The Artistic Advancement of Women in Environmental Art – ARTnews.com


From the perspective of 2020, the 1970s glimmer with lost opportunity. In a decade of scandal, stagflation, and political turmoil, an ecological consciousness awakened in tandem with critiques of patriarchy, militarism, and industrialization. Together, these issues prompted discussions about the limits of growth, the dangers of reckless technological development, and the potential for environmental disaster—concerns that still resonate today.

Both the environmental movement of the 1970s and the emerging feminist revolution rejected social and scientific models based on domination in favor of an approach to society and nature that emphasized interconnection. Both sounded alarms about the continuation of the status quo. Both called for a radical reordering of human priorities. The two came together in a philosophy of ecofeminism that paired the liberation of women with the restoration of the natural environment.

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Ecofeminism was powerfully articulated in Carolyn Merchant’s 1980 book, The Death of Nature. A historian of science, Merchant took a skeptical view of the Scientific Revolution, which lies at the heart of the prevailing narrative of Western progress. Instead of regarding the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, and Bacon as laudable advances in human civilization, she linked them to the triumphal subjugation of nature and a more general paradigm that extended to the treatment of women. She described how the organic, female-centered vision of nature was replaced by a mechanistic, patriarchal order organized around the exploitation of natural resources. And she advocated holistic approaches to social organization that reflected the principles of the then-new science of ecology.

Concepts such as these galvanized artists. It is striking how many pioneers of Eco art are also deeply committed feminists. They pursue a feminism that is less about breaking the glass ceiling than about reordering the systems that perpetuate inequity. Their feminism centers on the interconnections of society, nature, and the cosmos. It expresses itself in artworks that make these connections legible.

The Harrisons: The Garden of Hot Winds and Warm Rains, 1996, from the project “Future Gardens,” 1995–. This drawing compares the potential for harvesting two biodiverse botanical groupings, which are adapted to temperature rises in wet and dry climates.
Courtesy Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles came to environmentalism through her roles as artist and mother. She suggested that the practice of “maintenance” commonly associated with domesticity and “women’s work” might serve as a constructive model for the larger social, economic, and political systems that support contemporary life. This conviction blossomed into her life’s work as the unsalaried artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, where she works to dramatize the part played by waste management and recycling in sustaining a healthy city.

Agnes Denes, also a New York–based artist, was deeply involved in the activist feminist community in the 1970s. She was a member of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, which pressured museums to show more art by women, and a founding member of A.I.R., the first women’s co-op gallery in the United States. During those years, she also developed the complex body of work recently presented in a retrospective at The Shed in New York, which featured, among other pieces, documentation of her 1982 Wheatfield, planted on two acres of soil that had been excavated to build the World Trade Center. The iconic photographs of this project, with yellow wheat swaying before Manhattan skyscrapers, served as a reminder that even the mightiest urban system could not survive without the ancient art of agriculture.

Ukeles and Denes share a systemic understanding of reality. “No element of an interlocking cycle can be removed without the collapse of the cycle,” Merchant wrote.¹ Ecofeminist artists espoused a sense of the earth as a living thing and explored Indigenous practices that predated the Scientific Revolution. Ecofeminism did not exclude men. Echoing ideas expressed as well by such visionaries as the famous naturalist John Muir and the futurist Buckminster Fuller, ecofeminism presented a vision of society that leveled hierarchies and emphasized cooperation and collaboration over individual action. In doing so, it set the stage for tendencies such as social practice art, relational aesthetics, and ecological activism that have become widespread today.

 

Helen and Newton Harrison worked together as a husband-and-wife team from 1970 until Helen’s death in 2018. Their collaborative process has provided one of the most influential models of Eco art practice. Drawing on Conceptual art’s use of documentation and charts, the Harrisons combined maps, sketches, and aerial photographs in blueprints that suggest system-wide approaches to specific ecological situations. Accompanying texts include factual descriptions of problems and strategies along with poetic dialogues blending diverse quotes from planners, ecologists, botanists, and foresters with the artists’ own voices. The Harrisons saw themselves as instigators rather than conventional art-makers. They used their position as informed outsiders to insert ideas into policy discussions about land and water use here and abroad. While their proposals have rarely been adopted in toto, their principles have made their way into numerous city plans and environmental projects. A series of proposals for restoration of the damage done to the watershed by the Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena, California, ultimately informed the 1993 design of the 1,300-acre Hahamongna Watershed Park. The plan incorporates such Harrison proposals as recreation areas, flood management, and habitat restoration.

Newton was a sculptor and Helen an English teacher in the New York City school system when they married in 1953. Before they were Eco artists, the Harrisons were political activists. Helen was the New York coordinator for the 1961 Women’s Strike for Peace, which targeted nuclear weapons testing. Later, as part of the protests against American intervention in Vietnam, the duo helped form the Tompkins Square Peace Center. By 1972, they were gaining renown for their environmental work. That year they exhibited at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, the legendary art center cofounded by Judy Chicago, after Arlene Raven overruled other members who resisted participation by a team that included a man. Then, as now, it was difficult to disentangle the Harrisons’ individual contributions to their collaborative work.

The Harrisons: San Diego as the Center of a World, 1974, a drawing comparing possible outcomes of global cooling and warming due to human intervention.

The Harrisons’ language is relational. Asked in a 2010 interview about her overall perspective on the planet, Helen replied: “As we destroy the earth, the ocean, the air we are inevitably destroying all that makes life possible for ourselves.”² To counter this destructive ethos, the Harrisons proposed a gestalt shift: instead of seeing the field of ecology as a small area of human activity, they proposed that humans be viewed as small figures within a larger system of natural forces. From the late 1990s onward, they rethought the scale of their projects, drawing up sweeping plans that regard national borders as artificial boundaries, and piece together formerly separated watersheds, mountains, and land masses to form coherent ecological wholes. Each such work provides a feasible map for the ecological reclamation, restoration, and reinvention of specific watersheds or environmental systems.

For instance, a 2001–04 project titled Peninsula Europe redrew the map of the continent, eliminating political borders so that the natural system of drain basins and forests can be seen as a whole. This chart forms a backdrop for the artists’ suggestions of transnational strategies to establish green farming, restore biodiversity, and redirect irrigation systems. The Harrisons invoke metaphors to dramatize their ideas. Casting a Green Net: Can It Be We Are Seeing a Dragon? (1996–98) imposes the visual image of a dragon over a map of Northern England to present its estuaries as an interconnected whole.

As the devastation created by climate change escalated, the Harrisons’ warnings became sharper. Their last big initiative, an ongoing project begun in 2007 and continued by Newton after Helen’s death, is named The Force Majeure, after the term for extraordinary circumstances that can nullify a legal agreement. Sometimes described as “acts of God,” such conditions are considered beyond the control of the parties involved. The Harrisons use the term to express the forces unleashed by climate change to which we must learn to adapt.

This project introduces a planetwide approach. The Harrisons’ ideas have a utopian tinge that they argued is necessary, given the scale of the dangers. Newton characterizes recent proposals made for Sweden, Scotland, and the Mediterranean under the aegis of Force Majeure as “counter-extinction work.” They involve relocating whole ecosystems, adapting those that remain to the new conditions, creating fully self-sustaining “green cities,” establishing cooperatively owned agricultural commons, enhancing the landscape’s ability to hold water in drought-prone areas, and fostering systems that reverse the entropic loss of carbon dioxide from soil. To implement such plans on the scale necessary, the Harrisons concede, would require radical limits on growth, development, and population.

 

Aviva Rahmani: Blued Tress Symphony, 2015. The painted trees form the opening bass chords, with the rest of the performable score superimposed on a photo of a forest in Oneida County, New York, where Dominion Transmission has planned to expand its natural gas pipeline.
Courtesy Aviva Rahmani.

Artist Aviva Rahmani also makes use of legal ideas. Her Blued Trees Symphony (2015–) is a performance work made with a forest by painting a musical score on the trees. The project poses the question: can the copyright law that protects art be used to protect land in danger of seizure under the rule of eminent domain? Like the Harrisons, Rahmani has deep roots in both feminism and environmentalism. In 1968 she founded the American Ritual Theater to present performances about rape and domestic violence. Then, in the 1970s, she undertook her first works with nature, photographing sunsets and making exchanges between the water from the taps at CalArts in Valencia, California, and the Pacific Ocean. She used plastic bags to transport tap water to the ocean, and replaced it with salt water that she flushed down the toilets at the school.

The various iterations of Blued Trees Symphony are designed to slow the construction of oil and natural gas pipelines across the country. In recent years, there have been numerous demonstrations against such projects, the most prominent being the Dakota Access Pipeline protests staged by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Rahmani decided to take a different tack, inspired by Canadian sculptor Peter von Tiesenhausen, who copyrighted his entire ranch as art in 1996 to forestall the intrusion of a pipeline. The company withdrew its claim before the artist’s gambit could be tested in court.

Maquette of an installation inspired by a court transcript of Aviva Rahmani’s mock trial, featuring suspended translucent panels and painted branches.
Courtesy Aviva Rahmani.

Rahmani went a step further. Instead of copyrighting a single plot of land, she conceived of Blued Trees Symphony as an infinitely expandable artwork. She pits the principle of eminent domain, whereby private land can be claimed in the name of public good, against the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. That piece of legislation protects the moral rights of artists, notably by preventing an owner of a work from altering or destroying it while continuing to display it under the artist’s name. With this in mind, Rahmani has composed a “symphony” whose score is literally written on trees growing on property in danger of being appropriated for a pipeline. She works with landowners and teams of volunteers to mark trees with sine waves in nontoxic blue paint. Each tree represents a note and each cluster of trees a chord. Each third of a mile constitutes a musical measure.

Visitors to the woods can imagine the symphony as the whisper of wind and twittering of birds among the painted trees. Or the symphony can be played on-site by musicians and singers who perform the painted score as they move through the forest. The work can also be realized digitally by feeding aerial GPS images from Google Earth into MuseScore software. Rahmani sees the project as giving trees a kind of agency. Linked together through the symphony, they communicate with each other and with humans.

A Blade of Grass, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that supports activist art and social practice, organized a mock trial to test the legal standing of Rahmani’s work at the Cardozo School of Law in 2018. The judge ordered an injunction against a hypothetical corporation. Earlier, in 2015, the Spectra Energy Corporation had defied a cease-and-desist notice from Rahmani and cut down the painted trees in Peekskill, New York. Undeterred, she has continued to create iterations of the symphony in Upstate New York, Virginia, West Virginia, and Saskatchewan. “All combined, any such litigation slows the corporations from cutting down the trees while other litigation by activists compounds to make it an expensive legal process for them,” Rahmani says. “At the very least, we contributed to drawing attention to the problems.”³

Rahmani is currently working with Native American activist Winona LaDuke to combat a major new oil pipeline designed to transport oil from Canada’s tar sands across Lake Superior. She has plans to add a new one-third-mile-long measure to her project in Minnesota.

 

Betsy Damon’s art practice embodies a stark philosophy, as she explains: “Nothing is worth saying unless it acknowledges interconnectivity.”4 This principle has guided her work since the 1970s, when she put on interactive street performances in New York, handing out pouches of flour as the 7,000 Year Old Woman (an age chosen because it supposedly predates patriarchy) and, as the Blind Beggarwoman, crouching over a begging bowl and asking passersby to share stories. In 1985, when she cast in handmade paper 250 feet of a dry riverbed in Castle Valley, Utah, Damon realized she wanted to create work with a more direct impact on the ecosystem. Since then, she has focused on water, celebrating it as a living thing, a source of life, and a foundation of health.

Betsy Damon: 7,000 Year Old Woman, 1977, performance, New York.
Photo Sue Friedrich.

In 1991 Damon founded Keepers of the Waters, a nonprofit organization that serves as the umbrella for her diverse activities. Though she also creates water-
related drawings and paintings, Damon’s primary aim has been to educate the public about the nature of living water systems and their potential restoration, defining those systems as water deriving from natural sources and flowing exclusively through streams and rivers fashioned by nature. One recurring theme in her projects is water’s ability to cleanse itself when unimpeded by development and industry. Her work has taken her across the United States and to China and Tibet, where she collaborates with local artists, residents, and government officials.

Much of Damon’s current work evolved from a project in China. In 1995, when the country was still sensitive to public assemblies after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, she found herself in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. Overcoming official suspicion by avoiding explicit political messages, she organized a two-week series in which a group of artists produced temporary public artworks and performances that dramatized both the history and consequences of the industrialization of the Funan River. The success of this venture led to a return invitation, this time to create a city park that she dubbed the Living Water Garden. The six-acre site, which opened in 1998, includes a natural wetland that acts as a water cleaning system, an environmental education center, an amphitheater, and interactive water sculptures, including a giant fish that symbolizes regeneration. The Garden’s purpose is to demonstrate the use of natural processes to cleanse water. As with the earlier festival, it was the product of extensive community meetings and discussions about local water conditions.

Damon has taken this model to other locations. She characterizes Keepers of the Waters as a catalyst: while letting control remain in local hands, her organization brings together community leaders and experts, and helps them brainstorm solutions. The point is to facilitate change rather than author a specific solution. Sometimes the process is frustrated by local politics. This was the case in a similarly motivated project in the disadvantaged Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 2012–16. There, Damon worked with a community group to hammer out creative plans to address local water problems. Among the ideas proffered were redirecting rainwater to mitigate flooding and creating a cistern as a centerpiece for an urban park.Despite the enthusiastic input of local artists and residents, Damon said, the project came to naught when it was abruptly canceled by funders seeking a more top-down approach.

One of Damon’s current efforts involves a cleanup of the Mississippi River. Again, the project involves bringing affected parties together—this time with a focus on taking down dams, restoring water flow, and reconnecting small creeks and rivers. Damon’s work routinely involves a wide-ranging educational effort. Her website, blog, and newsletter detail the latest news from scientists, artists, and other activists on issues ranging from the toxicity of tap water throughout the United States to green solutions like reforestation and eco-friendly lawns. She is currently completing a memoir-cum-tool-kit titled A Memory of Living Water that chronicles her journey, lays out her philosophy, and evaluates the activist approaches she has explored.

 

Like Damon, Bonnie Ora Sherk came to Eco art through performance. In the 1970s she undertook a series of works in San Francisco that questioned human dominance over the natural world: she sat in an evening gown in a flooded highway interchange; she turned derelict public spaces into temporary Portable Parks, creating the astonishing sight of farm and zoo animals communing on concrete islands adjacent to a freeway offramp; accompanied by a caged rat, she ate lunch in a cell at the zoo while the tiger next door looked on. She created an entire ecosystem in a museum gallery, complete with trees and various animals, and allowed the constituents to interact. These works culminated in a seven-year project titled The Farm (1974–80), located at the intersection of freeway overpasses in San Francisco—a more expansive, longer-term correlate to the Portable Parks. The Farm comprised organic gardens, an animal sanctuary, art exhibitions, and performance spaces for musicians and actors.

Bonnie Ora Sherk: A Living Library & Think Park, Bryant Park, New York, 1981–83. International Banners surrounding the park to be presented in three different languages.
Courtesy Bonnie Ora Sherk.

This led Sherk to her current work, a series of projects under the title “A Living Library.” In 1981 she envisioned the first one next to the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, which at the time was a drug haven nicknamed Needle Park. Her idea was to create a series of Gardens of Knowledge analogous to the information shelter provided by the nearby library. Gardens around the periphery and in the center featuring different kinds of flora and fauna were to have been the basis for a variety of interactive educational and cultural programming. There were to have been gardens with themes like Mathematics, highlighting patterns in nature, or Religion, exploring the symbolism of various plants. Though the project was never realized, it provided the spark for her current work.

“A Living Library” (Sherk notes that the acronym A.L.L. sums up her ambition to address all living systems) is now a loose set of initiatives in various locations that Sherk hopes will develop into a global network. Supported by grants, the Libraries transform blighted areas by engaging schoolchildren and community members in nature walks, gardening, restoring native plants, and implementing rainwater harvesting systems. These activities are incorporated into educational programs for the local schools’ curricula.

One Living Library is located next to a branch of the public library on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Begun in 2002, the work creates community-run gardens and learning zones in a thirteen-acre park on this island in the East River not far from the United Nations. Programming includes workshops on everything from worms and seed-saving to food security and food sustainability. In San Francisco, A Living Library in Bernal Heights is the beginning of a park that will span the eleven neighborhoods that are part of the Islais Creek Watershed. The project includes the first leg of a nature walk that will link schools, parks, streets, housing development campuses, and other open spaces. Already, the project has transformed a previously barren hill, whose runoff once exacerbated local flooding and sewage overflow, into a lush garden full of native trees and plants.

Bonnie Ora Sherk: A Living Library & Think Park, Bryant Park, New York, 1981–83. Entrance to the Bryant Park Living Library.
Courtesy Bonnie Ora Sherk.

Today, a burgeoning Eco art movement owes many of its assumptions and approaches to the ecofeminist orientation of pioneers like these. Recent MacArthur fellow Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991–) uses targeted plantings to cleanse soil of heavy metals—an iconic example of “green remediation.” Nils Norman has created communal urban farming parks. Amy Balkin seeks out legal ways to make parcels of land and air part of the public domain. All these artists rely on a critique of the instrumentalist ideology of modern capitalism and technology that harks back to Merchant’s analysis of our problematic fixation on progress. Yet recent museum shows by Denes and Ukeles notwithstanding, this kind of art often fails to register in the mainstream art world. Eco art projects typically engage large groups of collaborators from outside the art world, meld art with other forms of cultural expression, blur aesthetic and practical considerations, and generally defy existing commercial and critical frameworks. But as the climate crisis deepens and we look for answers, this may be the art that matters most.

1 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, New York, Harper Collins, 1980, p. 293.
2 Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, interview by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, “The Harrisons,” SexEcology, July 4, 2010, sexecology.org.
3 Aviva Rahmani, quoted  in G. Roger Denson, “Earth Day EcoArt by Aviva Rahmani Confronts Deforestation, Fracking, Nuclear Hazards in Eastern US Woodlands,” Huffington Post, Apr. 21, 2016, huffpost.com.
4 Betsy Damon, “Public Art Visions and Possibilities: From the View of a Practicing Artist,” A Memory of Living Water, forthcoming.

 

This article appears under the title All or Nothing in the May 2020 issue, pp. 40–49.



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