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Special Issue: Art Intermediation in the United States since 1945: Concepts, Scope, Spaces Edited by Monica Manolescu and Christine Zumello

“Proposals for change”: Art, Ecology and Intermediation in Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s The Lagoon Cycle, Breathing Space for the Sava River and Endangered Meadows of Europe

Monica Manolescu


This article discusses intermediation in three artistic projects by American artists Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018) and Newton Harrison (1932-2022). Entitled The Lagoon Cycle (1973-1984, based in Sri Lanka and the United States), Breathing Space for the Sava River (1989-1990, in the former Yugoslavia) and Endangered Meadows of Europe (1996, in Bonn), these projects defy commodification and openly assert the well-being of ecosystems and ecological change as their main objectives. How is intermediation achieved from these intellectual positions and in these circumstances? The projects have an exhibition component and a performative component of interaction with the social, academic, administrative, institutional or industrial frameworks that surround them (more or less successful depending on the project). They benefited from collaborations with museum institutions, science laboratories, politicians, decision-makers, associations and ordinary citizens. While capital is a major issue for funding these projects and museums represent significant venues where exhibitions were presented, a larger conversation with many of the actors involved was initiated, including the ecosystem itself, which, through the work and beyond it, becomes an agent of its own further dissemination.

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1. Introduction

1This article will try to unravel the various threads of intermediation going in and out of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s artistic projects, in particular three projects developed from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, which included collaborations with and support from politicians, administrators, scientists and ordinary citizens, in addition to science laboratories, associations and museum institutions. In a shift away from the sole question of capital and business in relation to art, intermediation is here understood as the synergy of institutions, people, resources and strategies that allow the work to be initiated, elaborated and further circulated in performative social forms. Intermediation will be examined from the perspective of the artists and the works themselves, through the ways these three projects thematize their own making, as well as their economic and institutional conditioning.

2It can be claimed that a mutation takes place in the strategies of intermediation in the late 1960s, after modernist aesthetic autonomy and the status of the work of art as object came under intense scrutiny. Performance art and land art, in particular, reconfigured the relationship between art and the museum or the gallery. In a 1970 interview that also included Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim referred to this reconfiguration as the “gallery disturbance concept” (quoted in Smithson 242 and commented in Wagner). Actually, what Oppenheim claimed was that he did “not carry a gallery disturbance concept” about with him, that he left it in the gallery, and that the work he did outdoors was “completely outside,” involving no connection to the gallery. In the same interview, Robert Smithson distinctly theorized this reconfiguration as the “dialectic between site and non-site,” which first materialized in a non-site he made in 1968, inspired by Pine Barrens, New Jersey (244). Either “completely outside” or exploring the tension between site and non-site, the work of art enters a new logic of intermediation, which involves not only the artist, gallery owners, museum curators and various sponsors, but also real estate agencies, legal advisors on land property, industrial companies, heavy equipment manufacturers and leasers, geologists etc. This complex ramification of the economic, legal and social aspects of the work of art, of the labor and interaction it involves, becomes increasingly prominent in the context of land art, sometimes acquiring a political and ecological dimension. The enhanced economic and managerial prerogatives of the artist are certainly at stake, but it can be claimed that questions of collaboration and the “extension” of the artist into the world (Wagner) should be regarded as particularly significant in these interactions. This article will examine the plural intermediation at work in three works made by the Harrisons between 1973 and 1996, in the United States, Yugoslavia and Germany.

3Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s The Lagoon Cycle (1973-1984) is a hybrid work that combines poetry, drawings, photographs, maps and experiments documented on a trip to Sri Lanka and conducted in a science laboratory of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of San Diego. The complex anthropologic, scientific and artistic reflection it develops, consolidated by a process of documentation that is part of the work itself, relies on various forms of intermediation that have allowed it to take shape, to be funded and exhibited, leading to its acquisition by the Centre Pompidou. The manifold nature of The Lagoon Cycle (both a series of visible and palpable objects, and processes behind the scenes, feeding into the visual and textual material) required a large number of contributors, interlocutors, venues and sources of funding.

4Atempause: Breathing Space for the Sava River (1989-1990) was a land reclamation project that imagined a nature corridor protecting the Sava River in Yugoslavia. It mobilized a local community, including scientists, associations and galleries, in Berlin and Ljubljana to begin with, before the exhibition traveled to other venues. The Harrisons combined poetry, photographs, maps, technology and ecology with a conceptual drive towards understanding rivers and watersheds in terms of larger discourses and practices that shape them. The historical and geographic context is important here: the Harrisons were American artists working in Yugoslavia in a Cold War context just before the fall of communism, illustrating transatlantic circulation across the Iron Curtain. The combined intermediation of funding, technology, land and human resources was not enough for the project to achieve its goal, which was not simply the purification of the river, but also a larger dialogue about bioregional practices, as well as industrial and agricultural responsibility against a Cold War background.

5Finally, in Endangered Meadows of Europe (1996), the Harrison Studio invested the rooftop of the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn, with a project that consisted in cultivating a large meadow of endangered plants, in collaboration with a professor of geobotany and a participant in a German ecological government program. Meant as an experiment in promoting biodiversity through art spaces, the project was also intermediated by the seeds themselves, carriers of fertility to be disseminated elsewhere, in further “endangered meadows” projects. The partnership between human actors and natural elements (rivers, seeds, meadows) is central to the intermediation process at work in the Harrisons’ art.

2. Prelude: Land Art Intermediation

6Let us briefly consider three iconic land art works built in remote locations and the shift they operated in intermediation: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973-1976) and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977). The contingencies of the site, legal questions pertaining to property, the hiring of building contractors and material, the participation of artisans that made the concrete tunnels and the steel rods according to specific descriptions, the funding obtained from galleries and art foundations in order to create the work and, later, to restore it (in the case of Lightning Field) are all part of a complex network of intermediation deployed by the artists.

  • 1 See also Loe 62-70.

7The process of building The Spiral Jetty is described by Smithson in the essay with the same title published in 1972 and discussed by Bob Phillips, the project foreman and construction manager based in Ogden, Utah (Phillips 184-197).1 The gallerist Virginia Dwan, who provided the funds, Nancy Holt, state officials, construction workers were all involved in various aspects of its making. Smithson obtained the land lease on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah for a period of twenty years to begin with, which in 1971 Smithson requested to be extended in perpetuity (Loe 70). The total cost of building The Spiral Jetty was initially 6,000$, to which the sum of 3,000 $ was added to modify the first version of the work which Smithson was not happy with. In 1971, Smithson commented on the total cost of 9,000$: “It’s about the cost of a gallery show in New York, or it’s not quite as expensive as some people would imagine it to be” (Smithson quoted in Loe 66). This remark highlights a principle of financial equivalence insofar as the making of earthworks is concerned. Similar sums of money are involved in mounting “a gallery show” and creating an earthwork, although they reflect utterly distinct strategies. After the Dwan Gallery closed in 1971, Smithson started looking for other sources of funding. In the years preceding his death in 1973, he sent out fifty proposals to mining industries suggesting collaborations on reclamation projects, but Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (in Emmen, The Netherlands, 1971) is his only completed reclamation project (Boettger 232). The environment of The Spiral Jetty itself included an industrial component, “near an old oil mining region” (Smithson 380) that was part of the logic and contextual interactions of the work.

8For our purposes, let’s emphasize three important aspects of Smithson’s proposals to mining industries, which illustrate his vision of intermediation: his claims that “art can become a physical resource that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist,” that “the artist, ecologist and industrialist must develop in relation to each other, rather than continue to work and to produce in isolation” and a call for the artist’s embrace of the concreteness of the present, which supposes a new relationship with the gallery and the museum: “The artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide a concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists, and not simply present abstractions or utopias” (Smithson 379). In 1999, The Spiral Jetty was acquired by the Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the Estate of the artist (Foreman et al. 83).

9If we take a look at Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, built in the Great Basin Desert in Utah, Holt placed the emphasis distinctly on the large number of collaborators who participated in its construction in the Great Basin Desert in Utah: “2 engineers, 1 astrophysicist, 1 astronomer, 1 surveyor and his assistant, 1 road grader, 2 dump truck operators, 1 carpenter, 3 ditch diggers, 1 concrete mixing truck operator, 1 concrete foreman, 10 concrete pipe company workers, 2 core-drillers, 4 truck drivers, 1 crane operator, 1 rigger, 2 cameramen, 2 soundmen, 1 helicopter pilot, and 4 photography lab workers” (Holt 34). All in all, forty-two people worked on the conception and construction process. Starting from Holt’s quote, Anne Wagner comments on the connections between the spatialization of art and the artist’s work “directing, even becoming the labor of others through a process of production that can only be contracted out” (Wagner). Going beyond the work’s economic implications, Wagner qualifies Holt as an artist who extended herself in and through others: “the special and unfamiliar sense of self-extension her work records. The artist senses her collaborators as quasi prostheses, expanding her presence in and even her grasp of the surrounding world” (Wagner). This is in line with Holt’s own statement that “in making the arrangements and contracting out the work, I became more extended into the world than I’ve ever been before” (Holt 34). Another facet of Holt’s extension into the world consists in the reclamation projects she made later, for instance Dark Star Park (1979-1984) in Arlington, Virginia (completed) and Sky Mound (1984-), in New Jersey, which was not completed.

10The financial and real estate aspects of the construction of Sun Tunnels are mentioned by Holt in her Artforum essay. She bought 40 acres of land in northwestern Utah and defined her position at this point as that of an outsider both to the place and the artworld, using funds from two grants and her own money to finance the work:

I didn’t know anyone there and was outside any art-world structure. I was one individual contacting other individuals.… It was hard involving so many people in making my art. Since my two grants covered only one-third the total cost, and I was financing the other two-thirds with my own money, I had to hustle quite a bit to keep down the cost and get special consideration. Making business deals doesn’t come easy to me; it was often very exasperating. I don’t have any romantic notions about testing the edges of the world that way. It’s just a necessity. It doesn’t lead to anything except the work. (Holt)

11The necessity of funding the work is thus deromanticized and deprived of any notion of experimenting with limits. There is a certain down-to-earth quality in Holt’s statements about funding that echoes Smithson’s, but we should note the gender imbalance between Holt and her male peers who benefited from the support of patronage, unlike her. In 2018, the Dia Art Foundation acquired Sun Tunnels in collaboration with the Holt/Smithson Foundation (Foreman et al. 64-65). From an initial outsider position (according to the artist’s assessment) to a major landmark status, Sun Tunnels has come to occupy an impressive symbolic territory. In 2019, a team of conservators assessed the degree of erosion of the installation. Plans are underway for its restoration by the Dia. Thus, Holt’s extension into the world goes beyond her contracting out the workers who made it in 1973-1976, and reaches out decades later to conservation labor, this time as a celebrated artwork, under the auspices of a prestigious art foundation.

  • 2 For research on Walter De Maria and Lightning Field, see James Nisbet’s books, which have been inva (...)
  • 3 For discussions of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in relation to authorial control, see Beardsle (...)

12Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in Quemado, New Mexico provides yet another version of intermediation.2 Commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation, which is still in charge of maintaining the site, this permanent, site-specific installation situated about 40 miles from the nearest town consists of 400 stainless steel poles arranged in the form of a grid, which measures 1 mile by 1 kilometer and 6 meters. As Nisbet explains, “Dia shepherded every aspect of De Maria’s project, from his first sketch of the work on a hotel napkin in 1972 to its public opening and promotion nearly a decade later” (Nisbet, Second Site 27). De Maria’s article on Lightning Field published in Artforum in 1980 mentions his two principal associates in construction, Robert Fosdick and Helen Winkler. Construction relied on aerial survey combined with computer analysis, on land survey to choose the exact placement of each pole, and on engineering studies to determine the nature of the concrete foundations of the poles for them to hold to winds. De Maria’s article, significantly titled “The Lightning Field. Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics and Statements,” is replete with precise technical details about where the work is located, how the poles were cut and welded, how much they weighed, the exact spaces between them etc. Holt and Smithson similarly calibrated every technical aspect of their respective works, although Smithson’s emphasis on entropy necessarily affecting his work was not shared by De Maria. De Maria argues early on in the article that the extreme precision of the artist’s description should lead to no extrapolation about its deeper meaning: “The sum of the facts does not constitute the work or determine its aesthetics.” The rigorous description and also the clear statement of the desired conditions of perception codified by the artist suggest a tightly framed work, carefully planned in its making and in its expected reception.3 Indeed, The Lightning Field can only be viewed by prior booking of a room in a cabin by the installation, over a 24-hour period, and no photography is permitted. De Maria’s authorial control offers a version of engaging with the work not as collaboration or extension, but rather as a site-specific experience directed by authorial design. The maintenance of the site is funded by several foundations and businesses (Dia, the Lannan Foundation, Gucci and others). The Dia Foundation has replaced bent poles over time (Nisbet, Ecologies 139, 244) and has purchased adjacent land around the installation to protect its viewshed (Nisbet, Second Site 24-26).

13It should be noted that the three examples share a paradoxical characteristic: due to their remoteness (and in the case of The Spiral Jetty, due to its submersion in the Great Salt Lake from 1972 to 1996 and from 1996 to 2002), very few people have actually visited them. Their reception has been based mainly on photographs and films that complement rather than represent the site-specific installations or sculptures: in the case of the Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s and Gianfranco Gorgoni’s photographs, as well as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film; Nancy Holt’s film and photographs of Sun Tunnels published in Artforum; and John Cliett’s photographs of Lightning Field commissioned by De Maria, only a selection of which was published in Artforum and Stern, which constitute the unique authorized print representation of the work. In the tension between site and non-site, the representational circulation of the non-site has dominated our reception, has been formative in the making of a certain canon of land art, and has also shaped our land art imaginary. Despite their remoteness and a certain initial component of marginality (highlighted particularly by Holt’s account), they have become recognized as landmarks and have been commissioned, acquired or maintained by the Dia, thus entering a framework of curatorial stewardship.

  • 4 This is what Mark Cheetham calls a “developmental narrative” starting in land art and extending to (...)
  • 5 Kwon synthesizes Bataille’s arguments in The Accursed Share as follows: “In his 1949 book, The Accu (...)

14Beyond the wealth of details about their construction, funding and promotion out of which I have selected and condensed only a few for the purposes of this article, these emblematic works of land art approach intermediation from distinct (but occasionally overlapping) perspectives. Smithson’s tension between site and non-site, his idea of artist as mediator, Holt’s extension into the world, and De Maria’s reliance on skilled workers for specific aspects of the work are particularly useful, to a certain extent, for our analysis of the Harrisons. These constitute important aspects of the new forms of site-specific art that will come to involve, in the Harrisons’ work, whole communities (from regular citizens to associations and mayors) and large numbers of collaborators across disciplines. It should be noted from the outset that the Harrisons were critical of earthworks which they described as “environmentally destructive” (“On The Endangered Meadows of Europe 15-16).4 It is interesting to connect this pronouncement with Miwon Kwon’s reading of monumental earthworks by Smithson, Heizer and De Maria. Kwon’s discussion does not concern environmental destruction, but rather the fact that, in these instances of epic earthworks, spending money goes hand in hand with spending energy in an act of “massive expenditure or destructive consumption” (Kwon 71), a reading inspired by Bataille’s The Accursed Share (La Part maudite, 1949).5 Starting from Kwon’s comments, Nisbet remarks further on the intertwined relationship between spending money and energy in the large-scale earthworks that propose a certain model of energetics (which is not coherent or unified in the art of the 1960s and 1970s), projected against an interconnected economic system in which earthworks function as “conduits” of energy: “the giant caches of money, materials and labor spent upon the earthworks of De Maria, Heizer and Smithson empty out accumulations of excess energy in a general economy… that inevitably lead to other, more catastrophic, ways of clearing this energy in natural disasters and war” (Nisbet, Land Is Not the Setting 188).

  • 6 In his essay included in the catalogue for The Lagoon Cycle exhibition at Cornell, Carter Ratcliff (...)

15For the Harrisons, this model of energetics is not acceptable, in the sense that although spending capital for artmaking is still a necessity, the creative work does not entail a massive spending of energy. A paradigm of beneficial “attention” to the ecosystem (Harrison and Harrison, The Lagoon Cycle 82) replaces that of expenditure. Keeping energies intact or reducing spending become ideals for “a counterforce,” as shown by the Harrisons’ manifesto, “The Force Majeure. A Manifesto for the 21st Century” (2010).6

3. Grant Proposal: The Lagoon Cycle

  • 7 The question is what exactly the term “ecology” means for the Harrisons at this point in time and h (...)
  • 8 For an analysis of the phenomenon of nature in the museum in the context of land art and ecological (...)
  • 9 On the angry reactions to Survival Piece 3: Portable Fish Farm at the Hayward Gallery in London, se (...)

16Starting from the artistic reference of land art, which constituted a heterogeneous constellation of concepts and practices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison chose ecology as a particularly relevant concern and topic for their future art. Newton Harrison identified the point of distinction that separated Helen and himself from Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson as “dealing with ecology in the full sense of the word,” versus Heizer’s and Smithson’s use of earth “as material” (Harrison and Harrison, “Conversational Drift” 35).7 This aspect becomes manifest early on in a text about Newton Harrison’s performance piece entitled “Making Earth” (1970), where he declared that after the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, he decided to “do only work that benefited the ecosystem in some way” (Harrison and Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure 19). While the “ecosystem” appears as a vast and abstract notion, the Harrisons refined it into the smaller and more manageable category of “localized ecosystems” that “operate on a less-than-global scale” (Harrison and Harrison, “Conversational Drift” 37). These “biomes” (Nisbet, Land Is Not the Setting 217) (re)create specific, small-size ecosystems under laboratory or gallery conditions, but have larger implications on continental or worldwide scales.8 This is one possible version of the Harrisons’ “gallery disturbance concept” that Oppenheim mentioned. One of the purposes of the artists in attempting to duplicate these enclosed environments (fish or crab farms, for instance) was thinking about ecological interdependency, about preserving a species “at risk of collapse” to replenish its population (Harrison and Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure 84) and also about the possibility of human survival resulting from feeding large populations in an inexpensive and sustainable way. Their Survival Pieces (1970-1974) were examples of managing resources to produce food, which occasionally led to concern over their treatment of animals.9

  • 10 For additional information about John Kluge and The Lagoon Cycle, see Rogers 267-268.
  • 11 For a comparison of Smithson and the Harrisons, see David Raskin, “Jetties and Lagoons,” which star (...)

17The Lagoon Cycle, built on the premise of the earlier Survival Pieces, expanded the reproduction of existing ecosystems in controlled environments. Having started out as projects for intermediating between food resources and people, the Survival Pieces and The Lagoon Cycle are at least partly permeated with the logic of production, management and economic sustainability, which they both replicate and question. The First Lagoon comments on the commercial and financial aspects of the crab industry in Sri Lanka, and its unjust effects on the local population, with rising prices for crabs and depleting resources. However, what seems to be the beginning of a solution (transplanting the crab to a laboratory in San Diego and then possibly in the natural environment of the Salton Sea for food production) turns out to be failed, ethically dubious plan that risks reproducing the exploitative procedures criticized in Sri Lanka. As artworks that (on one level) revolve around observing and cultivating plants and animals, and producing food, these works require multiple skills in economy, business, biology, management, and laboratory work, and also input from specialists and expert practitioners in these fields. Funding came primarily from John Kluge, president of Metromedia Company,10 and additional funding came from a sea grant the Harrisons won and that they integrated in the final work, in the Second Lagoon (53). If Smithson, Holt and De Maria had to acquire land or obtain land leases, rent heavy equipment and work with artisans in addition to obtaining gallery funding, the Harrisons moved in a different direction by blurring the boundaries between art and science, acting as experimental scientists, collaborating with scientists and working under the auspices of scientific institutions. It can be argued that a version of this idea of collaboration had been foreshadowed by Smithson’s land reclamation projects (although Smithson never envisaged working with living organisms).11 As professors in the Visual Arts Department of the University of California San Diego, the Harrisons were surrounded by researchers from a variety of disciplines. In a conversation with Rebecca Solnit, Newton mentions that one of “the benefits of teaching at a university rather than an art school is the opportunity for dialogue with professors of other fields” (Solnit 49). The Lagoon Cycle involved a major collaboration with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography around the Harrisons’ project of growing a Sri Lankan crab, Scylla serrata, in a laboratory environment. This preliminary part of The Lagoon Cycle is documented in the final work, exhibited in 1985 at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University.

18The Harrisons designed and developed a tank for growing crabs as a form of experimentation, attempting to reproduce a mangrove ecosystem full of live crabs in a laboratory in San Diego. The project was heuristic in nature, elaborated on a trial-and-error basis. Although its objectives sound exclusively scientific, the science of replicating ecosystems is only a starting point for an artistic deployment and layering of poetry, collage and maps that trace the meanings of the lagoon. Once the tank was built and the crabs brought from Sri Lanka were introduced in their new medium, a series of technical and human failures occurred, in addition to the observation of strange behavior in the crabs due to their expectation of weather (it was monsoon season in Sri Lanka) or to tensions in the crab population (the stronger eating the weaker). Perplexed, the artists conversed with a marine scientist who was interested in somewhat similar issues. This conversation is integrated in the work in the form of poetry, documenting the process that led to a funding application, and suggesting the similar questions that the artists and the scientist are grappling with (to a certain point, with limits to the comparison that will become clear later on):

  • 12 Professor John Isaacs, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

A conversation with John12

We told him we were studying the mangrove crab
and the literature was full of contradictions

He said all the literature was full of contradictions
and maybe that’s what literature was for

We said we spent hours every day with the crabs Some
appeared to learn more quickly than others and had
distinct individual behaviors We were concerned our
empathy might affect results

He told us he was having good results in growing beets in salt
water which might help farmers in the Central Valley
He went to look at his beets every day and wanted them
to grow well
We said we had invented portable fish farms. and a brine
shrimp farm that could grow up to 20,000 lbs an acre
fed by Sav-on liquid plant food

He said he had invented an ocean pump out of irrigation
pipe with a valve and a buoy that through wave
Action alone could bring up nutrient-rich bottom waters
and thus enhance local fisheries
He asked how much would it cost to continue

We said we figured about as much as we had spent out of pocket so far

He said our desires were modest enough

We said we were amazed at the diverse interests of scientists

He said he was amused at the exotic interests of artists

and why didn’t we go for a Sea Grant and do it right

We asked what right was
(Harrison and Harrison, The Lagoon Cycle 51)

  • 13 The Harrisons explain that the first time they applied, the grant was refused, but a revised versio (...)

19The conversational mode is central to The Lagoon Cycle from beginning to end, through the voices of the Lagoonmaker and the Witness. This mode is emblematic of the practice of art as conversation that the Harrisons will continue to develop for decades and that constitutes a tenet of much ecologically-minded and participatory art (Kester). The Harrisons’ sea grant is an example of art exposing its own funding mechanisms (and its multidisciplinary mechanisms as well).13 Rigorously entitled Development of a commercial aquaculture system for the crab Scylla serrata (Forskal) and included in the final work (Harrison and Harrison, The Lagoon Cycle 53), the sea grant includes relevant categories such as “Habitat and tank configuration,” “Behavioral studies,” “Growth rates,” and “Problems.” The ultimate goal is “to bring the project to commercial readiness” (Harrison and Harrison, The Lagoon Cycle 53). While on the surface the sea grant looks entirely serious and non-parodic, the line that precedes it (“We asked what serious was”) suggests a certain distance to the purported objectivity of a scientific approach. A tension sets in between the poetic, dialogic discourse of the Lagoonmaker and the Witness, which is not devoid of friction, on the one hand, and the straightforward, deadpan, smooth, bureaucratic sea grant. The Harrisons did receive the sea grant to which they applied as artists studying the Scylla serrata crab in the laboratory. In an interview, Newton Harrison remarked that the grant was “normally given only to marine biologists” (Harrison and Harrison, “Conversational Drift” 37), thus pointing out the exceptional nature of their success, which suggests both an overlap in research between their art and marine biology, and also the rigor of their own scientific work. But this stage of intermediation is provisional only, since the Lagoonmaker and the Witness will soon embark on a conversation that will reveal the questionable ethics of their scientific endeavor. The commercial purposes announced in the sea grant will never materialize, and The Lagoon Cycle will take a different turn, interrogating and discarding the very idea of making a lagoon in laboratory conditions. As Nisbet puts it, the Harrisons are “bursting the laboratory bubble of the late-sixties model of earth-as-terrarium” (Nisbet, Land Is Not the Setting 225).

20Although it thematizes its own commercial ambitions and its financial resources, at least in its preliminary stages, The Lagoon Cycle transcends these economic models. It moves from the practical to the conceptual, from the market place and from the funding of science to a reflection on environmental ethics, and the interaction between small and large scales. Its intermediation is foregrounded, and so is its own undoing, that is its refusal to endorse a non-sustainable model, which fails to feed multitudes, but does offer food for thought.

4. Nature Corridor: Atempause: Breathing Space for the Sava River

21The next project we will examine shows more fully the international nature of the Harrisons’ career and their ever more diverse collaborations. The Lagoon Cycle had already started with a trip to Sri Lanka, whose lagoons and crabs provided both a source of inspiration and raw material for a study of the mangrove ecosystem in a San Diego laboratory, with a conceptual extension in the Salton Sea. Like all of the Harrisons’ projects, Atempause: Breathing Space for the Sava River is framed by storytelling. Its genesis is described by the artists as follows:

In 1988, while on a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) fellowship in Berlin, we were introduced to Yugoslavia by Hartmut Ern of the Berlin Botanical Garden. He asked if we could not help with the formation of a nature reserve in the area that had once been a no-man’s land situated at the border between the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. After spending time in Yugoslavia and viewing the site, we felt that the idea of a nature reserve, although important, could not succeed in the long run because a reserve would suffer from all the problems of an island ecology and its uniqueness would be under attack from the surrounding industrial farming. Therefore, we proposed a nature corridor that would run the length of the Sava River from its twin beginnings above Ljubljana to its ending in Beograd where it joins the Danube River and supplies the lower Danube with one third of its water. (Harrison and Harrison, “Shifting Positions” 175)

22This passage sheds light on the Harrisons’ creative process and its openness to chance encounters, to what they call “conversational drift.” From Berlin to Yugoslavia, the artists are invited to participate in an endeavor which does not seem to have an artistic component on the face of it (the formation of a nature reserve along the Sava River), but which they place in a continuum of botanical, ecological, technological and artistic concerns. Three notions examined in the preliminary part of this paper (“Prelude”) become particularly prominent: mediation, collaboration and extension. The Lagoon Cycle had already involved more or less successful collaborations and interactions with scientists and businessmen, but its scientific, experimental aspect remained confined to the laboratory because its transference to sites in the open (the Salton Sea) was ultimately deemed unrealistic and unethical. Breathing Space for the Sava River considers another ecosystem (that of the Sava River) and the possibilities of its protection, that come with a change of status (“a nature corridor”). The project takes two intertwined forms: a civic, technical and organizational one (consisting in the attempt to protect the river while at the same time considering the agricultural and industrial context surrounding it) and an artistic one, which materialized in an exhibition shown in Berlin and Ljubljana: Atempause für den Save-Fluss: Die Summe Seiner Geschichte, Beginn Einer Neuen Geschichte sponsored by the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and the Modern Galerija in Ljubljana (1989). The exhibition presented a series of photographs, maps and poems related to the project, included in an exhibition catalogue in English and German. In “Shifting Positions toward the Earth: Art and Environmental Awareness,” Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison insisted on the fact that “the Sava project was more than an exhibition, it was a proposal for change” (176). This ambition that goes beyond the gallery suggests precisely the extension of their work into the world that the Harrisons seek to accomplish. While the exhibition is part of the project and couches the artists’ reflection in the discourses of photography, cartography and poetry, the project’s ultimate goal lies in producing significant change, not only by having impact on the ecosystem, but especially by inducing a shift in understanding and reconsidering it. The contemplative and the active dimensions are thus inseparable. The intended “change” goes beyond the gallery, to the immaterial sites of individual and community consciousness and responsibility. The intermediation of the project is thus twofold: conventionally exhibited in two galleries, Breathing Space for the Sava River seeks to extend itself into the world and convince decision-makers, factories, farmers and inhabitants that change is possible and this specific proposal might bring it about. This is not exactly synonymous with Holt’s extension into the world noted by Wagner. For the Harrisons, their project does not function as an extension of the artists into the world, but rather as a collaborative endeavor that involves individuals and communities, and that leads to shared forms of improvisation. What is indeed extended through the project is a certain conceptual drive originating in the artists, bound to evolve out of conversation and interaction, a certain initial plan they imagined and that is transformed by the input of others.

23The Sava River poem adopts the conversational pose cherished by the Harrisons, which suggests that the proposal is nourished by exchange and collaboration among several partners and interlocutors. Voices belong to “I,” “you” and “he,” referring to the artists and local scientists:

He said
the river Save has two beginnings
the one is an upwelling from a reedbed
the other an outpouring from rock

He took me to the outpouring from rock.
He had been in law, then in advertising
and now was a scientist working with bird habitat.
He was interested in existential questions.

He said
everything is in some sense sentient and deserves respect.

I said
the universe can be understood as a complex, although
finite conversation between its parts which results
in an infinity of improvisations.

He said
we may mean similar things but I will have to think about it.

We spent most of a day together.
We looked at each other’s work as best we could.
At the source I asked if he was not afraid that the life
of the river was at risk from the human desires that were encroaching upon it.

He said
nature exists in secret places and invisible spaces
and will find ways to co-exist.
(Harrison, Atempause für den Save-Fluss, no page number)

24This dialogue is reminiscent of the dialogue in The Lagoon Cycle that precedes the sea grant. Dialogue will be developed further, with “all the major players (ecologically speaking) in the region” (Harrison and Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure 212) and environmentally-minded local citizens (a land architect, an ornithologist). The river is observed within its context of dams, factories and intensive agriculture dependent on toxic fertilizers. Reducing the pollution of the river is only possible by addressing all the interdependent elements of the system. The technology suggested by the Harrisons consisted in using “reed beds,” “swamp purification systems” and “organic farming” that “might help local farmers move into the organic food market” (Atempause für den Save-Fluss, no page number). It is interesting to place these dialogues and solutions in the historical context of 1989 and the Cold War. Two American artists enter an exchange with people, factories and institutions from Yugoslavia, and confront the degradation of the environment in Eastern Europe, after having identified similar problems in their home country. A comparison of environmental damage in the US and Eastern Europe goes beyond the scope of this paper, but we can simply quote Weiner’s dry remark that “most scholarly studies conclude that the sensitivity of East European regimes to environmental values was low” (Weiner 543). The Harrisons’ mention of “organic farming” sounds surreal in the context of 1989 Yugoslavia, since the concept was foreign to the agriculture of East European countries and only made its way in the public consciousness and on East European markets after the fall of communism. The Harrisons’ project received support from the European National Heritage Fund, the Water Department of Croatia, the Nature Protection Agency of Croatia, the Croatian Zoological Society, the Natural History Museum of Zagreb, and other organizations (Harrison 2003, “Shifting Positions” 179). However, the Harrisons’ stay in Yugoslavia and the project itself were interrupted when the civil war broke. Also, as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, a nuclear energy plant was closed and several dams were constructed on the Sava to produce hydroelectric power. According to the Harrisons, the dams “would turn the Sava into a series of lakes and effectively kill the river” (Harrison and Harrison, “Shifting Positions” 176).

25Although the project did not reach completion and was disrupted by war, it set off a discussion about the stories and histories of the Sava River, and about the possibility of rewriting them. Its interrupted intermediation as a “proposal for change” was however supplemented by the exhibition and by its international recognition: Breathing Space for the Sava River was awarded the second prize at the Nagoya Biennale in 1991 and traveled widely to several venues.

5. Dissemination: Endangered Meadows of Europe

26Made in Bonn in 1996, Endangered Meadows of Europe replays the metaphor of conversation on two levels: the meadow as an ecosystem is defined by the artists as a conversation between nature and man (since it thrives on continuous harvesting) and the Harrisons’ art as a conversation with the ecosystem and the communities that inhabit it or seek to understand it. Intermediation hinges on this drive toward conversation as attitude, as philosophy and art practice. Just like Breathing Space for the Sava River, the project has a curatorial and an ecological component going beyond the museum. Petra Kruse and Kai Reschke comment on the specific significance of the project’s museum context in 1996: the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle of the Federal Republic in Bonn was “one of the largest and most prestigious museums in Europe and at that time the showcase of national German art policy,” developing “a modern concept of a museum as compared to the traditional 19-century mission of culture preservation and higher education” (Kruse and Reschke). The Harrisons’ project was therefore meant to exemplify innovative art and to provide an original museum experience. Shifting their attention from the lagoon in Sri Lanka and the Sava River, the Harrisons focus on the meadows of Europe as ecosystem emblematic of the “life web” and as “unique element of the European cultural landscape,” as they define it in a text accompanying the exhibition (Harrison and Harrison 1996, 12-13).

27Kruse and Reschke provide a wealth of information about the material and the organizational aspects of the exhibition, and its official, administrative and political dimensions. Concretely, the Harrisons transferred a 400-year-old meadow from the Eifel area, which would have been destroyed, to the rooftop of the museum, where it was unrolled to cover 6,000 square meters. Three other meadows were added to the initial one. The project benefited from political and organizational support, and attracted a large number of visitors. Angela Merkel, then Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, gave the opening speech, the City of Bonn supported the project, as did Bonn University, the Botanical Garden and the Botanical Institute. The catalogue of the exhibition contained not only a book, but also an envelope containing seeds to be planted by visitors elsewhere (Kruse and Reschke).

28Museum intermediation is one aspect of the larger network of intermediation at work here. The meadow on the rooftop of the museum is a transferred ecosystem from a nearby area, but also an element that the Harrisons inscribe in an art historical tradition, as well as in the history of the projects they had developed over the years. The Harrisons’ insistence on narratives and storytelling complements the visitors’ experience of the meadow and endows it with coherent significance in the absence of that experience. However, as the Harrisons point out, this seemingly coherent significance can only be partial, since a temporal lapse is necessary in order to grasp the new meanings and forms a work acquires. This is what they call “working at the edge of awareness” (Harrison and Harrison, “Conversational Drift” 14). While grounded in the conditions of the present, their works are projected both in the past (embedded in an artistic genealogy that they unsettle and question) and in the future, in what Nisbet calls “second site,” in an evolving state (it is possible to imagine various outcomes for a meadow installation). The museum where the Endangered Meadows project was shown was at the forefront of innovative curatorship and the Harrisons’ text published for the exhibition is in perfect resonance with this ambition. While it identifies the art historical references from which their reflection starts, it insists on a mood of intellectual un-affiliation, dissatisfaction, interrogation and evolution. Endangered Meadows is thus described multi-directionally as “a permanent work of representational sculpture,” “a living color field,” a conceptual work involving collaboration with botanists and ecologists (11), a move away from earthworks (15-16), a way of telling “a new story of place,” a generator of performance due to the sowing and harvesting, “an aid to community formation” (23), and as a memorial to an actual site and to a landscape form. This fluid categorization that actually resists categorization shows a perfect knowledge of the codes and canons of art from within, and also their reinvention (and occasional rejection) by the Harrisons, which are perfectly aligned with the museum’s forward-looking agenda.

29The experimental edge of the Harrisons’ project does not alienate its audience, on the contrary, Endangered Meadows drew many visitors and was particularly popular with families and school groups. The Harrisons bring an element of nature in the city and the museum, let it grow and unravel its significance. They strike a balance between experimentation and popular appeal, between a reflexive, lucid discourse about the origins and purposes of their art and the acknowledgement of its own indeterminacy. But yet again, just like Breathing Space for the Sava River, Endangered Meadows is not simply an exhibition object or experience, but rather a “proposal for change.” Museum intermediation is connected to other forms and practices of intermediation that involve officials, visitors and above all, the seeds themselves. On a conceptual level, the exhibition attempts to argue in favor of cultivating and cherishing meadows as sites of biodiversity, in opposition to the impoverishing grass monoculture of public parks. The dialogic nature of the meadow as biological form, born out of the harvesting of man and the grazing of animals, and sheltering diverse creatures, is a model the artists wish to promote and see replicated elsewhere. Holt’s extension into the world in Sun Tunnels is here redefined to no longer signify the manufacturing of the work in collaboration with a variety of experts, but rather a generative potential that the work might deploy in triggering reflection and disseminating itself.

30Intermediation as dissemination is at the heart of Endangered Meadows. As Kruse and Reschke explain, the mayor of Bonn introduced the seed campaign to other cities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. Seeds from the meadow on the museum rooftop were used in parks in and around Bonn, turning about 4,000 square meters into meadows (Kruse and Reschke). This successful intermediation operates at the level of urban administration and in public spaces, beyond the museum where it originated, showing that the “proposal for change” has been successful. In the manifesto accompanying the exhibition, the Harrisons quote a conditional statement they made on the occasion:

the City of Bonn intentionally restates
the biodiverse elements in the historical landscape,
making them a central theme in its park system,
the City of Bonn becomes the first city in the history of cities to do so.
This event comes to pass when the meadow on the roof of the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, entitled Future Garden, Part 1: The Endangered Meadows of Europe is both recycled and transformed into a new work, Future Garden, Part 2: A Mother Meadow for the Parks of Bonn, situated in the park on the flood plain of the Rhine. (Harrison and Harrison, “Conversational Drift” 21)

31The seeds themselves deserve credit as agents of intermediation, together with museum curators and decision-makers. The work extends into the world through human decision, but also through plant fertilization renewing itself, giving another spin to the gallery disturbance concept and to more conventional forms of intermediation.

32To conclude, the three projects examined here show the evolution of the Harrisons’ work in relation to intermediation. While land art represented their original point of departure, they chose to embrace a distinct approach, intent on being beneficial to ecosystems. An analysis of three emblematic works of land art by Smithson, Holt and De Maria highlighted the ways in which the tension between the gallery and the site became fruitful in the 1970s, and also the ways in which the collaboration of multiple agents and interlocutors intervened in the labor, the funding and the reproduction of these examples of land art. Smithson’s idea about the artist becoming a mediator between the ecologist and the industrialist, and Holt’s remarks on the artist being extended into the world are particularly relevant. The Harrisons’ projects foreground intermediation, integrate economic and financial coordinates, improvise around them and ultimately transcend them (the sea grant reproduced in The Lagoon Cycle). They operate at the juncture between the gallery exhibition and the reclamation project involving officials and local associations in the context of Yugoslavia during the Cold War (Breathing Space for the Sava River). Finally, a successful network of intermediation was instrumental in the dissemination of seeds from a museum meadow installation to the urban context of Bonn (Endangered Meadows of Europe). The conversational principle that underlies the metaphor of the web of life, at the center of the Harrisons’ work, inspired the web of intermediation generated by their “proposals for change,” with vegetal agents themselves made active in (re)generating ideas and urban spaces.

33This article is dedicated to the memory of Newton Harrison (1932-2022).

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Foreman, Kamilah N., Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, and Sophia Larigakis, eds. Dia. An Introduction to Dia’s Location and Sites. Dia Art Foundation, 2021.

Harrison, Helen Mayer, and Newton Harrison. The Lagoon Cycle. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1985.

---. Atempause für den Save-Fluss. Exhibition catalogue, 1989, Accessed June 5 2023.

---. “Conversational Drift: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison” (interviewed by Craig Adcock). Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, 1992, pp. 35-45.

---. “On The Endangered Meadows of Europe.” Kongreßdokumentation. Wiesen und Weiden - ein gefährdetes Kulturerbe Europas, Forum der Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle des Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1996, pp. 11-24.

---. “Shifting Positions Toward the Earth: Art and Environmental Awareness.” Women, Art & Technology, edited by Judy Malloy, MIT P 2003, pp. 160-179.

---. “The Force Majeure. A Manifesto for the 21st Century,” 2010: Accessed June 13 2023.

---. The Time of the Force Majeure. Edited by Petra Kruse and Kai Reschke. Prestel, 2016.

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Holt, Nancy. “Sun Tunnels.” Artforum, vol. 15, no. 8, 1977, pp. 34-37. Accessed July 17 2023.

Kester, Grant. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. U of California P, 2013.

Kruse, Petra and Kai Reschke. “Chances, Limitations, and Conditions of Ecological Art: Three European Projects by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison.” FIELD. A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism, issue 23, Winter 2023: Accessed June 6 2023.

Kwon, Miwon, “The Art of Expenditure.” Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe. Exhibition catalogue, edited by Thomas Krens and Alexandra Munroe, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008, pp. 62-74.

Loe, Hikmet Sidney. The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place. U of Utah P, 2017.

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Rogers, Laura Cassidy. The Social and Environmental Turn in Late 20th Century Art. A Case Study of Helen and Newton Harrison After Modernism, Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 2017.

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Weiner, Douglas R. “Communism and environment.” The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. III, Endgames? Late Communism in Global Perspective, 1968 to the Present, edited by Juliane Fürst, Silvio Pons and Mark Selden, Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 530-555.

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1 See also Loe 62-70.

2 For research on Walter De Maria and Lightning Field, see James Nisbet’s books, which have been invaluable sources for this analysis. See also Baker.

3 For discussions of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in relation to authorial control, see Beardsley and also Nisbet, Land Is Not the Setting 141-142. For a Dia Foundation presentation of Lightning Field, see Foreman et al. 55. For personal accounts of visits to Lightning Field, see Baker 9-30 and Hogan 112-136.

4 This is what Mark Cheetham calls a “developmental narrative” starting in land art and extending to ecological art through a rejection of the former’s disruptiveness of the site (Cheetham). It can be claimed that, although critical of earthworks, the Harrisons’ creation of “localized ecosystems” is a remote version of Smithson’s site-non-site dialectic, its representational strategies and its refusal of the isolation of the gallery. Meadows have replaced rocks, and photographs, texts and maps are shown in the museum along with elements from the site. Of course, the time scale and the whole concept of time are not the same given the fact that the Harrisons’ ecosystems grow over relatively short periods of time according to the temporality of plants, animals and seasons.

5 Kwon synthesizes Bataille’s arguments in The Accursed Share as follows: “In his 1949 book, The Accursed Share, a characteristically unclassifiable study in terms of genre or discipline, the French philosopher, writer and cultural critic went against the conventional wisdom of economic science, insisting on the primacy of expenditure rather than production as the more crucial category of inquiry. Most significantly, Bataille sought an almost cosmologically encompassing theory of a ‘general economy’ that could relate problems posed in calculable economic crises (i.e. overproduction, scarcity, utility, profit – concerns of what the author calls ‘restrictive economy’) to the broader dynamics of production and consumption as they pertain to family rituals, cultural exchanges, and social interactions…. Hence, to Bataille, ‘a human sacrifice, the construction of a church or the gift of a jewel were no less interesting than the sale of wheat,’ as they all instance forms of expenditure and serve as evidence of movements toward dissipating accumulated excess energy, which the author also calls wealth” (Kwon 67).

6 In his essay included in the catalogue for The Lagoon Cycle exhibition at Cornell, Carter Ratcliff reads the Lagoonmaker’s escalating plans for aquaculture in California as a “satire on the most ambitious of the earthworkers, Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer especially. But by the time we get to panel 3 of the Fifth Lagoon, the Lagoonmaker seems to be trying to outdo the earthworkers at their own game” (Harrison and Harrison, The Lagoon Cycle 15).

7 The question is what exactly the term “ecology” means for the Harrisons at this point in time and how they develop a dialogue with contemporary theories of ecology. The possible answers are unpacked by Nisbet, Land Is Not the Setting 217-226.

8 For an analysis of the phenomenon of nature in the museum in the context of land art and ecological art, see chapter 4 in Cheetham.

9 On the angry reactions to Survival Piece 3: Portable Fish Farm at the Hayward Gallery in London, see Rogers 234-235.

10 For additional information about John Kluge and The Lagoon Cycle, see Rogers 267-268.

11 For a comparison of Smithson and the Harrisons, see David Raskin, “Jetties and Lagoons,” which starts from Newton Harrison’s anecdote about having met Smithson in New York in 1970, while the latter was building the Spiral Jetty, and Newton Harrison suggesting “that I live off his jetty and harvest brine shrimp,” which Smithson refused (139).

12 Professor John Isaacs, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

13 The Harrisons explain that the first time they applied, the grant was refused, but a revised version was accepted the year after. Also, we find out from their account that before encouraging them to apply for the sea grant, John Isaacs was impressed at their having managed to decode the mating behavior of the Scylla serrata and told them that they had “outdone a similar lobster project” which had cost 300.000 dollars, while the Harrisons had spent less than 15.000 dollars. Once they were awarded the grant, they worked with trainees and had to repeat their accomplishments a number of times: “to prove that we had done was replicable, therefore meeting the requirements of respectable science.” Their results were published in Sea Grant Law and Policy Journal (Harrison and Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure 85-86).

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Electronic reference

Monica Manolescu, “Proposals for change”: Art, Ecology and Intermediation in Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s The Lagoon Cycle, Breathing Space for the Sava River and Endangered Meadows of EuropeEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 30 July 2023, connection on 14 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Monica Manolescu

Monica Manolescu is Professor of American literature at the University of Strasbourg and a junior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. She has been a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, an honorary research fellow at the University of Kent and a visiting professor at the ICU Tokyo. Her most recent book isCartographies of New York and Other Postwar American Cities. Art, Literature and Urban Spaces (Palgrave, 2018). 

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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