As the adage goes, every young man should plant a tree under which he may recline in the shade in old age. “Brier Patch,” an installation by Hugh Hayden commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, seems to manifest that aphorism across four lawns at Madison Square Park. One hundred wooden elementary school desks are arranged in neat rows reminiscent of nondescript classrooms across the United States. Startlingly, the ordered grid gives way to a tangled, interconnected network: tree trunks shoot through the desks, splintering their pale surfaces, to commingle and intersect their branches above.
Order gives way to entropy. Small shoots become large crowns. Indeed, a brier patch can be a thing of beauty, producing wild thickets of unkempt roses—or it can choke, suffocating in a too-dense snare of roots and branches. Trees—like students, like humans—are communal creatures; they communicate and share nutrients across root systems and tend to sick or dying peers. But they are also ruthless: they intercept each others’ sunlight, suffocating the ones who fail to reach great heights.
Hayden frames this I tree-eat-tree world as a parable for the US education system, which encodes and perpetuates structural inequality—more nature than nurture. Indeed, the conflicts currently embroiling public education cut to the bone of the system’s shortcomings: vicious clashes over teaching Critical Race Theory, teachers’ strikes over the failure of COVID-19 protocols, the use of zip codes to determine the funding and quality of teaching, racial bias within magnet-school admissions. Fittingly, “Brier Patch” is accompanied by public programming about storytelling and education. At a time when traditional institutions are failing, and ad hoc mutual-aid structures have grown in their wake, this could be a new model for learning. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Hugh Hayden, Brier Patch at Madison Square Park, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy. Photo credit: Yasunori Matsui