BAASICS.4: Watershed — Field Trip #7: Thinking About Flux

Mary & Daniel

Mary O’Brien & Daniel McCormick on a project site in Louisiana, 2013

Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien don’t produce sculptures intended for display in a gallery space. During an afternoon conversation at a coffee shop in Fort Mason, McCormick told BAASICS that the duo “respond[s] to things. Then we do stuff and put it into places.” That’s a charming way of boiling down what is, in fact, a rare and complex practice.

McCormick and O’Brien, who call their greater project Watershed Sculpture, are best known for ecological art installations that they term “remedial art.” That’s “remedial” as in remedy, or cure. Although the forms themselves, which McCormick and O’Brien refer to as “living sculptures,” are often graceful and attractive, their role as utilitarian environmental interventions is primary. The sculptures help prevent stream bank or gully erosion, provide bed habitat for native oyster species, or shore up wetland storm surge barriers. McCormick and O’Brien make working artwork, so to speak. And because their sculptures are made of natural materials (often sourced from the habitat where they will be installed), the works play their part, acting as a corrective, and, in the course of doing so, break down. In time, they are absorbed and wholly integrated into the very land they act upon.

In a 2003 article contributed to LAND: Landscape, Art and Design, McCormick wrote,

“I want my sculptures to have a part in influencing the ecological balance of compromised environments. I am compelled by the idea of using sculpture in a way that will allow the damaged areas of the watershed to reestablish itself. […The sculptures] are intended to give advantage to the natural system, and after a period of time, as the restoration process is established, the artist’s presence shall no longer be felt.”

Here today and gone tomorrow.

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Watershed Sculpture oyster bed restoration project drawings; Headlands Center for the Arts; Marin Headlands, CA, October 2013

If, as is commonly asserted, most artists are driven by a desire for legacy, for some semblance of permanence, then McCormick and O’Brien are something like anti-artists. Or are they? It’s a rather Western mindset, after all, that insists art is about the eternal and the perfect. Contrast that attitude with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabia world view or aesthetic centered on a notion of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” The three essential truths that embody wabi-sabi are that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Viewed through this prism, all the tending, editing, and pruning, all the tying and directing, that we humans carry out on landscape need not be understood as acts of domination or control. Instead, they might be collaborative acts, not aimed at perfection but at a fleeting “rightness.” As McCormick put it during our conversation, “there is beauty in the flux of ecology.”

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Watershed Sculpture oyster bed restoration works; Headlands Center for the Arts; Marin Headlands, CA; October 2013

For their BAASICS.4: Watershed presentation, McCormick and O’Brien will survey a number of their Watershed Sculpture projects as well as addressing the role of environmental art in our post-Industrial Revolution epoch, one that many scientists call the Anthropocene because of the undue influence of humanity on the world we inhabit. What is the responsibility of the artist working in this context? How can artists and scientists work together to remediate unhealthy ecosystems?

McCormick observed that he and O’Brien “do the art to see the science happening.” Naturally, BAASICS is thrilled to have them participating!

Image credits: Photograph of Mary O’Brien and Daniel McCormick in the field, © Monique Verdin, 2013; other photographs, © BAASICS, 2013

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