Rebecca Smith remembers a fellow artist who was a mentor and collaborator. There will be a memorial service honoring Brookner’s legacy Saturday, October 17 at The New School (65 W. 11th Street) in Wollman Hall (5th Floor). The memorial will begin at 10:00 a.m.
When Jackie Brookner, the pioneering ecological artist, died of cancer earlier this year she was in the middle of The Fargo Project, which had just received an Art America grant for community-designed, “creative place-making” projects. The city of Fargo, ND will now implement the plan Brookner devised in collaboration with over a hundred people during five years. The 18-acre storm water basin site surrounded by city neighborhoods will function as both restored wetland and neighborhood commons, with “passive” features such as a “listening garden” shaped like an ear; a citizen science lab; and giant, playable marimbas built out of tree logs. In a TEDx talk about the project Jackie said, “And it’s gotta be great in the winter, too, because as we know, it’s Fargo, right?… [New trees will] “shape the snow as the wind blows the snow over the trees.”
Brookner was a sculptor who made her interest in biology, social equality and her commitment to ecology all come together. As she wrote in 2009:
My practice as an ecological artist evolved over time and continues to evolve. I went to college sure I was going to be a biologist, but end up going into art history. Just before writing my PhD dissertation I started sculpting. it took about 20 years and several transformations to realize I could bring everything I loved together, catalyzed by building a cabin in the Adirondack woods (1985) and editing an issue of Art Journal on Art and Ecology (1990-92). Then I knew I needed to create work that would have beneficial ecological functions…I realized my work could be “of “ nature, rather than “about” it.
When I first knew Jackie I asked her to come to my studio. I was a young sculptor and wanted feedback on a body of work I was worrying about from this older, accomplished sculptor whose work I admired. She looked at my human-scale, painted plywood constructions and said, “These are very intelligent and very well-done but there’s something missing in this work. Where are you in this?” I was disappointed with her response. I thought maybe the work wasn’t good or maybe she just didn’t get it. In any case I had gotten no ideas about what to do next. Yet later, when I was beginning a new body of work, I started searching myself in a different way about my decisions. Was I seeking ideas for making Good Art or was I working from something authentic, for better or worse? Where was I in this, and what did that mean?
I continue to ask that question in my studio and in other areas of my life. I was organizing an exhibition of artists that included Jackie when she died. Titled “Climate Contemporary,” the show consisted of art dealing with the theme of climate change. As much as calling attention to the climate crisis the show was intended to examine artists’ varying relationships with content. How do you convey something about this notoriously difficult subject of global warming? What do you believe? What do you understand? “Where are you in this?” is a question of conscience and politics, as well as a question of truth and beauty, of making and ideas.
Jackie and I had several conversations about the show, which took place at the Lake George Arts Project in upstate New York where she and I both have spent summers. She urged me to focus on her more recent projects, Fargo and Veden Taika , saying “I didn’t want to put more stuff into the world” she instead created environmental works that consisted mainly of water, flora and fauna. The latter project (“The Magic of Water” in Finnish) is a decommissioned sewage lagoon surrounded by forest in Saalo for which Jackie mobilized local artists and students to build three floating islands. Constructed as fractal networks of linked triangles, the islands are platforms for plants that clean water and air, as well as provide habitat for nesting birds. When she discovered that animals were eating the eggs and hatchlings, Jackie led a team in building sculptures designed to enable birds to build nests high enough to elude marauders. Eventually the site became an EU bird sanctuary. Visually, the islands and sculptures appear both at home in their natural environment and human-made. They do not impersonate nature like dioramas at a natural history museum. In warm months a mechanism periodically produces a cloud of moisture which stimulates the plants’ microbial action that cleanses pollutants in the water. The effect (which I’ve seen only in photos) is mysterious and beautiful. In her TedX talk Jackie called it as “a misting sculpture”.
Jackie Brookner was the only artist in “Climate Contemporary” whose work actually embodies a solution to the problem it is referencing – not a global one, obviously, but a solution to the local weather event of storm water, one of the phenomena most clearly linked to climate change. She spoke of “the inseparability between our bodies and the habitats that support our lives” and held that sculpture could be mobilized to change people’s minds because it unleashed the power of metaphor. She wrote, “I can think of no task more urgent for our survival as a species because anything we do, any technology we come up with, is dependent on who we think we are”.
I didn’t know Jackie very well but I knew her for a long time. We got together, sometimes by chance, at crucial points in our lives. Toward the end of hers, she wanted to have time to make art in her studio and “enjoy the nature I have worked so hard to protect”. Her courage and personal integrity were evident in the honesty with which she spoke of her condition, and the prospects for her having more time. She could say “how much work our plant friends do for us” and make the words sound true. Many people are very sad not to have Jackie in our neighborhood any more, but we have so much that is important because of her. Myself, I will always have that question.