CALIFORNIA WASH: A MEMORIAL
--TO PAST AND TO PRESENT



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All images are from Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, "California Wash: A Memorial", mixed media installation, 1996.


Standing at the top of Pico
in a rare heavy rain
looking toward the ocean and the sand
we flashed back
to a moment before history
before the building of cities and towns
when waters
flowing down from the mountains
and mesas above
cut a course to the ocean.

California Wash: A Memorial, a sight specific environmental work by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, opened last April after eight years of planning and preparation. Located where Pico Boulevard meets Santa Monica State Beach, its coiling blue path lined with newly planted sycamores descends from street level to the shore below, following the slope alongside the garden at Shutters on the Beach. At the bottom it encompasses a new bridge over the Pico-Kenter Storm Drain, the concrete surface there enlivened with bronze images of the wild life that once prevailed on the site. There are fragments of shale and bits of colored glass, while curvilinear striations recall the original geological formations.

The bridge is closed at its further end by a fence whose ribbony blue bands mirror the movement of the ocean beyond. The illusion of waves is reiterated in shadow on the sand, underscoring its presence as a product of human endeavor on the aesthetic level, while drawing on the knowledge and processes that are the rewards of scientific and technological progress. Taking up an area the size of a city block, California Wash is the latest in the series of public art works that the Harrisons have undertaken since they first directed their collaborative energies to focus on ecological matters in 1971.

Indeed, ecology was the motivation for their undertakings in public art well before terms like "global warming" and "greenhouse effect" were common in our vocabulary, and survival of life on the planet become a matter of serious concern. That California Wash is constructed on the site of a storm drain intended to carry excess rainwater to the sea is of no little significance. Consider the increased contamination of the water that has flowed through it over recent decades, brought about by the ever growing presence of garbage and other waste, and often making it perilous for bathing and swimming. And what about the fish caught off nearby Santa Monica Pier? Does anyone actually eat it?

To both artists--Newton Harrison, a sculptor by study and background, and Helen, holding a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Education--survival was the critical issue to be addressed in works which confront environmental problems head on. They concern themselves with the multitude of factors that wreak havoc on the planet, from deforestation and oil spills to depletion of the ozone layer.

While local or regional issues--such as the San Diego Landfill (1992) in Southern California, or in Europe, Breathing Space for the Sava River, Yugoslavia (1988-89), the latter named for a waterway in what is now Croatia and Serbia, and flowing into the Danube at Beograd (Belgrade)--dominate their work such projects frequently have planetary significance. They may also arouse public interest and response as well. The Sava River project, a series of photographs of the area with text discussing the issues confronted there, was exhibited in both Ljubljana and Zagreb. The matter received prompt attention from Zagreb's Water Department and its Ministry of the Environment. This led to plans for the purification of the Sava River and support from the World Bank. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war caused them to be set aside, at least temporarily. The exhibition, however--the text has been translated into five languages--is now part of a traveling show, Fragile Ecologies, and, will tour the United States for three years, beginning with the the Queens Museum in New York.

Another project, The Lagoon Cycle, first undertaken by the Harrisons in 1973 in the form of a mural 360 feet long (it was exhibited at LACMA in 1985) has thus far unfolded as an imaginary discourse between two characters, the Lagoon Maker (Newton) and Witness (Helen), carried on in seven parts. Among other issues, the two characters search for new guiding metaphors to replace those of force and fire. They perceive the accelerating greenhouse effect as nature's response to the millennia of the making of fire. The next chapter of The Legion Cycle series, comes up in October this year, at La Villette, a recently opened art center in a Paris suburb.

Based in the San Diego area, the Harrison's have carried on dialogue with colleagues at U.C. San Diego, especially those working in the various sciences, over the years. Such interchange has kept them fully informed on the state of all matters relevent to their work and their goals. Begun when both were members of the university art department faculty, it continues at their campus studio in their present roles as professors emeriti. They pursue their objectives with the assistance of their son Gabriel and his wife Vera Westergaard, both architectural designers.

That the viewer actually enters California Wash places it in the realm of real-world experience. This both magnifies and multiplies the impact of its presence, contributing visual pleasure and sensory uplift at the same time. Declaring itself an ecological statement and a work of art at once, the project--co-sponsored by the City of Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Division and the Edward Thomas Company, owners of the Shutters on the Beach hotel--addresses the continuing problem of deterioration and destruction to which the Southern California environment is regularly subjected. Response, moreover, is underway. The City of Santa Monica is currently selecting artists to work with an engineer to design a low-flow treatment plant!

The effects of both components, the aesthetic and the ecological, are height-ened by a poem engraved in the concrete base. Indeed. poetry is integral to th Harrisons' projects, serving to enhance their presence as art on the one hand, and lend awareness and explication of the ecological statement on the other. The poem on California Wash, excerpted at the top of the article, holds special significance for this area. It refers to a moment before history, recalling the eons ago formation of the Wash's topography. Rain played a primary role, precipitation from the Hollywood Hills carrying earth, rock, seeds and plants over all, creating both the formal structure of a California coastal wash and the landscape that spanned the region from Mandeville Canyon to the beach.

Indeed, the work is poetic itself, both as metaphor--the wavelike bands of the fence much like lines in a verse --and in endowing aesthetic form to an aspect of nature that civilization, and especially technology, has undermined.e The harmony, indeed, oneness, it has achieved with its setting will steadily increase as the plant life develops and matures, inseparable from the installation.

In all of the Harrison's work, applying the aesthetic component that prevails in science in order to bring environmental issues to light underlines the consideration that man's achievement in technology need not destroy but contribute to bringing nature and the urban sphere into accord, each enhancing the other, each serving towards full productivity. For the present, California Wash stands as a memorial to a time long past, to prod the spirit towards restoring to the environment the abundance and verdancy it once nurtured. For the future while lending its presence to the beauty of the local environment, it will serve as a memorial to the present that has become past, a reminder, and more, in recalling the critical issues which will have then become history.