Helen and Newton Harrison ARE a “Force Majeure”
Sontemporary art critics and historians scurry to identify living artists' predecessors and influences. In an article published yesterday in KQED Arts, a reverse tactic was taken. It identifies two artists, currently active, as art "parents". Helen and Newton Harrison were awarded the distinguished honor of being the progenitors of today's thriving eco art movement.
It is not merely their early entry into art addressing environmental concerns that is being acknowledged. It is the ambitious breadth of the Harrison's initiatives that astonish. They explain, “These are million-square-kilometer problems,” says Newton of the issues that he and Helen address with their work. “What we have to be concerned about is what is happening to the entire planet.” Helen adds. “What we are concerned about is the survival of the people and all living things.”
Currently, the Harrisons are collaborating with a team of UC Berkeley scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe on a 50-year-long project. The Tribe, that has occupied these lands for tens of thousands of years, are contributing ancestral knowledge of the local ecosystem.
The project involves physically moving groups of plant species to higher ground to allow seedlings to acclimate to the warming effects of climate change. This investigation is part of an even bigger project, Force Majeure, which seeks solutions to two global problems - which is why they are conducting these experiments in four different parts of the world: encroaching water levels and rising temperatures.
The ‘art’ component of their environmental initiatives is apparent in the extraordinary maps that are generated with each project. They deviate from non-art maps because they are both expressive and informative, often deviating from map conventions. For example, the Harrisons printed the map of Holland backwards when they made a presentation to members of the Dutch government who had requested that the artists propose a solution to an enormous urban planning problem: how to build hundreds of thousands of new houses while protecting the country’s lush green lowlands in the face of the impending sea rise. Why backwards? Newton explained to angry officials, “Well you’re planning your country backwards, so we printed your map backwards.’”