Four Decades: Selections from the Helen and Newton Harrison Papers

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In 2010 the Stanford University Libraries purchased the archives of Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison.  Within the 170 linear feet of boxes lie the records of four decades of production, from the earliest works of the 1970s to the works-in-progress of the past few years.  Materials include documentary photographs and slides, audio tapes, correspondence, notebooks, blueprints, financial records, grant proposals, newspaper clippings, exhibition catalogs, and computer equipment.

The items on display in the four exhibition cases represent a small fraction of the archive.  Drawn from the records pertaining to four separate projects, they provide a glimpse of the Harrisons’ working processes and the environment in which each project was conceived and created.

The Lagoon Cycle: 1974-84
Atempause: Breathing Space for the Sava River: 1989-90
California Wash: 1996
Peninsula Europe: 2000-08

Curated and designed by Anna Fishaut


The Lagoon Cycle

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The Lagoon Cycle is a multipart work that is at once an ecological research project, a textual meditation, a documentary installation, a philosophical proposal, and a performance. Over the course of a decade, the Harrisons mused on the concept of the lagoon—particularly the estuarial lagoon, where fresh and salt waters meet—and the uniqueness of its existence. A lagoon is an environment in constant flux; it is the home of only specifically evolved organisms. In the early stages of the seven-lagoon project, the Harrisons explore the concept rather directly, on a micro-scale, undertaking the building of lagoon-like environments for crabs native to Sri Lanka (which, the artists determined, would be hardy enough to survive in a museum environment). In later stages, the lagoons become larger and larger in concept: the Salton Sea studded with experimental ponds in order to illustrate its possible desalination; the Colorado River system described before and after the application of dams; the Pacific Ocean rising as the polar ice melts, adding salt to every lagoon. As a whole, the project becomes a series of questions and predictions about interconnectedness, humans in nature, humans affecting nature. The project is also, quite remarkably, a very early representation of global warming, long before it had become a mainstream concept.

Breathing Space for the Sava River

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During a visit to Yugoslavia in 1988 at the invitation of Dr. Hartmut Ern, the Harrisons visited the floodplain of the Sava River, an area of endangered wetlands, endangered species, endangered traditional farms, and endangered forests. Ern, a botanist, and Martin Schneider-Jacoby, an ornithologist, hoped to gain their assistance in proposing a nature preserve running the length of the river, from Ljubljana to Beograd. In response, the Harrisons set about documenting the site in photographs, data sets gathered through literature review and through original research, and local anecdotes. The resulting proposal included recommendations for the re-forming of the current “shape of catastrophe” into something more productive: reed bed purification of the waste waters that flowed into the plain, organic farming in place of factory farming, restriction of further dam construction, and, through the implementation of these recommendations, a sanctuary for threatened birds and other animals.

Not all of the Harrisons’ proposals for large-scale environmental projects make the transition from investigation to implementation, often because of bureaucratic difficulties, sometimes because the proposals are purposely open-ended or of vast scale. Breathing Space for the Sava River did come to fruition through the continuing work of Ern, who shepherded the proposal from approval by the Croatian water board to implementation to—through a phenomenon the artists refer to as “conversational drift”—expansion of the project to the Sava’s sister river, the Drava.

California Wash

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The most common way in which the Harrisons present their work as a “final product” is through exhibitions and catalogs that combine aspects of proposal, documentation, data visualization, imagery, and narrative. Sometimes, as in the case of the Sava River project, that final product expands into the formal implementation of the proposed ecological intervention. California Wash is an example of an even more concrete endpoint: the installation of a tangible work of art—in this case, a mural on the Santa Monica beach promenade that covers the Pico-Kentner outfall.

The mural, installed as a colorful concrete walkway, performs several functions at once: it is a piece of public art; it is a visualization of water’s natural, snaking flow when it is not disrupted by human intervention; it is a purposeful counterpoint to the smell of the polluted waters flowing through the outfall beneath it; it is a memorialization of the area’s former flora and fauna inhabitants; it is a thoroughfare to the beach.

As with so many of the Harrisons’ projects, the realization of California Wash was an effort undertaken in collaboration with experts in the field: landscape architects, designers (the Harrisons’ son, Gabriel, and his wife Vera), and concrete technicians. It is at once earthbound and heady, practical and sculptural.

Peninsula Europe

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Peninsula Europe is the result of a decade-long scientific and philosophical investigation into the effects of global warming on the European continent, as well as the continent’s preparedness (geographically and culturally) for the eventual rise of sea level across the planet. The project is composed of three stages. In the first stage, the Harrisons re-envision the concept of “high ground,” shifting the focus from tree lines to drainage basins and river sources. The result is a new physical shape for the continent, with a way to visualize the zones—the sources of water collection and distribution—that need to be protected most.

In the second stage, the Harrisons present their predictions regarding a sea level rise and a parallel, continent-spanning drought. Their fear, as demonstrated in diagram and in verse, is that Europe, currently overwhelmingly monocultural, will lose the capacity to support itself in the face of sweeping climate change.

The third stage is a proposal for an experiment in global warming response and remediation on the European continent. The Harrisons envision a reforestation of high ground areas across the continent in order to create a stable water-storing environment that can withstand irregular water flow, changing weather systems, and encroaching drought. The most radical aspect of the proposal is its suggestion that the experimental reforestation should be as large in scale as the massive problem it wishes to address.

Yet Peninsula Europe is larger even than the decade it took to complete and the vast geographic area it treats; it is a culmination of a mode of thinking on the part of the Harrisons. It is a collection of scientific and artistic approaches developed over decades and a demonstration of their slow, careful, reasoned approach to understanding the world. Indeed, previous projects become part of the story the Harrisons tell in Peninsula Europe. It’s a synthesis one can witness even across the small presentations in these exhibition cases.

The catalog on view in this exhibition, presented in two languages (and published also in Dutch and French), was published in 2001. It accompanies a 3,000-4,000 square foot traveling exhibition.

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