For a California resident living under the constant threat of drought, the Harrisons’ recent exhibition at Various Small Fires did not make for reassuring viewing. Proponents of environmental art, this husband-and-wife team comprising Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison has spent the past five decades exposing the ecological destruction wrought by humans and devising various schemes for its amelioration. Made between 1970 and 2017, the pieces on view spanned text-based work, photography, drawing, installation, and video, and were united by a quasi-scientific, pedagogical impulse.
This impulse was felt perhaps most strongly in the nine drawings packed with diagrams and instructions detailing the Harrisons’ “Survival Pieces”––self-contained ecosystems the artists installed in various museums in the early 1970s. These environments, most of them centering on the sustainable cultivation of crops and animals and all of them utilizing wooden architectural frameworks designed by the artists, included an orchard, a fish farm, and a hog pasture. Among the notes in the drawings are directions for preparing large-scale Bacchanalian-sounding feasts using the installations’ harvests, with menus offering battered catfish for 250 people or orange butter and fruit compote for 300. Yet the excitement of the original projects and their attendant events was conveyed only to those viewers willing to wade through the masses of dry, handwritten details.
The show did include a new fabrication of a “Survival Piece,” but it provided few discernible signs of life and was underwhelming. Titled Notations of the Ecosystem of the Cargill Salt Works with the Inclusion of Brine Shrimp and originally constructed in 1971, the work comprised five rectangular basins containing saltwater, algae, and miniature shrimp in the gallery’s courtyard. The basins of water were meant to have varying levels of salinity that would produce different, shifting colors from one compartment to the next, due to the algae’s response to the salt and the shrimp’s eating of the algae. Unforeseen precipitation, however, had diluted the salt levels and led the sections to become a uniform murky green––making for an instructive moment about possible impacts of climate change, perhaps, but not for a compelling installation. The unfortunate circumstances highlighted the difference between this project (whose effects, had they been successful, would have been primarily painterly) and the life-giving gardens and farms that comprise the rest of the series.
A number of works argued for a fundamental reorientation of our present worldview. In The Sacramento Meditations (1977), the Harrisons characterize the development of California’s Central Valley region, which has been propped up by a vast, expensive system of irrigation, as “ecological irrationality.” In Serpentine Lattice (1993), a short slideshow-cum-video, they agitate for the establishment of a fund using 1 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States to save the diminishing North American rainforest, and suggest that we should understand all social, political, and economic systems within the broader sphere of a “Gross National Ecosystem.”
This is timely stuff, no doubt. With a climate change skeptic now leading the Environmental Protection Agency and huge budget cuts slated for its future, the need for ordinary citizens to intervene and preserve our natural world is more urgent than ever. Yet, instead of being moved to action, I came away from the exhibition with a nagging sense of being, well, nagged by the artists. This tactic was exemplified by the wall piece You Have Been Weighted in the Scales, As Have We (2011). Featuring a ticking metronome that could be heard throughout the galleries and two text panels excoriating mankind’s exploitation of Earth’s landscapes, this judgmental work was far less persuasive than a re-creation of a different “Survival Piece” could have been. Having devoted their lives to the environment, the Harrisons clearly feel strongly about the cause. However, besides a brief moment where Helen cried “Imagine!” in Serpentine Lattice, that passion was never palpable in the show, which emphasized didactic material at the expense of engaging works of art.