The Influence

The work of groundbreaking eco artists Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison has informed Jessie French’s exploration of a world without petrochemicals. By Neha Kale.

Jessie French on Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison

A sequence of four photographs depicting a man sifting through a pile of dirt.
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Making Earth (1970), and artist Jessie French (below).
Credit: Courtesy of the Newton and Helen Harrison Family Estate (above), Charles Dennington (below)

Jessie French grapples with what the future might look like. The Melbourne-based artist, who founded her design studio OTHER MATTER in 2020, is best known for experimental projects that reimagine the world without petrochemicals. For French, renewable materials – such as algae-based bioplastics – can be an antidote to a reality in which the things we use outlast us.

This month, French is part of Material Matters, an exhibition presented by BETA By STH BNK and Craft Victoria that invites viewers to consider how materials shape us. She’s also involved in WEATHER/Whether, a show at Wyndham Art Gallery that maps the relationship between the climate crisis and lived experience. French chose to speak about a seminal 1970 work by Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Making Earth, which consisted of six photographs and an installation of sand, clay, sewage sludge, manure, leaves and worms in a stinking pile that was watered and turned regularly for four months. The Harrisons, who were pioneers of eco art, both anticipated our environmental moment and invented ways to see it anew.

Making Earth drew attention to the way topsoil is endangered. For the Harrisons, it was an attempt to counter extinction in symbolic terms. What draws you to it?

It was first made in 1970. You don’t need to see it to understand the beautiful depth it has. It makes me think of so many ripple effects of why we need to be remaking earth. We don’t think about how earth is made or how we might be able to remake it. I guess in my work I am thinking about materials in the same way. We move through the earth touching so many materials and we don’t necessarily think about their afterlife and before-life, what impact they have.

You work with algae-based bioplastics, a renewable resource that can potentially rehabilitate the ocean and atmosphere. What did the Harrisons show you about the power of materials that you would otherwise overlook?

There was a beautiful flow in the second part of this work where Helen then used that earth to grow strawberries that they made strawberry jam from. It was this idea that you can make something that can grow life. There’s a cyclical nature. It doesn’t stop there. [I’m interested in the fact] that the origin of petrochemicals are the fossils of microalgae. It’s this link to what we are using but also an awareness that in these petrochemicals there are the multimillion-year-old fossils of an organism.

That’s fascinating. It really breaks down the divide between the natural and the artificial.

In this Making Earth work, instead of ownership, it is about responsibility and caring. We forget that we are all part of this same thing. We are trusting more in the systems that we made than the reality of the earth.

Did Making Earth make you challenge perceptions of algae?

It hadn’t occurred to me that petrochemical oil is [composed] of these organisms. It made me reconsider all of what it meant. There are hundreds and thousands more types of algae than terrestrial plants. Seventy per cent of the Earth is ocean and we just don’t know what’s down there – maybe that is a good thing. People are starting to farm seaweed. I see this replication of monoculture farming.

Algae are incredible. The beautiful thing about the material is that it can set and reset, literally like boiling pasta. That opens up the speculative vision for what you can do on a diversified scale. [Waste] doesn’t need to go to the recycling centres. This idea of recycling is very mythic, it’s very energy heavy. Just for one household, times that by a city! The whole thing needs to change.

The Harrisons’ early work, such as Survival Piece #1: Air Earth Water Interface with Living Material or Annual Hog Pasture Mix, focused on the management of ecosystems and their later work is a rigorously researched attempt to intervene in the landscape. You’ve spoken before about how the idea of art and science as different disciplines stems from a relatively new – and Western – idea of knowledge.

When you are thinking about Indigenous knowledge systems, there is no separation.

My work with this material started as an artistic project but I also wanted to try and find a solution to this petrochemical issue. OTHER MATTER is separate from my artistic practice, but they work in tandem. I couldn’t have this way of working with the material and not share that. It starts out super experimental but, as time goes on, you start to have this tacit knowledge – and the experiments become more and more informed. This is how knowledge works.

Material Matters is a show that OTHER MATTER is participating in. In exhibitions, there are often cut-out letters, text applied to walls or windows made out of PVC, one of the most toxic materials around us. You can’t produce it in the European Union anymore. Knowing what I knew about it, I couldn’t use it in my own shows. I’ve been working on some decals made out of algae and trialling it [in] a few different places.

I studied the history and philosophy of science. A really big influence is working out how these different knowledges have been produced and also the intense processes around them.

If you are questioning the boundaries of what art is, it should be to try and change the culture, try to change ideas. If that is the way it [is] best done, it should be [the] way it is done – just on a larger scale. There is one realm of critical thought that looks at art with a utilitarian angle and thinks that maybe it is not art – but I don’t agree. If you are starting conversations and changing what people see when they look at the world, then that is what it is. When things are so critical, maybe the time where we could make work with no urgent impact is gone.

I can imagine it’s challenging to connect with people rather than overwhelming them. The stakes feel so high, it can feel easy to detach.

The hope element is really vital. If you read the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report or anything like this, it completely floors you. It is overwhelming how bad things are. To have some kind of action, you want to get your hands dirty, you want to do something – anything.

The Harrisons spoke about this as well – this idea that on a long timescale, the things that humans have done are very short. Things can change dramatically within this time. In my work, I’m concerned with petrochemical plastics. We have been using them for 200 years. We can fix this.

The Harrisons are credited as being the first eco artists. I think it is relevant that they were labelled eco art – now there are so many artists making work about the environment, the label is a little bit outdated. They started to draw people’s attention to what was going on in the environment. I’m interested in the idea of systems and I think they were as well. If you start to look at how the world works, you learn how everything is connected, how it all needs one another, you start to understand more about our place in it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Jessie French".

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