Here in Western New York, we think of the ficus as a resilient house and office plant. Over the course of my travels, however, I’ve seen how gigantic this cultivar can be in the wild, so I was intrigued when I heard a West Coast artist was creating a ficus-related installation for Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center (the same place that gave us art about worm composting in January).
Ruben Ochoa has been documenting and interpreting various cultural phenomenon in Southern California for some time; this is his first major exhibition in the Northeast. Ochoa was interested in how ficus microcarpa nitida (I think that is the name), an invader from Asia widely used to shade the streets of Los Angeles, was making itself part of the manmade as well as natural landscape by tearing up the sidewalks. Ochoa has made a series of photographs of this, as well as a huge photoshopped ficus tree on canvas that looms over much of the installation. At the opening last night, Ochoa noted that while in some areas strategies such as rubber sidewalks (cool!) were being employed so that the trees and hardscaping could coexist, in other districts (like South Central) the tree roots were simply allowed to have their unruly way with the concrete. Ineffective patching with tar and other materials can also be seen. Clearly, Ochoa is exploring the purely formal aspect of how the trees are contributing to an inadvertant root/concrete sculpture, as well as recording a major landscaping problem.
What interests me is the age-old struggle Ochoa documents. Humans attempt to bend the natural world to their benefit with the usual result: nature has its own ideas. Then the retribution: in LA, many mature ficus trees are being removed, along with benefits of their oxygen-producing and cooling canopies. What trees can replace them? Many of the alternatives, like the suggested pink trumpet (Tabebuia impetiginosa) come with problems of their own.
Tree management is an integral and essential part of urban life. Decades ago, Buffalo lost its elm canopy. Many of the trees that replaced the elms were inappropriate; in some cases too many of the same trees were planted. It’s a decision that affects generations to come, and often we don’t put enough thought into it. To me, the ficus trees of Southern California look graceful and beautiful, but I can see why some feel the planting of these non-natives might have been a mistake. Trees and people: having difficulty getting along in LA and I’m sure other places as well.