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The Plant-Loving Artist Who Puts Pants on Trees

Peter Coffin’s “Untitled (Tree Pants)” is both silly and serious.

A jaunty selection from Peter Coffin's 2006 series, "Untitled (Tree Pants)."
A jaunty selection from Peter Coffin’s 2006 series, “Untitled (Tree Pants).” all images courtesy Peter Coffin Studio

Trees are beautiful organisms, beacons of both change and stability. Each year, they herald the seasons, their green spring leaves giving way to the fiery hues of autumn. Whole ecosystems are housed in their branches. But have you ever wondered what they would look like in jeans?

Up until a few years ago, a quick trip to Sweden would let you find out. Dispersed about the grounds of Malmö’s storied Wanås Konst sculpture park stood “Untitled (Tree Pants),” a series of trees dressed up by the New York-based artist Peter Coffin.

Coffin has always enjoyed playing in the overlap between human and natural systems.* His works include a human-sized version of a bowerbird’s nest made entirely out of blue objects, and a model of the universe inside a hollow log.

The seeds for the Tree Pants piece were planted years ago, when Coffin was a child in California. On shopping trips to the clothing retailer Miller’s Outpost, he often found himself drawn in by the Levi’s display. “They had these giant jeans,” he says. “They sort of stuck in my mind.”

Decades later, while working on an exhibition at the Wanås Foundation, he recalled those giant pants. “We were surrounded by these serene woods, and I thought it’d be fun to do something silly in that context,” he says. Without telling anyone, he got ahold of some denim, roped in a seamster, and decked out a particularly attractive tree in a pair of well-fitting jeans.

It was supposed to be a kind of prank—a one-time, anonymous poke in the ribs of a serious artistic institution. But visitors couldn’t get enough. “People got such a kick out of it, the sculpture park convinced me to do many more,” Coffin says. He spent a few months cruising around the woods in a four-wheel-drive cherrypicker, looking for models—attractive trees with appropriately positioned limbs.

He reached out to Levi’s, who donated some of those giant jeans, and teamed up with students at a fashion institute in Malmö, who tailored them. “We did about a dozen in the end,” he says.

Some jeans are positioned low on the tree; others higher up. Some blend demurely into the landscape, while others proudly stick out. In one, the jeans partially obscure patches of moss, an effect that is almost cheeky, like a Calvin Klein ad. Another, with crooked branches, looks like it’s kicking up its heels.

By now, those original trees are naked once again—even the best denim can’t hack a decade of Swedish winters. But the idea survives, and Coffin has made new versions for several private collectors. “There’s a pair up in Greenwich, Connecticut,” he says. “There’s a pair out in Amagansett… They exist here and there.”

Over the course of his career, Coffin has worked on a number of other variously vegetal artworks. He has an ongoing project, “Music for Plants,” for which he invites acclaimed musicians to play inside greenhouses, and another multi-genre work based on the illusionistic designs of Japanese gardens. For a photo exhibit at the Horticultural Society of New York that showed the tree pants in all seasons, he put a tiny pair of jeans on a dried-out sunflower.

Although he encourages audiences to find humor in these pieces, he’s careful to note that, in each of these cases, he’s not trying to make fun of the plants. Instead, he wants to point out our own relentless tendency to anthropomorphize things, to ascribe human emotions, lifestyles, and preferences to all kinds of definitively nonhuman entities.

“It’s a funny thing we do,” he says. “I think it’s significant and fun to consider why and how we do it.” Plants are an especially fruitful example of this tendency. “We understand that they’re living,” he says. “But we also think of them as objects. They’re this in-between thing, which is why involve plants in my art.”

Of course, just because Coffin recognizes the goofiness of anthropomorphism doesn’t mean he himself is immune. Indeed, when he thinks back on the work, he can’t help but muse about another potential audience.

“It’s hard to imagine the woods having a sense of humor,” Coffin says. “But if you imagine that they could, they might enjoy something as funny as this.”

*Correction: This post previously stated that Peter Coffin is the nephew of Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson. He is not.