Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey are two of the most innovative artists working in the realm of environment and art, having collaborated as artists and partners since 1990. Alongside each of their dramatic visual art works and installations, they campaign and communicate the ideas behind and around them. Scientific discovery and experiment, environmental and ecological activism are very much part of their practice and mission as artists. Already from the early 1990s they began their first experiments in Italy and in France, with growing grass as a sculptural and architectural medium. They discovered early on that it could take the imprint of images because of its extreme sensitivity to light. From 2003, they continued to expand the scale of this work, exploring the dual nature of growth and decay. They grew their first large field of grass in the UK as a huge vertical architectural feature on the inner walls of a redundant church, Dilston Grove, in South London. Many experimental works with grass continued, culminating in their receiving a Wellcome Foundation Sci-Art award and Nesta Pioneer award for their further explorations of the light sensitivity of chlorophyll to imprint photograhy on growing grass.
Also in 2003 they made the first of their Cape Farewell managed expeditions to the High Arctic, which resulted in several works, the most important of which was ‘Stranded’ a six metre long Minke whale skeleton encrusted with crystals. This ritual trandsformation of an endangered species, referred back to the horrifying visions they had witnessed in the Arctic, of hundreds of bones scattered across the landscape. ‘Stranded’ which was made from a Minke Whale skeleton beched on the Lincolnshire coast, and which the artists prepared with the help of scientists from the Natural History Museum. They saturated the bones with alum in order to grow crystals, turning the remains into a precious relic, both to reverence the creature, which became s symbol of the danger to wildlife from the rising temperatures and seas, caused by climate change. Characteristically, their process led to their further research, and realisation of the real underlying climate problems, which has since fed into their campaigning each time the work is shown.
As the work progressed so did our understanding of how the ocean absorbs vast quantities of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel and how in the last two hundred years the chemistry of the ocean has changed for the first time in millions of years, giving unambiguous evidence that climate change in our lifetime is caused by anthropogenic emissions. The seawater is turning sour and many marine creatures are struggling to make shells. Ocean acidification is affecting corals, molluscs and tiny zooplankton, the major food source of many marine animals, including whales. A recent report from a leading United Nations scientist claims that before the end of this century, coral reefs are on course to become the first ecosystem that human activity will eliminate entirely from the Earth. If the global consumption of fossil fuel continues unabated the acidity of the oceans will increase incrementally and the calcium shell life they support will gradually perish.”Ackroyd and Harvey, statement, 2006
Beuys’s Acorns: In 2007, Ackroyd & Harvey gathered and germinated hundreds of acorns from renowned artist Joseph Beuys’s seminal artwork 7000 Oaks in Kassel, Germany, and in doing so began a new long term research project.
Beuys’s Acorns·explores the agency of ideas associated with the provenance of the trees, and provokes questions as to the artists’ relationship with nature, the changing climate and collapsing economic order. Beuys had a mission. To change the social order. Mostly the money system. Ackroyd & Harvey ask what the legacy of Beuys’s mission is, given the climate of ecological and economic degradation at the beginning of the 21st century. ackroydandharvey.com
From oak to Ash
In 2017 the first news broke of a terrible viral disease which was affecting Ash trees and causing their death, and that this was spreading at an alarming rate through the UK, and likely to cause the complete extinction of the tree, unless any kind of cure was found. Acutely aware of the urgency of this environmental predicament, Ackroyd and Harvey became involved in a campaign, run by the Kent AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) to raise awareness of the Ash Tree, using the skills of artists and performers to work with communities in the area of White House County Park, Kent. The result of their work was ‘Ash to Ash’ a pair of soaring monuments to the Ash Tree, made from arrow-like spears of ash branches emanating from tall curved trunks. One was natural, one, burnt black, emphasising the transition from life to death.
The Attenburgh Building commissions
The restoration of a 1960s Arup building for Cambridge University and the opening of a new science centre, the David Attenborough Building, led to a series of major commissions for Ackroyd and Harvey in 2016. These included a major exhibition programme, showing ‘Conflicted Seeds and Spirit’ (see below), ‘Seeing Red..Overdrawn’ a wall-sized list of the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species, over which the public were invited to write; and a series of huge Welsh slate external wall reliefs referencing geometrical structures found in nature .
Working with a network of specialists from the botanical gardens, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, various university departments, and a global network of orginsations, the artists collected and germinated seeds from six genera each of eight nominated trees, which were the subject of global conservation programmes. Specimens collected in the 19th century of the creatures who had once inhabited the trees were exhibited alongside, as ‘spirits’, once again drawing parallels between life and death forces connecting historical and contemporary biological research.