Susanna Byrne interviews Ackroyd & Harvey
Susanna Byrne recently talked to Ackroyd & Harvey about their work in progress Beuys’ Acorns and the role art plays to engender change in relation to controversial issues such as global warming and ecological justice.
This interview was originally commissioned by
Joseph Beuys famously used 7000 oaks. Your work Beuys’ Acorns uses 300 descendants of those 7000 oaks. William Wilberforce vowed to pursue the campaign in Parliament to abolish the slave trade and slavery whilst sitting beneath the shade of an oak tree. His knoll of resolution became known as ‘The Wilberforce Oak’. You refer to the 4D quality of trees- is it because of this or another reason that they are significant’Ackroyd & Harvey
‘7000 Oaks’ is a time sculpture growing alongside generations of people as they pass through life. This is how we interpret the 4D aspect of working with the oaks which are very slow growing trees. Beuys’s ‘7000 Oaks’ is still a relatively young work given it takes 60-80 years for an oak to reach maturity, his trees are only around 30 years old. If they survive climate change they may grow to be 300 hundred years and more. If Beuys’s trees are juvenile, we have to regard our project as very much in its infancy. We see Beuys’s legacy as very significant in a time of unprecedented ecological and environmental degradation. He was a founder member of the German Green Party (though he quickly got out of politics when he realized how toxic it was!), and was writing and talking about recycling of materials in the ‘70’s in a way that it seems the UK has only recently cottoned on to. He created a level playing field between art, ecology, aesthetics, politics, economics and education. At the heart of his vision was a transformation of consciousness, where the biosphere, as a healthy, biological and essential atmosphere would be consistent with human and species needs. He called for towns and cities to be thriving, forest-like. ‘7000 Oaks’ was the catalyst for change, he planted the first tree in 1982. The last was planted in 1987 by his son, a year after Beuys died. Two decades later, Beuys’s vision may seem idealistic given the deeply troubling world picture, but scientific evidence is firmly pointing to the importance of mass planting of trees in our cities to mitigate the ‘heat island effect’ and rising temperatures.
Activist and barrister Polly Higgins advocates change to our intrinsic values as well as to the law similar to the change in values that brought about the legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade. Many artists, writers and poets helped bring about that change. Yet critics of the Royal Academy exhibition ‘Earth: Art of a Changing World’ admonished the art for being either too poetic/polite or mere documentary / propaganda. How do you respond to this’
Polly Higgins came and spoke with us at the Royal Academy as part of the ‘in conversation’ series we conducted every Friday evening. The education department and the Royal Academy were supportive of this part of our work and it gave us, the public and the invited speaker the opportunity to air less polite and more controversial points of view. Context has to be acknowledged and it was a leap for the Royal Academy to take on what is critically regarded as an issue-based subject. There was a clearly stated direction that aesthetics should take precedence over ‘issue’. We tried to move that boundary with the ‘in-conversation’ series and a short text we wrote for the booklet. Personally, we think the enormity of what lies before us transcends the notion of ‘issue’. It is party to every breath, step,and aesthetic decision, artistic, social, political we take. We noted that each review and comment, even if largely critical of the show, singled out different works of art as articulating something pertinent or effective. If the critics had turned their attention to the 100 DAYS art and activism season at Arnolfini in Bristol just weeks earlier, they would have found PLATFORM and ‘C Words’ and less-than-polite artists challenging how society and art structures a response to the complexity and pervasiveness of climate change.
Numbers of Works of art produced in the world: 1,685,740 per day 19.51 every second. Gustav Metzger made nothing for 3 years- When environmental sustainability is the message to deliver-should artists make art or exit’ These statistics are available onlineAH
Should they go or grow! Fritz Haeg’s ‘Edible Estates’ work made good comment. Process and how we adapt to the challenge has to be taken in to the equation. Gustav Metzger has a formidable austerity, we are not sure it is one that many artists can match. Critically though we should keep asking why we make things and what purpose that serves.SB
Scientists or Artists- who should deliver knowledge on the environment’ Does it matter so long as information is reliable and not abused’AH
The scientists at UEA were dealt a bad blow with the infiltration of their personal emails and public confidence has been shaken. It has been a dirty tactic war since NASA scientist James E. Hanson stuck is head above the parapet in late 1970’s and said ‘we’ve got a problem here’. There is so much at stake and the common enemy is in the midst of every structure of society. Knowledge should be freely transferable, finding a platform for it to happen most effectively is really important.SB
We view the planet and its entire species (abhorrently still including human) as commodities to trade, a legacy perhaps of a distortion of our senses by technologies since phonetic script and geometry gradually alienating us from our environment. Does your work try to restore a balance to this distorted ratio and to instill in us a sense of intrinsic value’ We can no longer see nor touch The Wilberforce Oak but may we use some form of technology to see but not touch Beuys’ Acorns for the duration of the Silent City show’AH
The question ‘how has it come to this’’ haunts us. It’s very interesting that you cast your hook of query back into deep time, back to formative developments of script and writing. Robert Pogue Harrison says in his beautifully observed book ‘Forests: The Shadow of Civilization’ that since the dawn of Western civilization, ‘a sylvan fringe of darkness’ defined the limits of its cultivation, and he explores how the governing institutions of the West originally established themselves in opposition to the forests, from the beginning, the first and last victims of civic expansion. Significantly, he shows how from the time of Cro-Magnon through the end of the last ice age and into the Neoloithic period - the human race was the child of the great Mother goddess and he regards her violent overthrow by the male sky gods during the bronze age as probably the most momentous cultural revolution in our human past to date. The earliest written tablets commemorate the exploits of the first civic hero, Gilgamesh, who memorialized his name from the earliest dawn of history through the act of slaying a forest demon and cutting down vast swathes of trees on the sacred Mount of Cedar.SB
TheWilberforce Oak was blown down in 1991. Do you know what you willultimately do with the 300 descendants of Beuys’s 7000 Oaks’AH Itis a work in progress. In its formative stages ‘Beuys’ Acorns’ is anenquiry, a research project, exploring both the agency of ideasassociated with the provenance of the trees and looking at the culturalimpact of trees. We need to move the trees out of pots into the groundand bare-root them for the next few years to ensure they reach a goodheight and strength. Ideally, we would like to find a location in thesouth-east where we can keep an eye on them and we can continueoutreach work with various communities to explore ideas associated withthe artwork until a point where the trees are robust enough to beplanted out permanently. It feels good to not rush a resolution to thework, but let it emerge in its own time. ‘It is a sorry fact of history that human beings have never ceased re-enacting the gesture of Gilgamesh. The destructive impulse with respect to nature all too often has psychological causes that go beyond the greed for material resources or the need to domesticate an environment. There is too often a deliberate rage and vengefulness at work in the assault on nature and its species, as if one would project onto the natural world the intolerable anxieties of finitude which hold humanity hostage to death. There is a kind of childish furore that needs to create victims without in order to exorcise the pathos of victim age within. The epic of Gilgamesh tells a story of such furore; but while Gilgamesh ends up as the ultimate victim of his own despair, the logs meanwhile float down the river like bodies of the dead.’
The work is accruing meaning as we grow. The tender trees we’re growing are vital as they burst into spring leaf. They still seem fragile. The challenge is to keep them healthy and growing well