Mental Contagion

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Cause & Effect Mental Contagion
Art. Environement. Interview.
Submission

Harriete Estel Berman San Mateo , CA
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Exhibitions | Web site
Photo (left) by Barbara Kossy

Statement

The use of post-consumer tin containers symbolizes our personal search for identity in our material culture. The materials are not as precious as gold or silver but in many ways reflect more accurately the values of our consumer society. Bar codes and brand name material recycle our unconscious consumption of advertising, marketing, and possession as identification. In a society so transitory and hyper-marketed one may wonder who we really are, for how much of our own identity is derived from what we consume and why we consume it.

Like recurring conversations with friends over cups of tea or coffee, this work reflects the consuming conversation of our consumer society. The recycled tin containers used to construct this work are diverted from a destiny as trash, revitalizing the mundane into the extraordinary.

Most importantly, the use of recycled packaging as a medium and source of content addresses a spectrum of social and political issues.

Conspicuous consumption as a cultural norm flourishes in the rapid-fire pace of changing styles, models, and merchandising and even influences the marketing of art and craft. My work questions whether creativity, content, and craftsmanship are becoming yet another disposable commodity. Hopefully, this work transforms the viewers’ awareness of their participation and challenges their own complacency.

About the Artist

Harriet Estel Bergman's work is exhibited at a number of galleries all over the United States. She is currently working on “Seeking #2 Pencils”, a commentary about education and its focus on standardized tests. To create this artwork, all are invited to participate by sending used #2 pencils, old calculators or telephones with hard, plastic buttons. Questions and answers about this project can be found on her Web site
.

Harriete Estel Berman
"grass\'gras\", 2000-01 | Southwest School of Arts and Crafts, Russel Hill Rogers Gallery | Photo by Philip Cohen
9' x9' lawn of grass cut from post consumer tin cans. 36 steel base panels (each panel 18" square). Over 32,400 individual blades of grass cut frompre-printed, recycled steel. 5.5" height x 9' length x 9' depth.


MC: So much of your work is constructed of consumer waste. Are there particular products you prefer to use? What do you look for in your materials?

Harriete Estel Berman: Most of my work is made from recycled materials. I decided to use recycled materials in 1988. I just couldn’t stand the idea of making more work out of more new materials. It just seemed that by focusing on reusing materials taken out of the waste stream of our society I could awaken people to the idea of reuse and the beauty of used materials.

The recycled tin cans are my primary material. The colors, patterns, words and images on the tin cans inspire new ideas all the time. My father used to get most of my tin cans from yard sales and flea markets on the East Coast. Now, lots of my tins come from people that have heard about my work such as my children’s orthodontist, my exercise class, friends, and people who have read about my work. I take everything offered—sometimes it inspires a new idea!

Harriete Estel Berman
"grass\'gras\" (detail), 2000-01 | Southwest School of Arts and Crafts, Russel Hill Rogers Gallery | Photo by Philip Cohen
9' x9' lawn of grass cut from post consumer tin cans. 36 steel base panels (each panel 18" square). Over 32,400 individual blades of grass cut frompre-printed, recycled steel. 5.5" height x 9' length x 9' depth.

MC: Your grass series focuses on the American lawn as a symbol of waste and excess. A recent Associated Press article touted a jump in sales of hand-powered lawnmowers. Is this a good sign, or just a drop in the bucket?

Harriete Estel Berman: This is an interesting fact, and I hope it is true. At least people aren’t buying more gas guzzling, polluting machines and actually doing some good exercise while they mow their lawn. The big picture is that lawn mowers and their noise and exhaust pollution are not the only problem with green lawns.

Green lawns require a great deal of chemicals like fertilizer in addition to the commonly used herbicides and pesticides to maintain a green lawn. Then, after putting on the chemicals, we water lawns with our drinking water! The water combined with the various chemicals leaches into our ground water or rivers and bays nearby.

MC: How long did it take to cut and attach the blades of grass in your lawn sculptures?

Harriete Estel Berman: The 81 square-feet (9’x 9’) lawn of grass titled “GRASS/gras? ” has over 32,400 blades of grass. All the blades of grass were cut by hand so that each blade of grass would have a unique shape. A tab shape was cut in the end of each blade of grass for insertion in the metal base. It took over a year to cut the grass.

After a great deal of planning and preparation, 31 out of the 36 panels were assembled in a “grass assembly” weekend by students, friends and acquaintances who volunteered specifically to participate in this project. There is a video which documents this piece. “GRASS/gras? ” is available for exhibition if your audience knows a museum or non-profit exhibition space that would like to show this work.

MC: How long has the topic of consumerism been on your mind, and why have you chosen to explore it in your art?

Harriete Estel Berman: I have been working with the theme of consumerism since 1980 with a series of domestic appliances that dealt with women’s roles in our society. The appliances were essentially hand made objects, (not found objects) constructed to look like manufactured items.

As an artist, wife, and mother suffocating in “domestic bliss,” my work is embedded with the mundane of everyday life and the relentless messages of “satisfaction guaranteed.”  The second-class status of women who care for home and children bears a strong relationship to the second-class status of craft and handmade objects in the art world.

Other concerns include the exposure of small children to the chemicals applied to lawns. Young children are especially vulnerable not just because of their young age, but because they roll and play on the lawns. They pick up toys and balls with their hands which they put into their mouths and eyes.

A green grass lawn should not be seen as a symbol of domestic tranquility and pastoral landscape. The lawn is a mono-culture of artificial terrain sustained only by a major investment of time and money and an even greater cost to our environment.

Harriete Estel Berman
From Consuming Conversation series, 2001-04 | Variant edition of 200 cups
Pre-printed steel from recycled tin containers, sterling silver and brass handles, gold rivets. Each cup is unique. The cups are exhibited and sold in stacks. Some of the stacks are made up of individual cups held together by magnets. (These can be rearranged.)  Other stacks are permanently attached with a concealed rod going through all the cups. 2 5/8" height x 5" width approx.


MC: Ultimately, who do you feel is the subject of your critique of consumer culture? Advertisers? Corporations? Consumers? Capitalism?

Harriete Estel Berman: I don’t see anyone of the above mentioned groups as a target, although all are the subject of my commentary and criticism. I do believe that we consumers can actually make a change if our awareness is raised.

Harriete Estel Berman
From Consuming Conversation series, 2001-04 | Variant edition of 200 cups
Pre-printed steel from recycled tin containers, sterling silver and brass handles, gold rivets. Each cup is unique. The cups are exhibited and sold in stacks. Some of the stacks are made up of individual cups held together by magnets. (These can be rearranged.)  Other stacks are permanently attached with a concealed rod going through all the cups. 2 5/8" height x 5" width approx.

Everyone, EVERYONE could recycle more. Actively ask companies to reduce packaging on consumer products, buy local produce, compost, print on both sides of a piece of paper, take your unused hangers back to the drycleaner, carry your strawberry baskets back to the store, use canvas shopping bags instead of plastic or paper. Are you recycling your cardboard cereal boxes, or buying items made from recycled materials? Think about how you can reduce your waste.

My family of four has about one small bag of trash a week!

Harriete Estel Berman
"California Dream" from The Imposter series, 2005
Teapot constructed from pre-printed steel from recycled tin containers; 10k gold, sterling silver and aluminum rivets; brass and stainless steel screws; Pentium chip. 22" height x 20" width at handle to spout, 7.25" depth.

MC: An idea you explore in your work, such as your series of teacups and teapots, is the notion that much of our identity is formed by what we consume. What's the antidote, or is there one?

Harriete Estel Berman: Yes, most of the work over the last couple of years focuses around the idea of identity in our consumer society. Frankly, I don’t know of any antidote. But we should become aware of both subtle and powerful market forces that tempt us. We consumers can make decisions based on our own criteria rather than by what is popular. For example, I refuse to wear any brand names or trademarks outwardly visible on my clothing. This can be very difficult to implement, but I prefer to create my own identity and not brand myself with some company’s logo or look.

In another example, I also refuse to wear any garments printed with images of women as decoration. This is because women are so often seen in society as decoration, or “eye candy.”  Images of women are printed on t-shirts and purses as a motif. We need to look, REALLY LOOK, as those images and think about the underlying message.

MC: Where do you look for inspiration?

Harriete Estel Berman: My primary sources of inspiration are advertising, observation about our society and autobiographical insights. I originally started making the grass series because my neighbors were taking out their landscaping and putting in lawns instead.

The cups, Consuming Conversation, were inspired by the continual onslaught of advertising and merchandising surrounding us every day. Like recurring conversations with friends over cups of tea or coffee, this variant edition of 200 cups responds to and reflects on the consuming conversation of our consumer society.

My recent work about education was an outgrowth of dealing with over 12 years of education with my children. My son graduated from high school last year, my daughter last night. Measuring Compliance addresses my parental frustration with the current educational system. Facing into the corner, the third grade chair sits quietly at the desk. A straightjacket covers the chair symbolizing the necessity for students to conform for success in school. “Sit down and be quiet” and “follow the rules” are more important than creativity and independent thinking. The floor of rulers, yardsticks and recycled wood is inscribed with quotes relating to academic achievement. The rulers recall an earlier era when students’ knuckles were rapped for disobedience or inattention. G.P.A.s and standardized test scores are today’s rulers for measuring performance of students, teachers and schools. The rising practice of teaching towards the test constructs a bell curve of conformity rather than achievement.

The ultimate irony is that rulers and yardsticks can be used by artists to create art and scientists measure to extend the limits of our knowledge. When will our educational system expand the potential of our students rather than measure compliance?

Upcoming Exhibitions

10 x10 x 10 Broochless
National Ornamental Metal Museum
374 Metal Museum Drive
Memphis, TN 38106
April 15 – July 8, 2007
Opening reception: Sunday, April 29 at 3:00 pm
Opening for SNAG Conference: Thursday, June 14th at 8:00 pm

CELEBRATING THE ART OF ADORNMENT: Studio Jewelry from Mid-century to the Present
Mobilia Gallery
358 Huron Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138
June 7 – July 28, 2007

JEWELRY by ARTISTS: The Daphne Farago Collection
Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, Massachusetts. Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
May 22, 2007 – March 5, 2008

Julie Artisans' Gallery
782 Madison Avenue (65th Street - 66th Street)
New York, N.Y. 10021
Telephone: 212 717 5959
June 1 – 22, 2007

CHARON KRANSEN and MOBILIA GALLERY at SOFA, New York
Sculpture Objects & Functional Art: SOFA NEW YORK 2007
Seventh Regiment Armory - Park Avenue & 67th Street
Thursday, June 1 - Sunday, June 3, 2007
Opening Night Benefit for Museum of Arts and Design on Thursday, May 31, 2007

THE NEW STEEL
National Ornamental Metal Museum
374 Metal Museum Drive
June 10 – June 18, 2007

"RITUAL REPETITION" - Cultural and Continuity: The Jewish Journey
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Avenue
New York, New York 10128
Exhibition up for the year 2007

METALWORKS NORTH
Grace Hudson Museum
431 South Main Street
Ukiah, CA 95482
July 21 – October 14, 2007

TABOO STUDIOS Contemporary Art Jewelry
1615½ West Lewis Street
San Diego, CA 92103
July 21 – September 21, 2007
Opening Reception, August 10, 2007 6-8 pm

Past Exhibitions for grass \'gras\
This sculpture with a documentary video are available for exhibition.

2005
Consuming Conversations, Anita Seipp Gallery, Castilleja School, Palo Alto, CA
Domesticity, Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, Fort Collins, CO

2004
City Life, Euphrat Gallery, DeAnza College, Cupertino, California

2002
Return Engagement, Copia, Napa, California

2001
Oklahoma State, Stillwater, Oklahoma

2000
Southwest Center for Arts and Crafts, San Antonio, Texas
Wustum Museum, Racine, Wisconsin

       
Mental Contagion
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