Helen and Newton Harrison became eligible for inclusion in this narrative when, early in their careers, they eliminated paint and canvas in order to include actual trees, real dirt, and living fish as their art mediums.
Dissolving the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘artifice’ is a theme that courses through the chronicle of 20th and 21st century art. Helen and Newton Harrison became eligible for inclusion in this narrative when, early in their careers, they eliminated paint and canvas in order to include actual trees, real dirt, and living fish as their art mediums. In this manner they joined the legacy established by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who introduced everyday materials into their two-dimensional artworks about 1912. Their mutiny took the form of pasting extraneous material to the surface of their pictures, thereby eliminating painted ‘representation’ and ‘illusion’. Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), the French poet and art critic, upheld the decision by announcing: “Paint with whatever material you please – with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, painted paper, or newspapers.”6
An illustrious roster of artists have been gleaning materials from real-world contexts ever since. They share the desire to replace ‘realism’ with ‘real’, and ‘lifelike’ with ‘life’.
– Francis Bacon (1909-1992): “I use all sorts of things to work with: old brooms, old sweaters, and all kinds of peculiar tools and materials… I paint to excite myself, and make something for myself.”7
– Allan Kaprow (1927-2006): “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, food, chairs, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists…”8
– Claes Oldenburg (born 1929): “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”9
-Andy Goldsworthy (born 1956): “I enjoy the freedom of just using my hands and “found” tools–a sharp stone, the quill of a feather, thorns. I take the opportunities each day offers: if it is snowing, I work with snow, at leaf-fall it will be with leaves; a blown-over tree becomes a source of twigs and branches. I stop at a place or pick up a material because I feel that there is something to be discovered.”10
-Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008): “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t. I want it to look like something it is.” And “I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.” And “A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil, and fabric.”11
-The following artists in this book rejected engineered and manufactured art mediums. They contributed to the dissolution of art and artifice by replacing conventional art mediums with sachet bags (Eke), shovels (Reyes), meat (Schneemann), crystals (Steiner/Lenzlinger), straw and human flesh (Gelitin), river water (Haacke), icicles (Goldsworthy), weeds (Fournier), stones (Kaprow), and urine (Lee). Art mediums that take the form of real life substances play triple roles by contributing the art work’s materiality, its formal attributes, and its subject matter. Explain how the material choice for the Harrisons’ Survival Series and any two of these examples added a four role by also conveying the work’s environmental theme.
d. The principle, ‘art equals life’ took a detour when Helen Harrison stated, “…the tank is not a lagoon nor is a tidal pond neither does the mixing of fresh and salt water make it an estuary. Filters are not the cleansing of the tides, water from the hoses is not a monsoon, lights and heaters are not the sun and crabs in the tank do not make a life web…Yet, the metaphor for nature is a strong metaphor, that draws attention away from the destruction of habitats, a valuable metaphor that will lead to the regeneration of habitats but it’s only a tank.”12 Helen Harrison was not objecting to the artifice of art mediums. She directed her critique at gallery and museum settings that are designed to eliminate the manifold, dynamic, and unpredictable forces that drive actual ecosystems.
Eco artists are particularly inclined to abandon gallery presentations because they seek engagements with these forces. However, the Harrisons’ made the reverse decision. Instead of moving their living mediums outdoors, they abandoned living mediums, stayed indoors, and exhibited charts, maps, diagrams, and statistics. Their motive was to present the full complexity of the planet in which social, biological, hydrological, geological, atmospheric, political, and economic systems comprise the multi-layered dynamics of any given event.
Identify the settings where viewers would encounter art that consists of sachet bags (Eke), shovels (Reyes), meat (Schneemann), crystals (Steiner/Lenzlinger), straw and human flesh (Gelitin), river water (Haacke), icicles (Goldsworthy), weeds (Fournier), stones (Kaprow), and urine (Lee). Discuss one example where the specific setting was essential for conveying the artist’s message.
6 Appolinaire, Guillaume, The Cubist Painters. In Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. University of California Press. 1968, p. 232.
9 Oldenburg, Claes, “I Am For an Art” Store Days, May 1961
11 Robert Rauschenberg in Susan Hapgood’s Neo-Dada, Redefining Art 1958-1962, p.18
12 Transdiscourse 1: Mediated Environments, Andrea Gleiniger, Angelika Hilbeck, Jill Scott, Springer Vienna Architecture, December 1, 2010, “Helen and Newton Harrison in Conversation with Brandon Ballengee,” p 55.