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December 2000
Volume 31
Issue 12

Celebrating 30 years

Re-envisioning Our Urban Ecology

Bonnie Sherk's Rural Enclaves

by Terri Cohn

One of the prevailing
communicated by the work
of artists of the early
1970's was an inherent
sense of possibility. In the
Bay Area, the existing
traditions of bohemianism,
political activism and the
virtual lack of a visual arts
establishment enabled a
milieu that was ripe for
avant-garde exploration.
Within this environment, the
actions-based art scene of
the first generation of
Conceptual artists, which
carried forth Duchamp's
blurred art/life approach to
art-making, was
established. Using the
urban environment and its
denizens as studio, stage,
and laboratory, Tom
Marioni declared the act of
drinking beer with friends
as the highest form of art;
Terry Fox levitated on a
ton and a half of earth
under a San Francisco
freeway for a day as a
performance act of
personal transcendence;
and Bonnie Sherk created
Portable Parks as a
means to transform
physical dead spaces into
animated environments.

Sherk's poetic and
performance-based work
concerning our
relationships with the
natural world - ranging
from animals to the tamed
and untamed urban
landscape-has always
formed the material and
conceptual essence of her
art. Consistently working
with and framing these
alliances as metaphors for
human intelligence,
knowledge and
transformation, Sherk's
evolution over the past
thirty years has logically
grown from ear early
staged, tableaux vivant-
like works to a model that
is more grass roots and
more monumental in scope.
However, consistent since
the 1970's has been
Sherk's alliance with new
genre public art practices.
Her interest in found or
created environments,
where she would create a
performance in order to
express their inherent
ecological systems and
create new experiences of
those places, has evolved
over time.

As part of her growing
awareness of ecological
systems, Sherk began to
pay attention to other
species of animals. In 1970
she created her first public
works, which were three
Portable Parks in
collaboration with Howard
Levine. For this four-day
event, Sherk integrated live
animals, plants, herself and
other elements into urban
spaces that were in need of
revitalization. The first was
a freeway overpass that
crossed Market street in
San Francisco. For
twenty-three hours, one
could see an installation of
palm trees, a cow, sod and
Sherk, while driving by or
walking on the street.
Although certainly
providing a means to draw
attention to this place, this
early "Life Frame"-Sherk's
term that connotes a site-
or situation specific
environment that is
designed to bring to life the
local resources of an area
and enable onlookers to
experience it fully
Portable Park II, 1970
(Mission/Van Ness off ramp, San Francisco)(Photo:Rudy Bender)

as possible-was not initially designed to be
participatory, an element
she inserted in her
subsequent portable
. The second
transformed an unsightly
concrete expanse under the
Mission/Van Ness off ramp
from the freeway into a
place where, for a day,
people could come and eat
their lunch in the midst of
cows and chickens, while
the third version, staged on
Maiden Lane for
forty-eight hours, expanded
the paradigm to include
other animals from the San
Francisco Zoo.

Although today Sherk feels
these transitory installations
are more superficial than
her more recent work,they

provide a basis for her next series, Sitting Still, which
grew from the idea that one
could change a site by
inserting oneself into it,
simply by being there. For
this set of works, the artist
traveled with an armchair
to San Francisco locations
such as the Bank of
America Plaza,the Golden
Gate Bridge, street corners
in the Financial District and
other parts of the city as
well as cages in the zoo.
The most significant of
these locations was a site in
then-open space filled with
water and detritus that
faced the intersection of
Heights freeway
overpasses that were under
construction. Inspired by
the desire to create a place
where people from
different disciplines and
cultures could interact with
each other and other
Pigme Demonstrating Double Imposition, 1973 from Living In the Forest-Demonstrations of Atkin Logic, Balance, Compromise, Devotion, Etc.(de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara)

Sherk helped found
Community(The Farm) in
1974 on a site she had
earlier faced in Sitting Still

Sherk's vision for The
Farm, which most fully
manifested her interest in
the analogies between
humans and other species
was also informed by the
culmination of her Sitting
Still series with Public
Lunch, a 1971 work which
involved consuming a meal
in a cage adjacent to the
lions and tigers in the Lion
House at the San Francisco
Zoo during public feeding
time. Casting herself as the
caged human animal and
accompanied by a white rat
in another cage, Sherk
performed as a human
animal. She ate, paced
before and after the meal,
climbed up a ladder and lay
down in her cage.

Meaningful in this
performance was a
moment when Sherk
observed the tiger watching
her. This stimulated her to
consider what the animal
was thinking about when he
saw her, and motivated her
to investigate animal and
communications, a process
which led to her to begin to
live and work with animals.

She built an open enclosure
in her studio for a white rat
titled Rat Run, which
provided the possibility for
the animal (whom she
named Guru Rat) to
choose whether to stay or
to leave. Because Guru Rat
chose to continue to live
with her, Sherk began to
introduce other species of
animals into her artistic
milieu: chickens, rabbits,
fish, birds, more rats and a
pig who eventually went to
live at the zoo.

The studio work
culminated with Living In
The Forest -
Demonstrations of Atkin
Logic, Balance,
Compromise, Devotion,
Etc. (A,B,C,D,E)
, an
installation created in 1973
at the de Saisset Museum.
her creation of The Farm
was an outgrowth of this
installation as well as her
experiences with the
animals, motivating her
desire to create a place
where people could
experience the native
intelligence of various
species that would not be
locked up in cages. Her
works in this arena served
not only as vanguard art
activities for the early
1970's, but also as
pioneering work in the field
of ethology and animal

Community/The Farm, a
collaborative project with
which Sherk remained
involved until the end of
1980, also entailed the
physical transformation and
integration of about seven
acres of disparate land
parcels adjacent to the
aforementioned freeway
interchange, into a new,
city culture-ecology park.
Describing it as both an
early life frame

nd "environmental
performance sculpture,"
Sherk saw The Farm as a
work of performance art.
Merging her interest in
inter-species exchange, land
transformation, and the
establishment of community
programs in art and
environmental awareness
with education and
discovery, The Farm
naturally laid a foundation for
the eventual
recontextualization of her
work from performance to
Crossroads Community(the farm), 1974, before

programming and curricula.
Like other cutting edge
artists for whom the
evolutionary process
logically deepens and
metamorphoses with time
and maturity, Sherk's work
during the 1980's and
1990's naturally emerged
from the more intrepid vision
of her youth. Her early
works inserted a unique,
environmentally sensitive
voice into the socially aware,
avant-garde lexicon of the
first generation of
Conceptual artists and
formed the core of her Life
and Living

While life frames are learning
modalities with integrated
programs and processes that
incorporate the unique
resources of a locale-
human,ecological, economic,
historic, technological, and
aesthetic-and are intended to
help people experience them
more fully, Sherk defines a
living library as a
comprehensive metaphor.
Inclusive of everything on the
planet, ranging from people,
birds, seeds and water to all
the things we create:
artwork, parks, gardens,
schools, curricula and
communities, living libraries
provide a conceptual and
aesthetic framework for
linking culture and
technology to nature.
Inherent in the holistic, a
connotation that defines a
living library is the potential
that knowledge of a locale,
in terms of its past, present
and future resources, serves
as the conduit through which
culture and technology may
be linked with nature.
Because it is founded on a
collaborative, integrated
model for transformation,
this fundamental yet
uncommon notion is vastly
significant in terms of the
entropy of contemporary
life, and

Crossroads Community(the farm), 1980, after

has broad implications in
terms of healing people and
their environment. Sherk is
presently involved in
developing OMI/Excelsior
Living Library and Think
on a nine-acre piece of
San Francisco land that
includes three schools. The
goal of Life Frames, Inc.,
her nonprofit organization, is
to develop cultural,
site-sensitive branch living
libraries in different locales
that can be linked
electronically at

Sherk's consistent, lifetime
notion of the whole world as
a vital resource, in which
everything is replete with
potential and can be shaped
by perception, marks her
ongoing ties to Conceptual
art practices. Despite her
shift from art actions and
performance to a
educational and healing
mindset and model, her
work continues to be about
place and about establishing
new archetypes for alliance
between the personal and
the public.

Terry Cohn is a contributing editor to Artweek.

A Living Library, Think Park & Life Frame are Registered Trademarks
©1987-2001 Life Frames, Inc. & Bonnie Ora Sherk



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