Magazine article Artforum International

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison

Magazine article Artforum International

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison

Article excerpt

RONALD FELDMAN FINE ARTS

For figures from John Muir to Ansel Adams and beyond, the Sierra Nevada has long been a locus classicus of the American wilderness sublime. Traditionally represented as a sacred zone of untouched nature standing outside of human history, the transccndentalist landscape imaginary of the Sierra in fact developed in tandem with a range of biopolitical technologies concerning the government of populations, territories, and resources. Ranging from the imperial survey photography of Timothy O'Sullivan to Adams's own work for the Department of the Interior, this ambivalent history shadows "Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation," the recent exhibition by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

Since the early 1970s, the work of the Harrisons has involved a similar antinomy between a quasi-Romantic poetics of the earth, on one hand, and the notion of the artist as ecosystems manager advanced by their early interlocutor Jack Burnham in Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968), on the other. Though their practice has always approached landscapes in terms of expanded systems rather than bounded sites, in their recent work they take on a radically new sense of time and scale, dealing with the planetwidc crisis of "anthropogenic," or "man-made," climate change. Suggesting both an evolutionary adjustment and an artistic translation, their current project imagines an "adaptation" of the Sierra to the climate-related crises that arc likely to affect it in the coming decades (glacial melting, topsoil erosion, drought, fire, and downriver flooding). The project was announced as a "50-year collaboration" with the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, a conceptually significant expansion of the time horizon for an artwork, attuning its audience to the long-term, intergencrational ramifications of global warming.

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The centerpiece of the exhibition was an enormous satellite photograph of the Sierra laid out across the length of the gallery floor in such a way that the viewer was bound to physically tread across it in looking at other works in the show. Issuing an invitation to WALK THE SIERRA. (shades of Muir's famous trek), the installation involved a perspectival, scalar, and locational disorientation, substituting the monolithic sublimity of Adams's canonical photograph Half-Dome with a digitized expanse of topographic patterns and traces that confounded any distinction between natural and man-made landscape. …

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