admission to Six Flags.

In light of the heightened barriers to access to America’s protected lands, a new exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center wants us thinking more about nature, and less about ourselves.

Edward Hines National Forest is an immersive exhibit created for the Hyde Park Art Center by Chicago-based artist Sara Black and Aotearoa New Zealand artist Raewyn Martyn. The suspended catwalk offers a view from above and the experience of moving through an expanded spatial field, while down below, trellis structures of wood and long sheets of cellulose are scattered in various arrangements from floor to ceiling.

On November 19, the artists held a special discussion at the art center with Kim Landsbergen, associate professor of biology and environmental science at Antioch College, and Karsten Lund, assistant curator at the Renaissance Society. The group shared their thoughts on humans’ relationship to nature and the historical tendency to prioritize land’s utility over its ecological functions.

The conversation occurred just a few weeks before President Trump announced his intentions to dramatically downsize two massive national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, telling the crowd of Utah residents that “no one knows better how to use [this land].” The unprotected land will be made available to private enterprises, such as mining and cattle grazing.

In the U.S., conversation about public land has long focused on human use, which Black finds problematic. “When we hear the term ‘use,’ it’s easy to think about it through the lens of capitalism,” she said in the discussion.

Natural exploitation is written into the histories of our nation and our city. Edward Hines, after whom the artists named this exhibit as a “wry gesture,” was the owner of a Chicago-based lumber wholesaler that deforested all of Wisconsin’s Northwoods during the late 19th and early 20th century. The counter-intuitiveness of a national forest named after a lumberman “aims to shift the ground beneath our feet,” the artists said, “and to face all-too-real complications in our environments and their histories.”

Some of those complications include colonial settlers’ acquisition of land, the destruction of various species to accommodate human lifestyles, and the problematic view of forests as a resource depot rather than an ecosystem meriting preservation.

If themes abound in Edward Hines National Forest, literal representation is scarce. Though the exhibit includes “forest” in the title, the artists insist it is not meant to literally mimic a woodland area. “A forest has a different phenomenology, smell, humidity, air flow,” Martyn said. “This space has its own set of those things. We’re not trying to represent the actual forest.”

Instead, the structures of wood and cellulose are intended to recreate the experience of walking through an ecosystem. The artists used lumber from Hayward, Wisconsin, from trees that are genetic descendants of the old-growth Northwoods deforested by Hines’ lumber company.

“This thing needed to work without becoming highly representational, like ‘here’s a trunk,’ and ‘here’s a branch,’” Black said. She noted that the trellis structure utilized in Edward Hines National Forest was actually invented in Wisconsin and was used to transport materials to Chicago, while the 2×6 and the 2×3 trellises were inventions of the Hines-era of the timber industry.

Landsbergen, for one, appreciated the use of art as a gateway to the conversation because it makes the topic more appealing to people of many backgrounds. “I’m gonna roll the dice and say that if I had an ecology talk, you all might not have been there,” she said.

Martyn hopes the exhibit will encourage viewers to pay attention to how they experience their own movement throughout a space, and how elements like changes in light and vantage points affect their experience.

While designing the exhibit with Martyn, Black kept in mind a 19th century painting by Caspar David Friedrich known as “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” In the painting, a man overlooking a seascape from his perch on a rock is the focal point. To Black, the work “represents a common human relationship to the landscape reflected in the attitudes toward the forest or toward everything non-human in the Americas,” she said. “To break away from that worldview is a difficult thing to do. Is our idea of what the forest is perhaps misguided?”

The artists hope these are the questions visitors continue to ponder after they leave the art center. Guests can take home free copies of the “Edward Hines National Forest Use Book,” a custom-published imitation of the original national forest preserve document issued by the secretary of agriculture in the early 20th century. The book has over 100 pages of historical information regarding deforestation, interviews by the artists with various nature authorities, photos of U.S. forests by the artists and more. It also includes an insert about www.trumpforest.com, a website where people can donate to have trees planted to “offset [President] Trump’s monumental stupidity.”

“Edward Hines National Forest” is sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Creative New Zealand, Chicago Community Trust, the Artist Advocates and Patricia Swanson. When the exhibit closes on February 11, 2018, the majority of the wood will be redistributed to the Rebuilding Exchange, while the rest of the wood and cellulose will be shipped to New Zealand for a new exhibit.

The November 19 discussion concluded on the note of biophilia, which Landsbergen defines as the ability to recognize a living thing’s right to exist. “Biophilia is a way of unlocking your empathy,” she went on.

It doesn’t have to start with a trip to Yosemite, or any park requiring a $70 entrance fee. “You can just look at what’s growing in the cracks of your sidewalk.”

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Free admission. (773) 324-5520. hydeparkart.org

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