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.
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.’