Parts Reflecting the Whole

An interview with Jackie Brookner
conducted by Katrin Spiess of LAND

From top:

The Gift of Water — concrete, mosses, mist; 2001. 35 x 99 x 61"

Tongue Lounge — soil and wood; 1993. 42 x 31 x 55" (Rocking Tongue, 1993, in background)

Prima Lingua in 2001 — concrete, volcanic rock, mosses, water, fish, steel, rubber; 1996. 64 x 101 x 80"

The Gift of Water


“The water we shed is the watershed. We don’t

think much about the watershed when we live in

the city, but the watershed supports our

lives and we are very much part of it. Everything

I do is trying in some way to help it, and on a

psychological level trying to rebind the connection

between ourselves and the natural systems that

support our lives.” – JB

KS - Jackie, your work offers real, feasible and visually stunning solutions for helping heal the environment from damages caused by human beings. Your work is also intended to affect people. How does the work reach people, and why is this important?

JB - I hope that the work reaches people on many levels — aesthetic, metaphoric, conceptual and spiritual. The aesthetic level is important because it reaches people through their bodies, sensually and kinesthetically and it gets to the unconscious. I feel that unless we human beings change at the unconscious level, at the dream level, then all the techniques in the world are not going to save us. We have to evolve to a place where our technological society is more than sustainable, where we rediscover our connection again with nature, and feel the reality of what we are.

I believe it is because of our mortality that we are at war with nature, and have been for a long time in western culture. Nature definitely has the last word. We cannot control it, nor the fact of our death, so we dissociated ourselves from it. We think of ourselves as being different from the rest of nature. To prove our superiority and separate ourselves from other animals we have pulled ourselves away from the natural world. Ultimately that is illusion and denial. We have to find a way to accept our animality and at the same time become more “humane.”  We have a lot of work to do to make life more equitable for everybody and all creatures on the planet. And we need to use our astounding technological capacities to work on behalf of life, all life.

I like Donna Harroway’s idea about hybrids. She says she’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess, a sort of hybrid creature, without the boundary. In a way we already are with our cell phones and pace makers, our “Palms”. We love all this, but how can we see it as not opposite to being part of the natural world. This isn’t easy, it’s like being able to fly airplanes, and stay grounded at the same time.

I believe that the largest task we have in western culture is to come to the understanding that life and death are not opposites. Rather they are one… lifedeath is what I call it. If we can do this maybe we will be able to accept death, and not see it as the enemy. This will take enormous spiritual growth and evolution. And it might take a few hundred years.


KS - For many years you have been working with the image of the tongue. Why?

JB - It came out of my unconscious. I was doing a wall piece, there was a dirt foot at the bottom of it, and I kept thinking it should be a tongue, not a foot. One day I put a tongue there and I loved it. Then I wanted to make a bigger dirt tongue. So I made this piece called “Mother Tongue” which was heart shaped with two small dirt feet standing on it. A friend saw it and said she wanted to sit in it, so I made my first dirt tongue chair. It was about a year and a half into the chairs when I finally started to understand why the tongue. I realized that the tongue is the part of our body where the mind-body dualism clearly breaks down, because we use our tongues to speak, which we tend to think of as a very mental activity, and we use it for eating, and for sex, which we think of as being very physical activities. Of course, even to speak is very physical, but we don’t pay much attention to it as we are doing it. This is important because it is about dualism, dividing the world into opposites, which we human beings love to do. It is actually not just dividing, but also valuing one of those terms more than the other. In terms of body and mind, in western culture the mind is what has been privileged while the body has been denigrated and, of course, the corollaries to that are male and female, spirit and matter, etc. That is what we have inherited and part of the arena that allows us to destroy nature in the way we have.

I had been thinking a lot about the mind-body dualism, but it was only a year and a half later when I realized that this was why I was attracted to the tongue. It pulls so much together: public and private, it’s a part of our body that can be slightly embarrassing, like our feet, but not as private as our genitalia, of course, But you can stick it out to make a statement, and it’s a threshold place where we meet the world in a very potent way. And I wanted the physicality of it. I wanted the rawness of the tongue as an image. Of course, there is the metaphorical aspect, tongue means language and the idea that we have words like mother tongue is important because all the ideas associated with language start to open up.


KS - What are your “biosculptures”? And tell me about the one in Germany.

JB - I call my sculptures that clean water, “Biosculptures”. They are really sculpted ecosystems that use mosses, wetland plants, and the bacteria that grow in association with them to filter water. The piece near Dresden is called “Die Gabe des Wassers”, meaning The Gift of Water. The sculpture is part of a constructed wetland that provides the only filtration for a huge municipal swimming pool that is used by up to 1500 people a day in the summer. No chlorine or chemicals. Two large cupped hands reach from the bank into the water. The mosses growing over the hands are kept moist by a misting fountain in the center that also aerates the water. Perhaps most importantly, it helps people relate to the processes that are going on, because I think that one of the big problems with a lot of ecological restoration is that to many people a swamp looks like, well, a swamp, and they don’t understand the miracles going on there. The sculpture, with  its cupped hands tenderly holding water,  acts as a link for people, and they start asking questions.


KS - What mosses do you like to work with? Which ones are the ones that purify water the most?

JB - It really depends on the specific context as far as water regime, light, shade, and the particular pollutants, so I try to find the mosses that will tolerate specific conditions. There are somewhere around 17,000 mosses, very ancient plants. They function like sponges, and process more water than any other plant. You have to find, mostly through trial and error, what works best for each specific site.


KS - Besides the tenderness, do these hands have other meanings for you?

JB - These are hands cut off at the wrists, immersed in water. Parts of the body standing in for the whole, yet that insistently declare themselves as parts. I realized that I’m doing this in my work over and over again. I started thinking about what this means, wondering how our imagining of our bodies plays out ecologically on the species level. Most of us think of our bodies as whole, like a sack of water that’s closed, and that gives a sense of independence, separateness.  Ironically while making this piece I hurt my own hand and had a vivid sense of my vulnerability.  I realized that we are not wholes, we are parts, even though we feel like we are wholes, and so we are finite, meaning we have limits, we stop somewhere. This brought me to the thought that we are not so much whole, as finite.

My work is usually ahead of me, because something is coming out of my body and out of my unconscious that is beyond where my rational mind is, and it takes my mind a while to catch up, sometimes a couple of years.

Henri Lefevbre says water is our first mirror. Its surface symbolizes the surface of consciousness, and the process of decipherment that brings what is obscure forth into the light. Today our waters suffer such severe pollution from human waste and from industrial and agricultural chemicals that fish populations have plummeted and drinking water supplies are in crisis. Can we bear the tension and humility of what the mirror tells us? Waters that we thought endless turn out to be finite, as water so we ourselves. 

Let me read something that I wrote about this. What might it mean to think of ourselves as finite? Instead of having an image of our bodies as a contained whole, with a clear and transparent boundary, though a boundary ever encroachable, problematic, whose fragile whole needs the buttress of rigid denial, instead of this, we could acknowledge our edges. This is difficult, in part, because it means acknowledging our limits. We don’t seem to much like limits. They stop us, and affront our desires for infinite power. But we literally cannot exist without them. Any individuated form by definition must have limits, edges boundaries. We need to see the value of limits and to see our edges as places of possibility, places of relationship. Every boundary that separates also connects. As in ecosystems, these edges are opportunities for heightened diversity. Our membrane, that glorious and treacherous territory we must traverse to meet the world, we must negotiate to be. The edges — the territory of exchange —where  all our senses vibrate in molecular excitement, where the world scratches its being on our skin, before names. Pores where the world can enter and leave us, orifices, that issue in, and out — places of terror and delight. Membrane leaps quantum, to heart and glands, spasms us, contracting inward, releases, extending out.

Considering ourselves finite means bearing a consciousness of these limits. It means apprehending that like all organisms, we cannot exist in isolation from the world we inhabit. Less autonomous wholes, we are more like pieces of an immensely complex fractal jigsaw puzzle, entangled, interdependent  with all the finite parts for our meaning and existence. Parts reflecting the whole, yet insistently parts. Immersed in the rest of being.


Jackie Brookner works collaboratively with ecologists and earth scientists on water remediation/public art projects in the U.S. and abroad — with current projects near Dresden, Germany; in West Palm Beach, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New York City and three sites in Oregon, Washington and Idaho working with the National Park Service Rivers and Trails Program. She was Guest Editor of the 1992 Art Journal issue on “Art and Ecology.” Her essays can be found in M/E/A/N/I/N/G, in Natural Reality/Artistic Positions Between Nature and Culture, and in Cultures and Settlements, (Intellect Books, 2003). She teaches at Parsons School of Design in New York. Her website is

A former student of Jackie Brookner, Anne-Katrin Spiess works as a land artist in wide open landscapes, mostly  in the West of the United States. Her works are increasingly addressing environmental and ecological issues. She is currently pursuing an MFA at NY University and is the co-editor of this journal.

This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.

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