Henry G. Sanchez: The English Kills Project at Momenta Art

Matthew Barney, in his five-hour-long epic film, River of Fundament, opens with an aerial shot of Newton Creek, a three and a half mile estuary off the East River between northern Brooklyn and Queens. It is an appropriate metaphor. Newtown Creek, and more specifically English Kills (the wetland channel abutting the Bushwick section of Brooklyn), is one of the most polluted urban waterways in the U.S. The site is fundamental to the city’s sewage overflow system—tons of waste water and material are drained into the estuary during heavy rains. In 1978, the Greenpoint Oil spill caused 30 million gallons of petroleum to leak into English Kills and, despite being claimed a Superfund site in 2009, remains a toxic ecosystem. English Kills’ proximity to the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Bushwick and Greenpoint did not go unnoticed to artist Henry G. Sanchez, who lives and works within a few miles of the estuary. Sanchez’s English Kills Project is an art installation that acts as a blueprint for a remediation plan to clean and improve the water quality through the formation of a man-made wetland.

The exhibition was presented as part of a month-long series by Momenta Art, an artist-run alternative space, in collaboration with the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Sanchez, who completed his MFA at SVA in 2014 developed the English Kills Projects as part of his thesis exhibition to generate awareness around a space that was largely ignored by the majority of the Bushwick community. Working with biologist Sarah Durand of La Guardia Community College, Sanchez tracked the levels of pollutants in the water following rains, and statistically graphed their sources and the rise and fall in contamination levels. For his installation at Momenta Art, Sanchez displayed these graphs alongside terrariums containing displacements of actual plant and animal life collected from the water before the exhibition. At once revealing the existing ecosystem while illustrating the odds against which it exists, Sanchez uses a talisman of an egret, molded of “black mayonnaise,” or river mud, black tar, and petroleum. He additionally embodies the creature in videos and through a full size costume, worn during his visits to the site. The egret appears again as the “narrator” of Into English Kills, a film produced earlier in the year to document, and through a series of interviews from with members of the Newton Creek Alliance, communicate the actual conditions of the English Kills.

In partnership with Durand, Sanchez developed a two-part mission for his project: to limit continued human interference at the site and to provide a constructive wetland through filtering organisms. By installing “tire-gabions,” planters made of re-purposed car tries packed with clean landfill and saltgrass plants, Sanchez has devised a self-functioning natural filtration system that would slowly clean the water of the creek and provide a new ecosystem for extending plant life. In his installation at Momenta Art, Sanchez created a model of these recycled tires systems in addition to mapping a potential installation in English Kills. Maps covering the floor and walls show how these tires, placed against the embankments could begin the process of reversing years’ worth of harmful urban impact.

While the project is powerful and highly effective at raising awareness to an issue that deserves an activist base within the Bushwick community, it remains to be seen if Sanchez’s proposals will be realized, and how they will fit into the government-sponsored Superfund cleanup of the site. Active dumping and drainage is no longer occurring in English Kills, but runoff and sewer overflow continue to pollute Newtown Creek and its estuaries. Until a course of action can be realized, Sanchez’s communication, through the exhibition at Momenta and elsewhere, brings attention to a geo-system previously complacently ignored in our backyard. Sanchez is scheduled to exhibit the project in different manifestations in multiple locations over the summer.

Images courtesy of Mary Coyne.

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