At the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, small groups of plant species weather out a harsh winter under several feet of snow. There’s not much to see, let alone anything that resembles art. But hard though it may be to believe, the specimens are in fact part of the latest game-changing ecological art project by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison.
Widely known as the parents of the eco-art movement, the Harrisons have become world-renowned for using art to tackle environmental problems on a massive, global scale. Over more than four decades, the Santa Cruz-based husband-and-wife team have inspired the public to get behind environmental issues, from climate change to the impact of urbanization on the ecosystem — and on occasion have even successfully helped to bring about high-level environmental policy change.
“These are million-square-kilometer problems,” says Newton of the issues that he and Helen address with their work.
“What we have to be concerned about is what is happening to the entire planet,” Helen says. “What we are concerned about is the survival of the people and all living things.”
The Harrisons’ acclaim is so great that a few years ago the Getty Research Institute and Stanford University both expressed interest in housing their archives. Stanford won. “We are delighted that the Helen and Newton Harrison archive came to Stanford University,” says Peter Blank, Senior Librarian at Stanford’s Bowes Art & Architecture Library. “Their engagement with the hard questions of our day — what are our shared responsibilities on a planet fraught with ecological uncertainties — and the manner in which they integrate the arts and sciences has resulted in a remarkably rich body of work.” And now the artists, who are both in their eighties, are the subject of a kaleidoscopic book, which Random House will put out later this year.
A 50-year-long project in the Sierra Nevada
At Sagehen, the Harrisons are collaborating with a small team of scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe on a 50-year-long project. It involves physically moving groups of plant species like wild rose and red fir to higher ground with the aim of helping the seedlings become resilient both to the warming effects of climate change and at different altitudes. The Sagehen investigation is part of an even bigger project, entitled The Force Majeure, which looks at finding solutions to two problems through conducting experiments in four different parts of the world — encroaching water levels and rising temperatures.
“These are two vast forces that we have speeded up to say the least,” Newton says of co-opting the legal term “force majeure” which means a huge power that cannot be controlled, kind of like an act of god. “We consider them a force majeure. Why? Go ahead and stop them if you can. But there may be a counter-force on the horizon and that is what we search for.”
The Harrisons’ deep interest in involving people of the Washoe Tribe — who for thousands of years have called the Sagehen area and beyond their ancestral home — adds an important dimension to the project because of the Native Americans’ deep knowledge of the local ecosystem and its indigenous species. Tribal elder Benny Fillmore says this is the first time he’s ever been asked by anyone outside of his tribe to collaborate on an art project. “I think it’s really rare in this day and age as tribal members to be given a hand in such a big project,” Fillmore says.
The Harrisons’ ability to connect people and ideas that normally wouldn’t come into contact with one another is one of their greatest assets. Sagehen field station manager, Faerthen Felix, says the station’s relationship with the Harrisons is helping to find a wider audience for important but usually dry scientific data. “The problem is that science is by nature a non-emotional process,” Felix says. “You have to be dispassionate. The data has to speak for itself. But that’s not what humans are like. Emotion is what drives us. And emotion is the raw material that artists use.”
Felix’s colleague, Jeff Brown, says the Harrisons’ art — for instance, the huge, colorful, topographical maps they create for many of their projects — helps transform cold science into a meaningful story. “They’re allowed to get visceral,” Brown says. “They’re allowed to get emotive. They’re allowed to connect with people in ways science just can’t.”
Shaping environmental policy in Holland
This quality has enabled the Harrisons to shape environmental policy. In the mid-1990s, a branch of the Dutch government challenged the artists to solve an enormous urban planning problem: how to build hundreds of thousands of new houses while protecting the country’s lush green lowlands. The Harrisons created beautiful aerial landscape videos to bewitch the initially skeptical officials. They also audaciously exhibited a big map of Holland — printed backwards. “The planners got mad at us and they said, ‘Why have you done this?’ Newton recalls. “And we said, ‘Well you’re planning your country backwards, so we printed your map backwards.’”
“It wasn’t that easy to convince the politicians,” says Adriaan De Regt, who was a cultural official for South Holland at the time the Harrisons undertook their Green Heart of Holland project. “It took some time before they saw that the plan from the Harrisons was a good idea.”
The American couple eventually won over the Dutch officials, who adopted their vision. Bill Fox, who runs the Center for Art and the Environment at the Museum of Nevada and has worked closely with the Harrisons in recent years, says the Harrisons’ work is persuasive because it successfully bridges the worlds of politics and science. “They create these beautiful maps and poetic texts, and do these exhibitions about the problem that really creates empathy for a place,” Fox says. “Once you begin to care about place, you will care about what happens to that place.”
Fomenting environmental activism in San Diego
The Harrisons first met in 1950 at Helen’s family farm in Connecticut. Newton was a budding sculptor still in his teens, and Helen, a few years his senior, a teacher, philosopher and student of English literature. The couple didn’t formally start working on art projects together until 1969, when they both landed jobs at the University of California, San Diego. Newton taught art and Helen ran educational programs.
It was a combination of biological research and the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal book about environmental destruction, that pushed them towards working on art projects in service of the environment together. “We made a decision to do no work that didn’t benefit the ecology, as neither of us could face that alone,” says Newton. “That’s how our collaboration began.”
Electrocuting catfish in London
Sometimes the couple’s art has gotten them into trouble. In 1971, the Harrisons were part of a high-profile exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. For their installation about the sustainability of farming practices, they electrocuted catfish and made stew for museumgoers. It caused an uproar. Helen says that although the fish were humanely killed, many people couldn’t see past the shock value. “People wanted the government to cancel our show,” she says. The tabloid press went berserk. Newton lights up at the memory. “Helen made a weird version of bouillabaisse,” he says. “It smelled so good that nobody went to the other exhibitions.”
Composer Edward Lambert even turned the debacle into a chamber opera entitled The Catfish Conundrum two years ago, with Newton Harrison and the catfish among the characters represented on stage.
Watch a video of the entire opera, performed in 2014 by The Music Troupe of London:
It wasn’t just audiences that balked at the Harrisons’ work in the early days. Because of the couple’s scientific leanings, the art establishment was also fairly hostile towards them in the early years. “It took a while for museums to decide that artists could work in these fields and be artists,” says the Harrisons’ longtime New York dealer Ronald Feldman. “So they had a rough road to get attention for their work as artwork.”
Today, things are different. The Harrisons’ maps, videos and other visual artifacts can fetch up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on the art market, according to Feldman. And Newton and Helen are considered trailblazers. “Many artists work very well with the sciences,” Feldman says. “Newton and Helen have opened that door for everybody.”
The Harrisons aren’t as mobile as they used to be and Helen’s health is particularly fragile. They’re still doggedly focused on their ecological mission, though Newton cautions it’s not up to him and Helen to save the Earth. “You need a big community,” he says. “And that community is slowly forming and the question is will it form quickly enough? Or is mass extinction a fact?”