With Manhattan’s Madison Square Park cleared of Maya Lin’s 2021 Ghost Forest installation, a tangled successor that touches on disparities in education, socialization, race, and the American Dream has risen to take its place.
In Brier Patch, on view now through April 24, artist Hugh Hayden has brought the already thorny issues plaguing education to life in a very tangible way. At a time where cities across America are canceling in-person classes and using police to replace sick teachers, Hayden has spread 100 wood school desks erupting with raw branches across four of the park’s lawns—creating both a defensive barrier and protected space underneath, emblematic of a real briar patch.
The Dallas-born and New York-based Hayden, in creating an artificial thicket protected by the raw, “naked” branches of the same wood used to build the desk-and-chair combinations below, turns even the materiality into a comment on the transformative power of education.
“In Hugh Hayden’s project, the overgrown configuration of branches overwhelms and encumbers the placidity of seats of childhood learning,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, in a press release. “Hayden imbues each of his works with intense meaning that, when peeled back, reveals lived experiences about rooted systems in our country and the world. He transforms everyday objects into new forms that expose the properties and purpose of the original source. Brier Patch is both visually powerful and loaded with inherent tensions—growth and stagnation, seduction and peril, individual and community—that ask us to consider how these dichotomies coexist in engrained systems and the work on view.”
Just as the American education system is unbalanced, unevenly distributed, and protective of some while harmful to others, Brier Patch is not evenly spread out or “fortified” as a unified piece. Hayden, who fabricated each desk with timber from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens like Lin before him, has placed a grid of 48 desks on the park’s Oval Lawn, where the solemn rows closely resemble tombstones or architectural columns. (Classrooms with more than 40 students aren’t uncommon in some U.S. cities as districts grapple with budget cuts and teacher burnout.) Each is interconnected by the tangle of branches, representing the individual connections it takes to make up a community, no matter how circuitous they might appear.
A smaller grid sits on the Sparrow Lawn on the park’s northwest corner, while two single desks are intertwined on the Elm Lawn. On the Veteran’s Lawn sits even more desks, but these are open, ungated, and without the tree branches that snake from the rest of the installation, allowing park visitors to sit in them.
Brier Patch is the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s 42nd public art piece commissioned for the park since 2004. Once spring ends and summer begins, the desks will be replaced with Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias’s tectonic Landscape and Memory, which will excavate the park (literally and figuratively) from May 23 through December 4, 2022.