New York

“Fragile Ecologies”

Queens Museum of Art

“Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions,” a traveling exhibition, takes a broad look at activist, environmentally oriented art, placing it within its historical and cultural context. The projects of various artists in diverse environments and situations is a central theme of the show, but “Fragile Ecologies” is also concerned with contemporary artists as agents of change. Frequently the work assembled here to represent artists’ recuperative engagement with sites and communities is slight. The ideas are challenging—even abundant—but the images are eviscerated. Perhaps contemporary environmental art identifies and challenges a dangerous dependency on images and asks that we look beyond what is represented to consider the social, political, and cultural factors of environmental degradation. Finally, what this show demonstrates is that this kind of art has raised important theoretical questions with mixed esthetic results.

Breathing Space for the Sava River, Yugoslavia, 1988–90, includes photographic collages, drawings, and notations that refer to Helen Mayer Harrison’s and Newton Harrison’s long, involved interventions with individuals, communities, and countries that have been affected by (and have contributed to) the catastrophic polluting and warming of the Sava River. As is true of much of the work that documents their intervention in troubled sites, this piece is visually frustrating: it does not adequately represent the intellectual and psychological intensity of their practice. Their interactive work draws its power from communication, conversation, and performance: the artists assist communities in finding their own strategies for ecological awareness and action, a practice the records they assemble rarely reflect.

Like Mayer Harrison and Harrison, other artists also accept the limitations of images, emphasizing creative dialogue and public inquiry in their work. Mel Chin’s Revival Field, 1990–93, a collaboration with scientists, is an ongoing experiment that involves sowing and harvesting fibrous plants to detoxify sites—after the plants have absorbed heavy metals, they are gathered and incinerated. Innovative and practical, Buster Simpson’s drainpipes, which are mounted on buildings in Seattle, monitor water and sustain plant life, while his 50-pound limestone plates called River Rolaids or Tums for Nature (1983–present) are placed in rivers to neutralize high levels of acid. Located off the coast of New York City, Betty Beaumont’s Ocean Landmark Project, 1980, is a sculptural shelf made of blocks of recycled coal-ash that regulate ocean dumping while providing a habitat for fish in the region. One of the most interactive projects is Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Flow City (1983–present), which will bring the public into a marine transfer facility to observe—from a pedestrian passage and an elevated viewing-pavilion—the daily process of solid waste management in New York City.

It is this commitment to sustained civic exchange that is the most unusual—and promising—characteristic of environmentally oriented art. The images merely hint at the power of creative and communitarian ideas. Perhaps what these works demand, finally, is a shift in our definition of the relationship between the viewer and the work of art.

Patricia C. Phillips