Category Archives: Contemporary Art

Inspiration and Beuys’ Acorns

Last summer I spent an afternoon in the Surrey home of the artist duo Ackroyd and Harvey, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. Our wide ranging conversation included discussions about their contributions to climate change art exhibitions, Earth Art of a Changing World  at the Royal Academy and PLATFORM’s C Words at the Arnolfini in Bristol, both held in late 2009. Heather and Dan have long been interested in the intersections between art and science and art and politics and have been vanguards among UK artists concerned with climate change. They are both alums of various Cape Farewell expeditions and Heather is a trustee of Tipping Point.

Dan and Heather infront of their grass wall in their front room

Their piece, Beuys’ Acorns is an ongoing project in which they collected hundreds of acorns, fallen to the ground from the original trees planted starting in 1982 in Kassel for Beuys’ project 7000 Oaks conceived for the art fair Documenta 7.They’ve subsequently planted the acorns and the sapling trees compose the work of art.  The work was shown as part of the Royal Academy Earth: Art of a Changing World exhibition in 2009-10. The exhibition serves as one of my case studies for my PhD research and it was for this reason I discussed the piece with Heather and Dan. In the following excerpt from our conversation, Heather and Dan explain various points of the piece’s genesis, which illuminates the tangled nature of the artistic process itself.

During our discussion, Heather attempted to unpick their original inspiration for Beuys’ acorns which was first shown at the Cube in Manchester as part of the Futuresonic Festival.  Heather says, ‘That piece of work was very much provoked I think from our participation in Tipping Point at Oxford… (although)… it’s quite difficult to disentangle how ideas evolve because they tend to be quite sticky and they tend to attach to a lot of different things that are wandering around in your head’.

Also, as part of the Manchester Festival, Heather had given a talk defending the position that art and politics cannot be separated along with the bigger question ‘can artists make a difference?’ which led them to consider the work of Joseph Beuys. The artists’ encounter with his work is longstanding. Dan recalled seeing a show of his in Venice over twenty years ago.  Heather also had a long acquaintance with Beuys’ work.  She told of dating a student in college who was ‘completely into Beuys’ and ‘he slept for two nights in the old pig pen- he was trying to re-enact a version of Beuys with his coyote.’ So for Heather, her awareness of Beuys comes from a rather ‘formative stage’, but according to her, ‘never really arrived fully feathered into my consciousness until four years ago.’  She goes on to say ‘what is delightful about the artistic process is that it’s never particularly linear, there are things that come out in quite a lateral way’.

This thought leads her to retell the influence of a book which was given to her as a gift from a friend with whom she was staying with in Tuscany.  ‘We had been to stay with some friends in Tuscany and they have a very beautiful olive grove that they’ve regenerated from a disused briar patch and they have lots of oak trees and Kathryn gave me two things as I left. She said ‘here’s some acorns and here’s this book that you have to read by Jean Giono called ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’.’ And on the train journey on the way back, I read the book. I thought it’s such a wonderful fable and it was really quite provocative. But what really seized my imagination was the afterward which was written by Jean Giono’s daughter.  He was commissioned by Readers Digest in America to write a piece about a character who was a local hero.  He was a fiction writer and wrote this fantastic story, sent it off to Readers Digest who said, fantastic, we really enjoy it. Readers Digest were following through all the various facts because I think every other author had given a real story and they came back to him and said ‘I can’t find any account of this guy’, and he said ‘well, you won’t, he doesn’t exist, he’s a figment of my imagination’. And they were really offended, they said ‘well what are you doing, you know you can’t do that.’ He said ‘I’m a writer, I write’. And they said they wanted it to be somebody real. Apparently it was a family joke and they all laughed mightily hard about it over their petit dejeuner in the morning. So he basically had this story and it didn’t see the light of day until he was approached by a German publishing house who said we’d like to publish some of your work, and he thought well I’ll give them this story, so he sent them this story and they published it. That was in the seventies and apparently it just caught off like wildfire and when I read that, in this little book. This is Jean Giono’s daughter, recounting this, it clicked. I thought, of course, that inspired Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks. It just sort of became absolutely clear and at that point I said, ‘we’ve got to go and collect the acorns. We have to go and collect his acorns’. And that’s how it came about. We did more research into Joseph Beuys and his involvement in the German Green Party and his involvement just in terms of the way he spoke about the environment. So that was a real kind of epiphany, through reading that. So actually the divining moment came through a piece of literature. It’s fantastic. In fact that book has probably led to a huge amount of trees being planted worldwide. People turn around and say art doesn’t make a difference, and I say one hundred percent wrong, art can make a huge difference.’

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Filed under Climate Change, Contemporary Art, Exhibitions, Tipping Point

When art meets science… successfully

I have attended numerous ‘art and science’ events, the day-long symposium Rising To The Climate Challenge: Artists and Scientists Imagine Tomorrow’s World held in March was particularly successful.

The Tate had paired with the Royal Society to present an impressive line-up of speakers, including artists Lucy Orta, Tomás Saraceno and the eminent land artist Agnes Denes. But its success could be attributed to another reason.


Rather than framing the question as: ‘how can artists help scientists communicate climate change?’, last Saturday’s symposium Rising To The Climate Challenge took the view that art and science had two very different perspectives to offer and much could come from their collaborations. Art’s role isn’t simply to reformulate and appealingly package the scientific messages; instead it has a more fundamental exploratory and imaginative role.

The climate science programme largely reflected the Royal Society’s priorities and included, along with the expected division of adaptation and mitigation a third one, geo-engineering. However, oceanographer and earth scientist Corinne Le Quéré , who introduced the topic, revealed that she was stuck with presenting it because none of the other speakers wanted it. Professor Le Quéré gave a well-balanced presentation comparing the various options’ effectiveness (predicted ˚C temperature change) versus the level of risk.

With more controversial options such as the frightening volcanic method, where artificial volcanoes are created in the atmosphere to reflect and reduce solar radiation, she demonstrated that even this was only a temporary fix. The volcanoes would need to continually be created because as soon as they ceased, CO2 levels in the atmosphere would rapidly return to pre-volcanic levels. A less risky option, managing earth radiation through afforestation was shown to be less effective, with a possible decrease in warming projected at only 1˚C.

Agnes Denes’ land art was incorporated into the topic of geo-engineering because her large-scale works often drastically alter the landscape. In Finland she created Tree Mountain- A Living Time Capsule, building a conical mountain and planting it with 11,000 trees, and planting and harvesting a wheat field in central Manhattan (Wheatfield: A Confrontation). During her slide show, Denes explained that she likes to investigate the paradoxes of human existence: logic, evolution, time, sound, etc. and believes that by shaping and structuring the future we can control our own evolution.

Tomás Saraceno presented with an infectious energy, bursting with novel, if impractical ideas that included his floating ecosystems.  Saraceno makes bold and imaginative attempts to stretch the boundaries of our conceptions of space and gravity with his experimental floating pods. His presentation was paired nicely with Oxford social scientist Steve Rayner’s on adaptation. He focused on cities of the future and the importance of instituting greater flexibility within existing infrastructures in order to cope with future climate events such as extreme flooding. He admires Saraceno’s work, in particular his innovation with new materials, shapes, and possibilities of new patterns of organisation.

Rayner highlighted three typical art/science interactions. The first was demonstrated by a photograph of a diseased liver cell and represented the mode of seeing beauty in the scientific. The second was art’s influence on science (mainly through science fiction such as HG Wells and Jules Verne), the model of artists stimulating scientists with their work leading to new ideas and discourses. The third – which Rayner thought the most compelling – were the interactions between scientists and artists that occur when artists ‘do science through art’. Essentially, where the borders between the two are eliminated and artists employ scientific methodology in their creations, as demonstrated in Saraceno’s work.

The collaboration between scientific institutions and artists was illustrated in a discussion between the Natural History Museum’s Robert Bloomfield and artist Lucy Orta , whose upcoming exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery Perpetual Amazonia is extensively researched using the NHM’s entomology, botany and palaeontology collections. The exhibition will also be informed by Lucy and her partner Jorge’s expedition to the Peru with Cape Farewell in 2009.  Bloomfield specialises in biodiversity and stressed the importance of the interrelations between climate change and biodiversity loss and ecosystem services.

The event was recorded. Podcasts will be available soon on the Tate website.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/03/when-science-meets-art.html).

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Filed under Climate Change, Contemporary Art, Royal Society, Science, Tate

Climate change art at Frieze

Frieze

On Thursday 6 October, I visited the first day of the London Art Fair, FRIEZE, held annually in Regents Park.  Walking in to the large collection of tents is an overwhelming experience.  Filled with art students, well heeled art collectors, gallery staff, and interested members of the public it is a vast but cramped space buzzing with activity.  There are three aisles that run the length of the tents divided into stands where galleries rent space for their displays.  Walking the length of one aisle could take up to an hour with dazzling displays on either side.  The aim of each gallery is to display works, which are for sale, which best represent the artists they represent.  It is essentially that, a trade fair.

Frieze

Frieze Art Fair, London-October 2009

While at Frieze I was searching in particular for ‘works on climate change’ and found only one that explicitly addressed climate change.  How can I say it addressed climate change?  Because it contained text within the work that explicitly said ‘climate change.’  It was by the Danish activist-artists Superflex. They were ‘selling’ tickets to experience the hypnosis of different animals to see how they will experience climate change.  Many of the dates in the future were linked to key target dates in climate negotiations (2012, 2020, 2030, and 2050).  The lack of work at the fair got me thinking about the art world’s capability to deal with climate change.

Superflex

Superflex at Vermelho Gallery from Sao Paulo

The art fair is mainly a commercial space- where galleries have limited space to display their best artists, and to act as a representation of the gallery.  Most of the works on display are for sale or serve as attractions to the commercial nature of the galleries. Scott Wright in the chapter on ‘The Fair’ in Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World views the stands at a similar art fair, Basel, as an “interactive advertisement” for the galleries.  Thornton observed that a good stand should “represent and attitude or taste in art; it should declare the gallery brand.”  The artist John Baldessari said “At fairs, gallerists are reduced to merchants”  and Thornton observes that many artists view fairs “with a mixture of horror, alienation and amusement… they wince at the sight of so much art accompanied by so little substantive context.” In this context, there is not much place for work on climate change.  How many collectors would be keen to own a work on climate change- perhaps the rare collector who is also concerned about climate change?  But climate change is not exactly a ‘commercially acceptable’ topic.

The work that was on view was mainly textual- one knew it was about climate change because it mentioned climate change.  Part of the meaning around the works of art comes from the interpretation- so perhaps there were other works there that could be interpreted to be about climate change, perhaps Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, which is about consumer culture and brands, but not explicitly- so a work becomes about climate change once someone interprets it to be about climate change.

So this has already raised two possible difficulties around art: the art market and the financial side of art and interpretation.

Guarantee

So rather than gallery booths at a large commercial art fair, I might be more likely to find something at a curated museum or gallery show.  In these instances, the curator injects meaning by selecting work around a theme or a body of artist’s work.  As British Artist Jeremy Deller summarised after his visit to Art Basel, “After a mind-numbing day at an art fair, many art aficionados crave nothing more than a well-thought out museum show.”

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Filed under Climate Change, Contemporary Art, Frieze Art Fair, Sarah Thornton, Superflex