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Art Reviews : Endangered Sri Lankan Lagoons

December 04, 1987|MARLENA DONOHUE

Concept artists Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison show a 350-foot visual narrative made from hand-colored photographs, maps and canto-like, hand-written prose. "The Lagoon Cycle," on view at the County Museum of Art through Dec. 27, was inspired almost a decade ago by the comments of a Sri Lankan man lamenting the encroachment of technology and Western ways into his deteriorating culture. "The Cycle" chronicles the Harrisons' 12-year involvement with Sri Lanka's endangered lagoon systems and with the equally beleaguered native crab that depends on the ecosystem for its survival and, in turn, provides food and trade for the natives.

Piqued by the man's comments, the Harrisons visited Sri Lanka, began researching the crab and its disappearing habitat and devised a plan for creating breeding tanks that might duplicate nature and prevent the crab's demise.

As they document their journey, a process piece unfolds: Its backbone is a dialogue between two fictitious personas, "the Witness" (Helen), embodying the protective faculty that discourages any intervention with the natural order, and "the Lagoonmaker" (Newton), representing the will to solve problems and make progress. Thus, devising an artificial but responsible habitat for the endangered crab becomes a metaphor for ethical intervention in the global ecology.

This is a pretty big bill to fill, but its nothing new for the Harrisons, who have additional works on view at the Wenger Gallery to Dec. 23. They were recently invited to propose a solution to the ecological and social effects of diverting the Yarko River in Israel. Their extant "Baltimore Promenade" linked forgotten seedier parts of the city with its hub, forcing walkers to engage their environment and each other.

This cry for social responsibility might ring of Pollyanna pabulum, familiar as the 6 o'clock news. What is fresh and futuristic here is that social activism is woven into pieces that stand on their own as viable art and engaging prose. The Harrisons' artworks propose and sometimes solve real problems from a "New Age" perspective usually confined to the health-food store. These pieces have all the scope of the best environmental art without its dry remoteness or self-indulgence.

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