Los Angeles

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, On Making Earth, 1970–, manure, soil, worms, wood, burlap sacks, dimensions variable.

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, On Making Earth, 1970–, manure, soil, worms, wood, burlap sacks, dimensions variable.

The Harrisons

Various Small Fires

A United Nations report on global biodiversity and ecosystems confirmed this past May what many in the science community had long claimed: Not only is the earth’s biosphere deteriorating at a rate unpre-cedented in human history, but humans are the main drivers of this rapid decline. Approximately one million animal and plant species are expected to face extinction over the next several decades, at a speed tens to hundreds of times faster than that of the past ten million years. The Harrisons, as the artist duo Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison are called, addressed this existential crisis head-on in “Counter Extinction Work,” their recent survey exhibition at Various Small Fires. Progenitors of the ecological art movement, the Harrisons began making work that “benefited the ecosystem” around 1970. (The couple worked collaboratively from 1969 to 2012; Newton has continued to work since Helen’s passing last year.) Whereas many of their well-known early works—such as Survival Piece I, Air, Earth, Water, Interface: Annual Hog Pasture Mix and Survival Piece III Farm Fish Feast, both 1971—focused on the production and management of discrete ecosystems, their later works have involved rigorously researched proposals to intervene in existing landscapes to bring about large-scale transformations and continuous regeneration.

The Harrisons’ earliest significant ecological work, Making Earth, 1970, was represented in two different forms in the exhibition and aptly conveyed how “countering extinction” might be approached in both symbolic and literal terms. In one corner of the main gallery hung Making Earth (1970), 2019, a series of six captioned photographs that depict Newton performing Making Earth for the first time at the University of California, San Diego. Viewing topsoil itself as “endangered” due to modern farming technologies, Newton combined sand, clay, sewage sludge, manure, leaves, and worms into a stinking pile that he watered and turned regularly for four months. This process resulted in arable earth, which Helen used to grow strawberry plants for her work Making Strawberry Jam, 1972, not on view here. Adjacent to these photographs was On Making Earth, 1970–, an open wooden box filled with locally sourced soil, manure, and worms, a living system to be watered and aerated every few days by the gallery staff, its yield to be distributed to visitors at the exhibition’s conclusion.

The other pieces in the exhibition examined the manifold effects of climate change in a speculative manner. In their first work to deal with global warming, The Waters Will Rise Gracefully; As I Will Help You and You Will Help Me (A Prophesy), 1979, the Harrisons designed a world map demonstrating the future impact of rising sea levels. Three columns of cursive script describe, in poem-like fashion, the swollen rivers and seas, the shrinking continental landmasses, the altered biomes, and the migrations of various species around the earth. Garden of Hot Winds and Warm Rains (A Prophesy), 1996, consists of handwritten text and colored-pencil drawings suggesting two different biodiverse and harvest-producing solutions for surviving a temperature change of three degrees Celsius in Bonn, where the work was commissioned. (The UN report estimates that the earth has warmed one degree Celsius since the nineteenth century and recommends limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, since even an increase of one and a half to two degrees would cause extreme weather changes, severe droughts, extinctions of terrestrial species, and other dramatic effects worldwide.) In a similar work, Tibet Is the High Ground (Counter Extinction Work I), 2008–, the Tibetan Plateau appears in the center of a topological map; printed text on the left side emphasizes the imperative that a new form of transcontinental governance be established for the region, given that 80 percent of the area’s glaciers are predicted to melt within the next few decades.(Other parts of this larger project—not on view here—include a proposal to recultivate the newly exposed lands with soils and vegetation that would retain and gradually release water into local rivers.)

How is the Harrisons’ work different from that of designers and planners? For one, the success of their projects does not depend on their implementation (though some of their works have been realized). The Harrisons’ legacy will be their ability to reimagine what kinds of relationships humans could have with the land and with other species. The survival of our own species demands nothing less.