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Pioneer eco-artists spin web of nature, culture and ideas

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

To call them artists is fine -- that's how they identify themselves -- but only if you think about that classification in a very broad and very contemporary way.

This view of "Future Garden -- Part 1: The Endangered Meadows of Europe," built in Bonn, Germany, suggests the size and complexity of eco-projects developed by California artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. The internationally acclaimed couple will give a free public lecture tomorrow at Carnegie Mellon University about ways to reinstate "disabused natural systems."

If "artist" is the umbrella, huddled under it in the personas of globally acclaimed seminal eco-art figures Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison are historians, ecologists, diplomats, cultural analysts, organizers, activists and ethicists, among others.

This makes sense when one considers the complex systems that they, as artists, address.

The Harrisons -- now faculty emeritus at the University of California, San Diego -- will give a free public lecture at 5 p.m. tomorrow in McConomy Auditorium in the Student Center of Carnegie Mellon University. (For information, call 412-268-2409.)

The Harrison's first large-scale environmental art project was the 1974-84 "Lagoon Cycle," a study of aquatic ecosystems and the cultures of California and Sri Lanka. It was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is now in the collection of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Currently, they're working on "Peninsula Europe," sponsored by the European Union. The aim of the project is to "consider" (the term they use for their gentle, inclusive approach to the socio-biological terrains they investigate) nothing less than the mountain ranges and watersheds of Europe. Their proposal involves biodiversity ribbons flowing, protected, across the mountains.

The Harrisons first proposed a "Biodiversity Ring" in a mid-1990s project in Holland, "A Green Heart Vision." The ring would serve as a transition zone about a mile wide that would separate a growing metro area from an agricultural center with historic landscape. Seen as an "eco-cultural amenity," the ring would not only delineate a boundary between the two, but would contribute to the purification of air and water and act as a teaching resource as well as a bio-indicator of the well-being of the region's habitats.

What separates their approach from that of other planners, urban and environmental, is the tenor of their examination. They are poetic but pragmatic, insistent yet gentle, and while vested with urgency are also aware of the persistence of rhythms that have their own pace. They are also inclusive beyond multiculturalism and diversity, since they embrace all factors of place, not just the human component.

A report on the "Green Heart Vision" says that the major focus of the Harrison Studio is "reconciling the contradictions that emerge from the confrontation between cultural diversity, bio-diversity and a globally shrinking resource base."

It's a lot to take on, and many have tried without success. But because of the breadth -- and the wisdom -- of their approach, it seems they have a chance.

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