|A POTENT ART by Leslie Forbes
Sorcery, miracles, reincarnation, the green ghosts of all our lost summers: these are the words I noted down on first seeing the profoundly beautiful photographs in living grass that have resulted from an inspirational partnership between the artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey and the scientists at IGER, Aberystwyth¹s Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research. Flickering across vertical fields of grass I saw images reminiscent of the green shadows cast by passing clouds, in which as children we imagine faces and dragons, castles and galleons. Except that in these works of art, the dreams were fixed, the grass itself was imprinted with memories.
Sunbathers: on Aberystwyth beach two reclining figures emerge out of grass and merge into it, at the same time fixed and ephemeral. Subverting our idea of sunning in the garden, these sunbathers are literally 'inside' a meadow. The pebbles they lie on, mutating into blades of grass, recede into the distance to metamorphose into constellations. People have 'become' landscape, stones have 'become' sky.
What are the origins of these green spectres?
To those of us bewitched by the artists¹ mysteriously radiant images it will come as little surprise that Heather Ackroyd¹s first major installation work, presented at London¹s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1989, was entitled OUses of Enchantment¹. Or that her partner Dan Harvey, after receiving his MA in Sculpture from the Royal College of Art, went on to produce art that explored transience and alchemy and to work for those two necromancers of British film, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. Sorcerers must have apprenticeships, after all.
Entry into the studio where Harvey and Ackroyd work in Dorking, Surrey adds to the impression of elaborate spells being cast, genies summoned. One passes animal bones and antlers, a range of skulls cast in resin, a book that is more earth than paper (mouldering relic of the Oliving¹ library Dan made for Greenaway¹s film, OProspero¹s Books¹). A fish tank holds snails the size of tennis balls, their antlers extended in inquisitive greeting. Through this laboratory of ideas skips a small Ariel graceful as a butterfly, her elfin features still recognisably those of the baby in OMother and Child¹, a photo taken by Dan of Heather and their daughter. The grassy version of it won Ackroyd and Harvey the L¹Oreal Art and Science of Color Grand Prize 2000, recognition that the work emerging from these arcane surroundings has a powerful modernity. Anything but nostalgic, it draws memory to the surface, establishing our origins and our future on the same plane of seedling grass.
Since the beginning of their artistic collaboration in 1990, the art of Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey has embraced sculpture, photography, performance and site-specific installation, challenging and dissolving the boundaries between such distinctions, as it does between the separate Ocountries¹ of art and science. Using the simplest of family snapshots they produce magic, pure and simple. There is a sense in all their work of breathless anticipation, of the birth of legend. For evidence I offer OFloating Field¹ (1997): an island of lush green grass floating like a carpet on the mirrored surface of an icy Nordic lake where one expects an arm to appear at any moment gripping a sword.
Ackroyd and Harvey have grown grass vertically on every surface from a church in Zurich and the vaults of the Palais de Chaillot in Paris to a blasted oak tree in England, and it was a ladder left propped against one of these grassy walls that inspired their current photographic work. When the ladder was taken away, the artists saw the reverse of a shadow, a ghost of the ladder in yellowed grass. Starved of light, the covered grass had begun to senesce, preparing for death. But the ladder¹s shadow, like all ghosts, was fleeting: with the ladder removed, it vanished, the green returned; a lesson that reincarnation is possible when working with chlorophyll, the living colour green. By returning to the sunlight grass that has yellowed in the dark, its leaves can be brought Oback from the dead¹ to a state of green, as long as they haven¹t been killed by drying.
Experimenting with this process of photosynthesis, the two artists soon discovered that young grass, exposed to light in a darkened room, could be used like sensitive film to record complex photographic images in shades of yellow and green equivalent to the greys in black-and-white photographs. A snake could literally be Ocaught¹ inside stems of grass, an old woman¹s gaunt features rejuvenated in living green. Yet the artists¹ pictures inevitably had brief lives: as the grass used up its meagre supply of nutrients on their vertical canvasses, so it dried, the chlorophyll was lost and the colours faded from the luminescence of English spring to the bleached tones of the African savannah.
Volatile, volare, vol: to fly away. The colour green is volatile, as artists and cooks know, and the chlorophyll molecule even more so, its core of magnesium easily denatured and lost by the application of acid or heat, the process which causes green vegetables to turn yellow when overcooked. Searching for miracles, for a way to arrest the ephemeral nature of their images and Ofix¹ photographs permanently within their grassy skin, in early 1997 Ackroyd and Harvey read a New Scientist article about research being done at IGER. Led by Professor Howard Thomas, head of IGER¹s Cell Biology Department, a team of scientists had been studying how chlorophyll breaks down when leaves start to age. They were working with a rare form of grass discovered in 1969, in which the leaves, because of a faulty gene, retained their colour even when put under stress by drought. As the potential of this Otalented¹ stay-green grass became apparent, it formed the subject of a programme at IGER designed to monitor plants for indicators of stress or disease.
Ackroyd and Harvey immediately saw that this evergreen grass, highly desirable on sports pitches, golf courses and domestic lawns, might also be the answer to their problem. A measure of Professor Howard Thomas¹s vision is that far from deriding the artists when they contacted him to ask if IGER¹s grass could help preserve their volatile images, he was delighted at the idea of such a benign use of genetics. The result was a prestigious Sci-Art Award from the Wellcome Trust in 1997, with Professor Thomas¹s opening words at the awards ceremony establishing the extraordinary nature of the collaboration to come, OAs you may imagine,¹ he said, OI am inordinately fond of the colour green.¹ For if Heather and Dan are unusual in being artists inspired by copies of New Scientist, Professor Thomas and his team are rare in being scientists with the sensibility of poets.
What IGER¹s stay-green grass has done is to earth the colour green for these two artists, root it; equivalent to the discovery that pigments ground from water, when ³frescoed² onto a lime plaster wall, would survive as long as the wall stood. Stay-green grass allows Ackroyd¹s and Harvey¹s living tapestries to be dried rapidly with almost no loss of green pigment, so that their work can finally be transported and exhibited for long periods of time.
Since its origins in 1997, the partnership has opened up new opportunities both for the artists and for the scientists. Their receipt of one of the first Sci-Art projects to be funded by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) allowed a piece to be made for the Victoria & Albert Museum. A dried stay-green photocanvas of picnickers under an olive tree was introduced into the vast, dim room that holds the 15th-century Devonshire Hunt tapestries, notable for their absence of green. Originally that colour had been achieved by blending blue and yellow pigments, but the yellow being volatile, only blue remains. The new artwork, entirely in greens and yellows and with the weight and texture of tapestry, served as a haunting reminder of what we have lost over the centuries.
For London¹s Beaconsfield Gallery Ackroyd and Harvey produced OAfterlife¹ in May 2001, presenting seven huge panels of walking figures, each 5 metres by 1.90 metres - both in stay-green and in seedling grass. The effect was of Green Men and Women of the forest trapped in living grass, Green Knights resurrected. Of Osouls ranged thick as trees¹, as Dante wrote in a canto that the two artists chose to portray for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where a residency in 2001 culminated in the work OPresence¹. Inspired by a 1487 manuscript of Dante¹s Inferno, they literally grew the words describing Dante¹s entrance into an eternally fresh green meadow inhabited by people with grave and tranquil eyes. The force of the material, the emergent blade, brought the lost, irretrievable moment back to life.
For the artists, funding from NESTA has made possible the production of a high resolution archive of their work, along with a database of images, while the scientists have been able to develop a non-destructive approach to measuring pigmentation as a symptom of plant health. Using digital cameras able to resolve minute differences on a grey scale at many orders of magnitude greater than the human eye, the IGER team has pioneered a technique for searching out and recording the hidden information that emerges when each part of the colour spectrum in plants is examined. OOur approach draws on tools used in remote satellite sensing,¹ says Professor Thomas, Ofeasible only recently with the arrival of cheap computing and digital imaging techniques.¹ The technique, producing Ohyperspectral¹ images of colour resembling fanciful Tolkien landscapes, has also inspired the artists, a clear case of symbiosis, of alchemical transformation.
One of the central criticisms often levelled at such collaborations is that it¹s all very well artists getting the benefit of scientific expertise, but what does science get out of it? How can scientists possibly benefit from art? It¹s a criticism this partnership gracefully subverts. Dr. Helen Ougham, who together with Professor Thomas has been studying the biochemistry behind the breakdown of coloured pigments in grass, explains that some of the new directions for IGER¹s research, such as their three-year project building on hyperspectral imaging, would never have been undertaken without Ackroyd and Harvey. OWe also owe to them the initiation of several new science collaborations, taking us into the worlds of flower petals and plant diseases. Partnership with these artists has given us opportunities to speak with a much wider audience than scientists normally get a chance to.¹ Working together as two couples, one from the science world, one from the arts succeeds on every level from the personal through to the business, Helen insists, Oand transcends the Two Cultures (science and art), the Two Genders and the Metropolitan/Rural Divide.¹
Returning to notes I made on viewing Heather¹s and Dan¹s OPortrait of Ernesta¹ at the Wellcome Trust ceremony of 1997, I find the word Ometamorphosis¹, and then this quote from one of Prospero¹s speeches in The Tempest: OGraves at my command have wak¹d their sleepers, opened, and let Oem forth by my so potent Art. But this rough magic I here abjure...¹
The two artists must have been considering forms of enchantment, for in the Sci-Art catalogue they had written of their Oaffinity of process¹ with the IGER scientists. An echo, they said, of the collaboration between the early photographer Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel, the scientist who discovered hypo and so fixed Fox Talbot¹s elusive images. Thus O...the most transitory of things, a shadow, the emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our natural magic...¹ Like the natural magicians they are, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have managed to trap those transitory shadows inside the fragile chlorophyll molecule, and in so doing to make us better understand the nature of the colour green. Their art has deep resonances in this rapidly browning world of ours, as does the science that has extended the life of their art and made it available to the wider audience it deserves.
Leslie Forbes is an award-winning BBC radio broadcaster and writer whose first novel, the worldwide best-seller OBombay Ice¹ mixed Chaos Theory with a Bollywood remake of Shakespeare¹s 'The Tempest'. Her second novel, OFish, Blood & Bone¹ (Phoenix/Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001) was inspired by the partnership between Heather Ackroyd, Dan Harvey and the scientists at IGER.