Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

For nearly 15 years Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison have been working on The Lagoon Cycle, a remarkable text/image epic, exhibited in toto for the first time by the Johnson Museum. The Lagoon Cycle is organized into seven separate sections called “lagoons,” which have been exhibited individually and revised since the early ’70s. Though the sections were not constructed in their present order, together they form an elaborative, chronological narrative detailing the growth of the Harrisons’ awareness of crucial environmental issues.

The cycle begins with a brief preface, followed by “The First Lagoon: The Lagoon at Upouveli.” Using poetic handwritten texts, large hand-painted photographs, and maps, the two narrators review their experiences in Sri Lanka, where an efficient reservoir system and dozens of crab-filled lagoons have made this densely populated island largely self-sufficient for centuries. The narrators discover that modernization has begun to threaten the island’s balance, but the people there with whom they talk have radically different ideas about how Sri Lanka should proceed. The narrators visit an old fisherman who has spent his life harvesting crabs and prawns from a lagoon on the island’s eastern coast. When they learn from him that the crabs can live in pools as small as four by five paces, they realize that the crabs’ environment could be synthesized.

In the second and third “lagoons”—“Sea Grant” and “The House of Crabs”—texts, diagrams, and photographs follow the Harrisons’ attempt to grow crabs imported from Sri Lanka in two tanks and, later, “because the crabs grew so well in the tanks,” in a larger “house of crabs” in a private outdoor pond in Los Angeles. As they learn more about crabs, they begin to dream on a very large scale. The fourth section—“On Mixing, Mapping and Territory”—reveals plans to develop a large lagoon, capable of growing crabs and other organisms, on land in the Imperial Valley in Southern California, between the Salton Sea and the freshwater All-American Canal. (A lagoon, they’ve previously discovered, is the “broth” that develops where fresh and salt waters mingle.) Their plans, however, are compromised by the fact that the herbicides used in the Imperial Valley drain into the Salton Sea, killing aquatic life. The fifth “lagoon”—“From the Salton Sea to the Pacific/From the Salton Sea to the Gulf”—details plans to purify the Salton Sea by creating a drainage channel to either the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of California. While these plans are convincingly detailed with maps and photographs, the narrators realize finally that by focusing so closely on their particular goals, they’ve forgotten something: if they flush the Salton Sea’s contamination into the ocean or the gulf, “who will flush the ocean/who will flush the gulf.”

The sixth “lagoon”—“On Metaphor and Discourse”—focuses on the Colorado River system (the source of irrigation for the Imperial Valley) as a discourse between technology and natural process. It questions the real cost of our contemporary belief that high-energy technology is more effective than the older, manual, collaborative Sri Lankan systems. Finally, in the seventh section “The Ring of Fire/The Ring of Water”—we find the long-term justification for the Harrisons’ extended consideration of lagoons. The ring of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean is gradually melting polar ice, which in turn gradually raises the level of the oceans. As the water continues to rise, it will flow up rivers, creating more and larger lagoons, many of which will supplant major population centers. A large map of the world shows what the Earth would look like if all the polar ice melted and the waters rose 300 feet. If the Harrisons’ vision of the future is correct, we’ll be forced to learn to use lagoons effectively.

For the Harrisons, a museum is not a space separated from the world, but a conceptual lagoon where the past and the future flow together to assist us in understanding the present. Their skill with text, and with the photographs and maps, makes one’s journey from one “lagoon” to the next a constant pleasure and fascination. The size of the project and of their plans reflects—and creates—an exhilaration about art’s potential to shift the direction of history. As the Harrisons have said in another work, Hope in Pasadena, 1985, “What has been done can be undone/ What has been done can be questioned/One dam is every dam/One arroyo is every arroyo/ What has been done tan be redone differently.”

Scott MacDonald