From actresses imprisoned in vitrines and sharks suspended in formaldehyde to plaster houses that deteriorate with the rain and artificial shorelines made of pebbles and plastic — contemporary British artists seem, after 10 years, to be taking art out of the glass case and into the environment — wholesale.
Dan Harvey, 45, and Heather Ackroyd, 46, are among six British artists currently being exhibited in the British Pavilion at the Aichi Expo displaying work created in response to the Expo’s theme of “Nature’s Wisdom” that addresses the loss of biodiversity, land and soil erosion, throwaway plastics, deforestation and fresh water depletion. Cornelia Parker (she of “The Maybe” — the actress in the vitrine) has made “Moon Landing,” with cast metal, print and wood; Anya Gallaccio, who creates site-specific installations using organic materials, has taken a felled dead oak tree and planted it so that it plays host to other forms of growth; Catherine Yass has created a sound piece about the demise of songbird species; Richard Deacon’s “Borderline” reveals how plastic has been broken down by tides and is now an integral part of sand.
Harvey and Ackroyd have made a small white gypsum plaster house called “The White House,” a 1 meter high block of white plaster. Suspended over it is a bleeder hosepipe with an aluminum wire that drips water (“like a cloud,” says Harvey), so that the plaster block is eroded and starts to play host to colorful molds and bacteria.
The plaster runs away over the slate and into a drain, but plaster, as Ackroyd is careful to point out, is a non-toxic substance, appropriately enough since the Expo sets out to “think about the formation and realization of a recycling society with zero emission technology — a sustainable society for the 21st century.”
But Harvey and Ackroyd have been working with, and intervening in, natural processes for a long time. They first started developing photographs on grass in 1990. Nine years later, responding to an article titled “Why is the grass always greener in Montgomeryshire,” published by the New Scientist magazine, they received funding from the Wellcome Trust to collaborate with the Welsh IGER (Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) to develop a crossbreed of stay-green grass with their own favored rye grass.
The Japan Times caught up with Ackroyd and Harvey on their recent visit to Japan to observe the progress of their gently eroding “White House.”
What was your impression of Aichi Expo’s theme “Nature’s Wisdom” and how does your work respond to that?
Heather Ackroyd: It is about the transformation of man-made object — a meditation on the inevitability of change. But because it is called a “white house” — there are inevitably going to be allusions to The White House . . . there is a dark humor there and a question about political accountability in the light of increasing overwhelming evidence that what is happening in terms of global warming and climate change is due to the actions of humanity.
Dan Harvey: A lot of our work has been time-based and transforming. For instance, grass grown from seed transforms through its life and then dies at the end of the project. It has been a key theme in a lot of work, whether it is about growth or erosion, or inorganic work with growing crystals.
How do you find new themes and inspiration for your work?
HA: We like a degree of spontaneity. There is such a performative aspect: We come along and make it on site; we make the gallery into a huge darkroom. All the pieces are bespoke for that space, for the environment and for that moment in time.
Your work often involves combining different processes and materials together in surprising ways. For the grass-grown photographs such as “Field Study,” you combine photosynthesis, which is a natural process with an artificial one — photography — a natural process being used to complement a chemical one. How did you come upon this idea?
DH: The Wellcome Trust, a medical foundation, were offering money for collaborations between artists and scientists. I happened to be reading The New Scientist magazine and there was this article on why the grass is greener in Wales. It sparked something with us — that there was this grass that is genetically modified through crossbreeding, through natural traditional genetics that dates back to what Mendel was doing . . .
That project went extremely well, and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) came up with a kind of grass that would allow the grass-grown photographs to survive for much longer.
With artists’ and scientists’ collaborations, sometimes it is seen more that the artists get a lot from it but the scientists don’t.
It certainly is not the case in this project. The IGER realized that electronic scanning could tell them chemically the differences between grasses and half the money from NESTA [National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts] went toward the purchasing of a hyperspectral scanner [which is normally satellite technology]. Using that terrestrially they could begin to photograph and look at grass blades. It became an evasive way of doing chemical analysis of plants and things. So they could look at their stay-green grass and realize which ones were the stay-green grass and which weren’t, so it has opened up a lot for them. It is really symbiotic, so that was quite nice.
What do you think the future is for more collaborations between artists and scientists?
DH: I think the process of being an artist is often questioning things and scientists are doing that too. Certainly, going back in time, with things like alchemy, there was a time when the arts and sciences were much closer. Somehow they got separated, but bringing them back together is interesting.
HA: Artists do not have to conform to a code. There is a lot more freewheeling. You can sometimes put together some disparate stuff, and by putting that stuff together, it ignites. I think if you are open and playful with ideas, then you are able to bring skill and craft into making it.