A Sculpted Land: Ecological Landscape Art of the Harrisons, Patricia Johanson and Agnes Denes

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An image showing detail of Fair Park Lagoon, by Patricia Johanson.
An image showing detail of Fair Park Lagoon, by Patricia Johanson.

An image showing detail of Fair Park Lagoon, by Patricia Johanson.

Environmental art is a form of art that emerged in the 1960s when artists were choosing to explore new ways of making art, as well as new places to make it. The art diverged from the traditional idea of an art object, as a painting, drawing or sculpture in an art gallery, to encompass works that were produced out of the gallery in the landscape and urban environments, in many cases using natural materials in the work’s compositions. What emerged from artists’ interests in the environment, is a new form of art, presently referred to as ecological art, which seeks to improve the ecology of an environment either directly, by repairing an environment and re-establishing ecology through an artistic practice, or in-directly by encouraging people to be environmentally sensitive and consider environmental concerns.

This paper investigates three instances of large-scale landscaping that engage with the ideas of ecology, through non-traditional, ecological art. It presents investigations into works by Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison, Patricia Johanson and Agnes Denes, who have produced artworks in the form of large-scale remedial planting. While the process they employ is similar, each emphasizes different aspects of their projects.

The Harrisons

Landscape restoration art relates to artworks that actively restore a natural environment that has been subject to environmental damage. These works involve a local environment on a large-scale to restore the ecology and biodiversity of a particular area.

In these works, artists work in the environment planting trees, bushes and other flora, as well as in some cases removing introduced species and reintroducing or attracting native animals to restore the natural environmental order of a particular site. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison represent a partnership resulting in one of the earliest practices of landscape restoration art.

The early practice of the Harrisons demonstrated an initial interest in ecology, in the form of investigating specific elements that form part of an ecology, particularly in their Survival Series produced during the 1970s. They initially examined these concepts through a variety of gallery-based works, of which Portable Orchid, 1972-73, is a striking example. Portable Orchid involved the production of an indoor installation involving ‰Û÷twelve four foot in diameter hexagonal redwood boxes, three feet deep, planted with assorted citrus trees, topped by hexagonal redwood light boxes’ that were produced in reaction to the industrial development in Orange County, California, that was threatening the food orchards.[3] In contrast, Survival Piece No. 2: Notations on the Ecosystems of the Western Salt Works (with the Inclusion of Brine Shrimp) (1971), investigated how living organisms react to particular environments.[4]

Works such as the Survival Series represent the Harrisons’ early concern with the environment through close examination of particular themes that later culminated in their large-scale restorative projects. Spoils Pile (1977) epitomizes the change in the Harrisons’ practice in landscape reclamation. In this project, the Harrisons regenerated part of a ‰Û÷spoils’ pile, which was originally a quarry filled with the debris generated by the construction of the Niagara Power Plant,[5] into a meadow useable by the community. To achieve this, they diverted about 3,000 truckloads of earth and organic materials, including mulch of leaves and grass, to transform about 20 acres from clay and rock to a viable meadow with trees and berry patches.[5] This evolving, living work has continued to grow and further the process that the Harrisons initiated.

The Harrisons’ practice has continued to present, involving a number of different institutions and communities. For example, the Assisted Migration Project (1993) was part of the University of Oregon’s Serpentine Lattice Project, intended to restore watershed areas between San Francisco and Alaska.[6] This project actively engaged the university student body, and intentionally encouraged further ecological participation after the Harrisons involvement had ended. The project encouraged fieldwork by art students and provided the foundations for future restorative research, in identifying zones for tree planting, watershed, creeks and wildlife. [6] Their community engagement allows the projects to continue after their involvement has ended,[7] and extends the ecological message beyond the work. This demonstrates the non-direct influence that ecological art can exert, through the raising of awareness.

Serpentine Lattice from Helen and Newton Harrison on Vimeo.

These works involve an extensive consultation process in which the Harrisons confer with a variety of people including journalists, mayors, public officials, artists and farmers to ‰Û÷discover an appropriate solution that optimises twin components: biodiversity, which depends upon the continuity and connectivity of living organisms; and cultural diversity, which requires framing and distinction between communities.'[8]

Collaboration also comes in a different form in the Harrisons’ practice in the form of collaboration with nature itself. This collaboration with nature rather than to benefit an individual or company forms a key part of their practice. As they state:

Our work begins when we perceive an anomaly in the environment that is the result of opposing beliefs or contradictory metaphors. Moments when reality no longer appears seamless and the cost of belief has become outrageous offer the opportunity to create new spaces – first in the mind and thereafter in everyday life. [9]

Thus, while Harrisons have produced a diverse range of works across the world, the maintenance of the environment remains the dominant factor. As they state, regardless of who is commissioning the work that body needs to ‰ÛÏunderstands that [their] fundamental client is the cultural landscape itself, as best [they], with the help of many, can perceive it.‰Û [10]

The Harrisons’ practice demonstrates a multitude of engagements including those with humans in the form of negotiating with industry (for example biologists, engineers, scientists) and local communities (in the form of volunteers, council, local residents) and future generations, as these works are permanent changes to an industrially spoiled ecology that can be enjoyed by future generations. Their practice also demonstrates collaboration with the environment itself as their intent is not to overlay an artwork onto an environment, but to repair the environment, expressing their awareness of environmental concerns particularly of the local area that their artwork exists in as well as reminding future generations to consider and value the natural environment.

Agnes Denes

This generational influence is a key component in another large-scale planting artwork produced by Agnes Denes. Tree Mountain (1996) uses organic growing materials, in the form of trees, to forge an environmental message in society’s mind about deforestation and replanting. While Denes’ most well-known work was Wheatfield: A Confrontation of 1982, which involved the planting of two acres of wheat in Lower Manhattan in New York state, Tree Mountain is a much larger scaled work, realized in 1995, involving much more extensive and permanent remediation to the landscape.

Based on a concept Denes had designed much earlier in 1982,[11] Tree Mountain is a constructed mountain measuring 420 meters long, 270 meters wide and 28 meters high in an elliptical shape, in gravel pits at Pinzi̦, Yl̦jÌ_rvi, Finland, as part of a generational reclamation project.[11] Conceptually, Tree Mountain crosses several boundaries. A total of 100,000 trees were planted in an intricate geometric pattern ‰Û÷derived from a combination of the golden section and sunflower/pineapple pattern designed by Denes.’ [12] Each tree planted has an average lifespan of 400 years, so that trees can be passed down through the generations to the descendants of the original person invited to plant a tree.[13] These people were invited from all over the world.

The trees themselves are significant, as Denes explains:

Trees see so much history, they sway and whisper, hibernate and turn to blossoms. My forests are not landscaping where a tree is put there for contrast among paths and bushes to decorate a park or garden. A serious forest means business, not cutting business or profit, but demanding attention, respect, awe if beautiful and mysterious. [13]

Triangulation of various themes, which is an element present in many of Denes’ works, underpins Tree Mountain, merging science, art and ecology. Tree Mountain was deliberately produced on a site that had been degraded by mining, in an effort to raise awareness and restore the degraded site.[14] This work effectively connects present generations with future generations, encouraging a reverence for the environment.

Tree Mountain illustrates the conceptual nature of these works. It asks the viewer, from whichever generation, to consider the environment in its natural form rather than in an almost sanitized, ecologically ambivalent state, as found in carefully tended, solely aesthetically pleasing parks and gardens that demonstrate a disregard for ecology. Tree Mountain will eventually become a forest, as the trees grow and drop seeds to eventually undo the careful mathematical lines, allowing the natural disorder of nature to again take hold. It represents a long-term environmental message that could be interpreted as reflective of concepts like reforestation.

Patricia Johanson

The practice of Patricia Johanson, which also uses landscape reclamation and remedial planting, contrasts sharply with that of the Harrisons and Denes. Johanson combines decorative design elements with ecological sensibilities to produced ecologically sound, yet aesthetically pleasing sculpted gardens and parks. Fair Park Lagoon (1981) is Patricia Johanson’s earliest large-scale project.[8] The Fair Park Lagoon project transformed the algae-infested waters of the Leonhardt Lagoon, part of the Dallas Museum of Natural History’s Park Complex, from a dangerous eyesore into a popular, ecologically friendly park and tourist attraction,[15] after Johanson’s Plant Drawings for Project exhibition was seen at the Rosa Esman Gallery, New York,[8] in 1978.[16] The lagoon had undergone a process of eutrophication, brought about by an algal bloom caused by a year’s worth of fertilizer being washed into the waters from surrounding lawns.[8]

A view of Fair Park Lagoon, taken in 2007. Image Credit: Justin Cozart

A view of Fair Park Lagoon, taken in 2007. Image Credit: Justin Cozart

Fair Park Lagoon, like many of Johanson’s works, drew on complex design principles, which have been a common thread throughout her practices, dating back to 1968 and the production of Stephen Long in which a 500-meter long, single-line sculpture comprised of the three primary colors, stretched into the horizon to disappear into the vanishing point. The use of lines in her productions, as well as the vanishing perspective, adds a sense of depth and adventure and gives rise to the description ‰Û÷Line Gardens’.[17]

Johanson draws complex sketches that incorporate both visual aesthetic elements as well as ecological concerns, merging science, ecology and art.[18] In preparation for the construction of the sculpture park at the eutrophicated lagoon, Johanson researched ways of restoring the balance of the area and requested several particular species of plants and animals to be used to restore the natural balance of the ecosystem, which included:[8]

‰Û¢ Fifteen bank and emergent plant species

‰Û¢ Four kinds of floating plants

‰Û¢ Three different submerged plants

‰Û¢ Eleven fish species

‰Û¢ Five types of turtles

‰Û¢ Several kinds of ducks.

In addition, she recommended anglers be permitted to fish the waters for introduced fish with the stipulation that they were not permitted to throw them back.[8] This reflected the immediate efforts of Johanson’s remediation, which had the subsequent effect of several species later returning to the lagoon. The other effect was that producing a sculpture park that the community could enjoy also encouraged the community to appreciate and consider the natural environment. Johanson believes that art can heal environmental devastation through the production of sculptural gardens that have engaging aesthetics, while reviving the surrounding ecosystem.[19]

Fair Park Lagoon is a notable example of an artwork bringing ecological awareness to an extended community. By restoring the natural ecology and food web of the area near the Natural History Museum, she provided an ongoing natural history exhibit when visitors to the centre can view native plants and animals living in balance. Contrasting the work of the Harrisons and Denes, Johanson’s use of landscaping design elements creates a more decorative space that is more reflective of the sculptured gardens people expect to see. However, works like Fair Park Lagoon demonstrate that aesthetics need not be at the expense of the local ecology.

The Harrisons, Patricia Johanson and Agnes Denes represent three different ways that landscaping can be used to remedy environmental damage and raise environmental awareness among a community. They engage with these ideas in three distinctly different ways, emphasizing particular aspects of these engagements. The Harrisons work in non-aesthetically oriented planting that concentrates on the environment and encourages community engagement. Denes used geometric planting to show the evolution of a restored forest for generations and encourages consideration of ideas like deforestation and replanting. Johanson uses design principles to achieve decorative restoration for communities to enjoy a visually pleasing yet ecologically sensitive park.

Jade Wildy is an art historian based in Australia. She has a Bachelor of Visual Art from the University of South Australia and a Masters of Art History from the University of Adelaide. She is currently undertaking a Ph.D., investigating the positive impact art can have on ecology.

[1] R. Krauss, ‰ÛÏSculpture in the Expanded Field,‰Û October, vol. 8, pp. 31‰ÛÒ44, Spring 1979.

[2] H. Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996.

[3] H. M. Harrison and N. Harrison, ‰ÛÏSurvival Pieces,‰Û The Harrison Studio, 2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.theharrisonstudio.net/survival_pieces_ii.html. [Accessed: 25-Apr-2010].

[4] C. Adcock, ‰ÛÏConversational Drift: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison,‰Û Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 35 ‰ÛÒ 45, Summer 1992.

[5] H. M. Harrison and N. Harrison, ‰ÛÏThe Harrison Studio Artpark,‰Û The Harrison Studio, 2010. [Online]. Available: http://theharrisonstudio.net/artpark2.html. [Accessed: 06-Oct-2010].

[6] D. Blandy, K. G. Congdon, and Don H. Krug, ‰ÛÏArt, Ecological Restoration, and Art Education,‰Û Studies in Art Education, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 230‰ÛÒ243, Spring 1998.

[7] K. Stiles and P. H. Selz, ‰ÛÏNo-body Told us When to Stop Thinking,‰Û in Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artists’ writings, University of California Press, 1996, pp. 566‰ÛÒ571.

[8] S. Spaid, Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies. Cincinnati OH: Greenmuseum.org and Contemporary Arts Center: Ecoartspace, 2002.

[9] H. M. Harrison and N. Harrison, ‰ÛÏThe Harrison Studio,‰Û The Harrison Studio, 2010. [Online]. Available: http://theharrisonstudio.net/. [Accessed: 02-Jul-2012].

[10] N. Harrison and H. Mayer Harrison, ‰The Harrison Studio: Helen Mayer Harrison, Newton Harrison & Associates,‰Û in Position Papers, Pittsburgh, 2004.

[11] Land and Environmental Art. London: Phaidon, 1998.

[12] A. Denes, ‰Agnes Denes: Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule,‰ Arts and Science Collaborations, Inc, 1995. [Online]. Available: http://www.asci.org/news/featured/denes/denes.html. [Accessed: 06-Oct-2010].

[13] A. Denes, ‰What it Means to Plant a Forest,‰ Green Museum, 2010.

[14] E. Brady, ‰ÛÏAesthetic Regard for Nature in Environmental and Land Art,‰Û Ethics, Place & Environment, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 287‰ÛÒ300, Oct. 2007.

[15] J. Beardsley, Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape, 3rd ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998.

[16] P. Johanson, ‰Patricia Johanson – Resume,‰ Varo Registry of Women Artists, 2010.

[17] M. Lailach, Land Art. K̦ln, London: Taschen, 2007.

[18] P. B. Sanders, ‰ÛÏEco-Art: Strength in Diversity,‰Û Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 77‰ÛÒ81, Summer 1992.

[19] C. Kelley, Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson’s Environmental Projects. Salt Spring Island, B.C: Islands Institute, 2006.