My essay on artists brook and black and their hops project has just been published here:
April 11, 2013
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March 7, 2013
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My essay ‘The Practice of Space: Hayley Newman & Emily Speed’ has just been published by Castlefield Gallery, Manchester to accompany an exhibition by the two artists. http://www.castlefieldgallery.co.uk/event/hayley-newman-emily-speed/
May 27, 2012
39th AAH (Association of Art Historians) Annual Conference and Bookfair, University of Reading, UK
11 – 13 April 2013
Call for Conference Papers for the Session:
TWITCHERS: Birds and Art
Dr Tracey Warr, Oxford Brookes University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Paul Kilsby, Oxford Brookes University
Clair Chinnery, Oxford Brookes University
A clutch of delicately freckled eggs, a sharp beak, the unknown language of bird song, extravagant mating plumage, a brush of wings, a soaring flight: we have a perennial fascination with the familiar and yet alien presence of birds in our midst. Artists have addressed the topic of birds to consider a range of issues. The recent Animal Gaze symposia demonstrated how the inter-species boundary is rich ground for artistic exploration. The ‘twitcher’ is an individual who takes bird watching to the extremes, in collecting ‘sightings’ as a form of experiential acquisition and artists have extended their examinations of birds to address notions of collecting, archiving and taxonomy, in for example, Marcel Broodthaer’s Department of Eagles. Bird envy manifests in works such as Pieter Brueghel’s Icarus, Max Ernst’s Loplop and Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew Himself Into Space. Gaston Bachelard wrote of the nest-house, and how we inhabit space with our bodies just as a bird creates its nest with its breast, and his writings have in turn inspired artists’ nests examining the practice of space and home. Other birds in art projects have considered communication, ecology, colonialism, flight, the soul, migration. Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Joseph Cornell’s assemblages with birds, Marcus Coates’ Dawn Chorus, London Fieldworks’ Super Kingdom, Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas’ Villa Lituania pigeon race and pigeon loft at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ Moon Goose Analogue and Lynne Hull’s Raptor Perches, are just a few of the myriad artworks focussed on birds. Considering the strutting peacock, the hovering predator, the Christmas robin, the homing pigeon, the clever cuckoo, the swoop of the black swift, the pecking hen and the memento mori of the hung game bird, this session will present papers on the topic of birds and nests in the art and theory of any period.
Details of the conference are at http://www.aah.org.uk
March 8, 2012
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30 March 2012 11am-6pm Arnolfini, Bristol
I am speaking at a one day conference Writing Practice: Exploring the Rhythms of Writing Practice in Art, Design & Performance.
Other speakers include John Wood (Design/Goldsmiths), Julia Lockheart (Writing PAD/Goldsmiths), Harriet Edwards (RCA) and Jerome Fletcher (Falmouth University).
October 9, 2011
Split nik, Moscow Biennale – in progress
Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas’ Split nik installation opened in the Moscow Biennale on 22 September and the exhibition runs until 30 October 2011. Split nik is an installation re-reading a book published by Russian author, Alexander Kukarkin, during the Cold War period, discussing Soviet and Western ideologies in relation to consumerism, design and art. I am an ‘embedded writer’ with the project. The installation is a device to look backwards at the history of the Cold War in culture, focussing on the book Beyond Welfare (The Passing Age in English) by Kukarkin, and also to look forwards from now. The installation consists of three elements:
- a presentation of Kukarkin’s book in Russian, Lithuanian and English,
- extracts from a 1970s Lithuanian film Things and People that humorously examines our psychological and ideological relationships with objects,
- and a wooden structure resembling convoluted raked seating designed for dialogue.
Installing the work was fraught with drama. It got held up in customs and then lost in the basement of the luxurious Tsum Department Store in Moscow – our exhibition was on the fifth floor. Then our team was beset with flu, a broken hand, and chronic jetlag – nevertheless after a few 24 hour shifts, Split nik appeared.
THE FOURTH ELEMENT
The Split nik project assistant, Anna Kotova, contacted Moscow artists via Facebook and Nomeda, Gediminas and I ran a week-long workshop which is the developing fourth element of the work. The participating artists are Elle Gard, Liza Izvekova, Anna Prihodioko, Maria Sokol and Vladimir Smyshlenkov. We discussed the work of Future Studies researchers such as the Global Scenario Group www.gsg.org and Kingsley Dennis and John Urry’s book After the Car (Polity, 2009) and artists considering the future: science fiction, and artists such as Lise Autogena, John and Helen Mayer Harrison, Andrew Sunley Smith, Heath Bunting & Kayle Brandon, Kate Rich, Uta Kogelsberger, London Fieldworks and HeHe.
Talking of Khrushchev and Nixon’s 1959 Kitchen Debate, we wondered why the best conversations always happen in the kitchen. We set them a task to sit in a kitchen (their own, their grandmother’s, a showroom kitchen – whatever they like) and make some sketches of their vision of a future scenario – in whatever form they like: drawings, photo, collage, film, text, sound. We will be posting their developing ideas in a few weeks time. You, the reader, are welcome to submit your Future Casts to us too.
THE PEDAGOGICAL TURN
Elle, Liza, Anna, Maria, and Vladmir are also organising dialogues in Split nik during the exhibition with small groups of people. Documentation of these will follow. Sitting in the Split nik structure we discussed with them the pedagogical turn in art.
See Kristina Podesva, The Pedagogical Turn in Art
and artists and projects such as Tino Sehgal, The Long March (China), Platform (UK), Jeremy Deller (UK) and Nomeda & Gediminas’ other projects on http://www.nugu.lt – click on dossier.
We talked about theorists: Clare Bishop’s book Participation and her articles on The Participatory Turn; Christian Kravagna; Grant Kester’s book Conversational Pieces; Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics and Altermodern; Lars Bang Larsen, and then historically Joseph Beuys, Helio Oiticica, Milan Knizak, Marcel Duchamp’s text ‘The Creative Act’, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Open Work’.
Meanwhile, we are also progressing our research on Kukarkin himself, leafing through copies of Amerika magazine and Kukarkin’s personnel records, unearthed by Anna. The top floor apartment in Moscow where we were staying was showing the ill effects of a leaking roof and its age. We imagined it could have been Kukarkin’s apartment. The doors squeak painfully, the floors creak, the lightbulbs blow room by room, the toilet leaks, the kettle has a huge crack down one side but still works. Tea is a small mercy.
Kukarkin was born in 1916 at Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). His parents died when he was a child and he was raised by his uncle, a doctor living in Moscow. From the age of fifteen Kukarkin worked at the factory Dinamo. During 1934-35 he served as secretary in various offices. From 1936 he studied at M. Gorky’s Institute of Literature in Moscow, graduating in 1940. During his studies he published his first critical essays in the magazines Flag (Znamya), New World (Novyj Mir), Literary Observer (Lietarturnoje Obozrenyje). Due to bad eyesight he was decommissioned from army service and worked for various newspapers and publishing houses. In 1943 he was sent by the Communist Party to the Higher School of Diplomacy, which he graduated in 1945. After graduation he began a diplomatic career and was sent to USA.
He was working as an attaché and head of the Press Department at the Soviet Embassy in Washington from September 1945 to August 1946. His time there coincided with the period when Alexander Feklisov was the KGB handler for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at the New York Soviet Embassy. The Rosenbergs were executed as spies in 1953 and alleged to have given away US atomic secrets to Russia.
In August 1948 Kukarkin was part of a Soviet Delegation visiting the London Olympics at a time when USSR was negotiating terms to join the Olympics – it competed for the first time in 1952. He was a member of the Soviet delegations at the First World Congress for Peace in Czechoslovakia in April 1949; the United Nations Fourth Session September-November 1949; and the Second World Peace Congress in November 1950. The World Peace Council was established in response to fears of a third world war and the threat of atomic annihilation as the Cold War was escalating in Korea. Peace Congress deletes gathered in Sheffield in the UK, including Kukarkin, Picasso and ‘the Red Dean’ of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Hewlett Johnson, who argued that capitalism lacked a moral basis and the moral impulse of communism constituted the greatest attraction. The British Labour government sabotaged the Congress and it was forced to shift behind ‘the Iron Curtain’ to Warsaw.
Kukarkin was a member of the editorial board of the magazine The New Times (Novoye Vremya). From 1951 he worked as editor of NEWS (Novosty) a newly established English language magazine for foreign countries. He travelled to France as a member of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations Sixth Session November 1951 – January 1952.
From 1953 he continued his literary work. He took a job as head of the Drama Department at the magazine Arts (Iskusstvo). He then disappears from the official records for five years. According to the personnel file during this time he was focussing on literary translations, and writing on Charlie Chaplin.
During 1958-61 he was head of the Foreign Film Department at the State Film Foundation USSR (GosFilmFond). During this time he collected materials for his major work on American film, which was published as part of the larger book: Cinema, Theater, Music, Painting in USA by Znanye (Knowledge).
From 1963 he started research work at the institute of Philosophy at the Academy of Science USSR where he worked until his pension in 1976. During these 13 years he wrote books, essays and articles on contemporary cinematography and critiques on bourgeoisie ideology and culture. The Passing Age – a book for foreign readers was published by Progress, and The Mass Culture of Bourgeoisie was published by PolitIzdat.
He lived his last years with his daughter and granddaughter – who we are hoping to find and interview. We are also very keen to find out more about his diplomatic career and whether there is any information on him, his book designers and illustrators in the archives of Progress publishers. If you have any information on Kukarkin, or would like to comment on his book or Split nik please contact us.
Also see http://www.vilma.cc/splitnik
September 11, 2011
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LOOKING FOR KUKARKIN
On Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas’ Split nik
In June 2011 I travelled to Russia for the first time, carrying preconceptions largely formed from Martin Cruz Smith novels.
I joined Lithuanian artists Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas and their Russian assistant, Anna Kotova, in an attempt to track down Alexander Kukarkin, an elusive Russian writer from the Cold War era. Our researches became as contorted as the Helter Skelter in Sokolniki Park where Nixon and Khrushchev had their famous 1959 Kitchen Debate.[i] See the full text account of our research, looking for Kukarkin, on http://traceywarr.wordpress.com
Our resulting art project, Split nik, is showing at the Moscow Biennale
23 Sept – 30 Oct 2011
at the Tsum Art Foundation, Tsum Department Store, 2 Petrovka str., Moscow
Open Mon–Fri: 10:00–22:00, Sat–Sun: 11:00–22:00
Nearest Metro Stations: Tverskaya, Teatral’naya.
We are inviting participation in dialogues about the Cold War and its legacies now, particularly in relation to the role of artists, writers and books. We invite your Future Casts. You can participate in person in the Split nik installation in the Moscow Biennale, or participate by commenting online:
Split nik on Facebook: http://vkontakte.ru/splitnik2011 [Russian]
Or comment on http://www.vilma.cc/splitnik [English]
Or comment here on http://traceywarr.wordpress.com [English]
July 23, 2010
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Some images from the event. I am currently writing a text on the project which I will upload in due course. A documentary film is also being edited at the moment. (July 2010)
May 14, 2009
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This text is published in the book Hadzi-Vasileva, Elpida (2009) Motectum, Gloucester: University of Gloucester/Artsway. The book is published to coincide with Elpida’s exhibition at Gloucester Cathedral. See http://www.elpihv.co.uk for further details.
Warr, Tracey (2009) ‘Raw Presence’
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva produces artworks that are carefully balanced between the beautiful and the brutal. There is a disjunction between the materials she uses: a cow’s stomach, pigs caul fat, one ton of butter, duck heads, salmon skins – and the exquisite sculptures and installations that she creates. ‘Matter out of place’, Mary Douglas writes in her great study of pollution taboos, is dirt, and yet she explains, dirt has a powerful creative charge (1966: 35). The materials Hadzi-Vasileva uses have a raw, uncanny presence to them because we know (and can sometimes smell as well as see) that this matter was formerly part of a living organism: an animal, bird or fish. Her work is full of paradoxes, between animate and inanimate, transcendent and abject. She recomposes decomposition into gorgeous forms.
Trees, animals, birds, food, clothing and architecture are recurring motifs in Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, as she sets up a visual and material dialogue between the structures of the natural world and the structures of human culture. Her work is responsive to specific sites and engages with local industries, communities and environments: the fishing industries in Berwick and Brighton, for example, or Indian restaurants in London’s Brick Lane.
The culmination of her year-long residency in Gloucester Cathedral is Motectum, a work which has three parts linked by the overarching theme of birds. She has created a sound installation mixing human and bird song in the cloisters and re-landscaped the cloisters garden; a crinoline dress made by stitching together translucent yellow chicken skins; and forty portrait busts of the feathered heads of dead ducks, pheasants and chickens.
When you step over the threshold into Gloucester Cathedral time seems to slow and stop – partly because of the weight of history here, but also because of the sheer volume of still air. The columns, buttresses and vaults of the cathedral rise up around the visitor like a great stone forest. The earliest parts of the Cathedral were built in 1089, alongside the Benedictine monastery that had been on the site since 678. The Cathedral has witnessed the crowning of Henry III, the burial of Edward II and the burning of Bishop Hooper. The monastery was dissolved under Henry VIII and the Cathedral narrowly escaped demolition under Oliver Cromwell. Its stained glass windows include the earliest image of golf (1350) and a fabulous beaked two-legged grotesque. An Angel Orchestra play their instruments in the ceiling above the choir. Inside the Cathedral are forty carvings of Green Men and outside, gargoyles funnel rainwater away from the walls.
It is easy to imagine monks in the 12th century pacing the quadrangle of the cloisters underneath the intricate stone latticework of their fan-vaulted ceilings, or to see them seated at the stone carols contemplating the enclosed garden through a colonnade of arched windows. The monks were mostly silent so the Cathedral was the sounding space where voices could burst out.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s work repopulates the garden with trees, shrubs and birds and reinhabits the cloisters with the soaring sound of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium. Tallis’ 16th century composition is a 40 voice motet. Hadzi-Vasileva has combined the human voices with recorded birdsong and live birdsong relayed from microphones in the garden and in nearby Highnam Woods. The sound installation along the four sides of the cloisters represents birds commonly found in four areas of Gloucestershire: the Forest of Dean, the Severn Estuary, the Cotswold Hills and Cotswold Water Park. The sound moves randomly between forty speakers placed in the cloisters, harnessing the extraordinary acoustics of the space. The ambitious scale of Hadzi-Vasileva’s work matches the vastness of the Cathedral itself.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s chicken skins dress creates a frisson of disgust. Dead skins, usually sloughed off, are here put back on, and worn against living skin. We sense or imagine a faint whiff of decay. ‘A voluntary embrace of the symbols of death is a kind of prophylactic against the effects of death’ (Douglas, 1966: 177). Jean Paul Sartre discussed stickiness as the queasy boundary between the self and other matter. Francis Bacon wanted his paintings to bear the trace of a life in the same way as the snail or slug leaves its trail of slime. Hadzi-Vasileva’s materials occupy this distasteful zone of inbetweenness. The laborious cleaning and preparation of organic materials in her work are reminiscent of the medieval textile processes of tanning, fulling, lacemaking and needlework. The chicken skins dress, housed within the carapace of the Cathedral itself, recall Gaston Bachelard’s discussion of a building as a nest or garment in his book The Poetics of Space (1969: 90-104). What is underneath and inside a material world of membranes and skins are recurring obsessions in Hadzi-Vasileva’s work. She takes dead waste materials and transforms them into new artefacts that show us the latent beauty of this discarded matter.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s portrait busts made from feathered duck, pheasant and chicken heads are in a dialogue with the heads of stone angels and saints in the Cathedral that have been worn down by erosion or damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers. The Cathedral’s angels and gargoyles are already hybrid bodies: composites of human and bird or animal. Hadzi-Vasileva’s work highlights this uncanny hybridity.
When the Cathedral was built in the Middle Ages, people did not have our contemporary euphemisms and squeamishness about food. They reared, killed and butchered their own animals, and would have trapped and eaten the songbirds too. Partridges, storks, cranes and larks were amongst the many species of birds that were eaten. Peacocks and swans were often skinned and cooked and then presented with their original plumage put back in place.
Sing a song of sixpence
a pocket full of rye
four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
the birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
to set before a king?
A 16th century Italian cookbook included a recipe for pies with live birds inside that flew out when the pies were cut open. These illusion foods were known as entremets or subtleties.
Hadzi-Vasileva’s work skirts, but will not be pinned down to, any straight forward thematic reading. She evokes political topics such as animal welfare and ecological issues but she is not judgemental and does not explicitly engage a subject. She makes us aware of the discord between our attitudes towards the garden songbirds and our attitudes towards domesticated birds. Whilst we protect and preserve the songbirds, the chickens, ducks and pheasants are being exploited for food and sport. The difficulty she had in getting well-feathered heads for the project is evidence of the often appalling conditions in which many domesticated birds are kept. The abject birds are revalued in her work.
Her concern with craft and husbandry suggests pre-digital and pre-industrial eras, and ecologists’ current advocacy of the need for the reacquisition of old skills and life styles in a time of climate change. Her work questions the human control and structuring of the natural world. Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, however, is materials-led rather than concept-led. She allows the materials to unfold into their own potentiality rather than imposing an idea on the forms that the work takes.
The bird is a symbol of the soul. Like the angels, the birds are of the sphere of transcendence. ‘A thing of the field that loves the air between’, wrote the Gloucestershire poet and musician Ivor Gurney (Kavanagh, 1982: 206). Angels and birds are messengers from the divine to the human. Alongside the raw presence of offal in Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, birds, angels and song transcend. ‘That which is rejected is ploughed back for a renewal of life’ (Douglas, 1966: 167).
Bachelard, Gaston (1969) The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press.
Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kavanagh, P.J. ed. (1982) Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
April 5, 2008
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Here are the references I promised to post from my lecture at the ACC Gallery in Weimar on 31 March 2008.
Allenheads Contemporary Arts, Northumberland http://www.acart.org.uk
Bennett, Oliver (ed.) (1990) Edge 90: Art & Life in the Nineties, London/Amsterdam: Edge Biennale Trust/Stitchting Mediamatic Foundation.
Buckingham, Matthew (2004) ‘Muhheakantuck – Everything Has a Name’, extract
from narrated film script, in Collier, Caroline et al (2005) This Storm is What We Call
Progress, Bristol: Arnolfini, pp. 89-94.
Debord, Guy (1995) The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books: New York. Originally published 1967.
Dixon, John W. Jnr. (1982) ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Early Earth Art’, Art Journal, Fall, pp.195-99.
Flam, Jack ed. (1996) The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gilchrist, Bruce (2001) ‘KnoWhere’, Performance Research, 6 (3), CD Rom.
Jablonskiene, Lolita (ed.) (1997) Ground Control: Technology and Utopia, London: Black Dog Publishing.
James, William (1890) The Principles of Psychology, Vol 1, New York: Henry Holt.
Kastner, Jeff (ed.) (1998) Land and Environmental Art, London: Phaidon Press.
Lebrero Stals, Jose (ed.) (1992) Edge 92: Artists’ Worlds/Mundos Artisticos, London/Madrid: Edge Biennale Trust/Ediciones Tabapress.
London Fieldworks http://www.londonfieldworks.com
Lovink, Geert (2005) ‘Hacking Public Spaces in Vilnius: Interview with Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas’, http://www.networkedcultures.org
Mauss, Marcel (1934) ‘Techniques of the Body’, reprinted in Jonathan Crary & Sanford Kwinter, eds. (1992) Incorporations. New York: Zone, pp. 455-72.
Nagel, Thomas (1974) ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’, Philosophical Review, Oct, pp. 435-50.
Newman, Hayley (2001) Performancemania, London: Matt’s Gallery.
Noe, Alva (2000) ‘Experience and Experiment in Art’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7 (8-9), pp. 123-35.
Rugoff, Ralph (1999) ‘Lost Horizons’, Tate, 18, Summer, pp. 23-29.
Sharp, Willoughby (1970)’ Body Works’, Avalanche, Fall, pp. 14-17.
Something Like Spit http://somethinglikespit.org.uk
Tiberghien, Gilles A. (1993) Land Art, London: Art Data.
Towards a Science of Consciousness http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu
Tsong-zung, Chang, ‘Encountering Asia’ in Xu Jiang et al, Edges of the Earth, Hangzhou: China Art Academy, 2003, pp. 190-93.
Turrell, James (1992) Air Mass, London: South Bank Centre.
Varela, Francisco J. (1999) ‘The Portable Laboratory’ in Obrist, Hans Ulrich & Vanderlinden, Barbara (eds.) (1999) Laboratorium, Antwerp: Provincaal Museum voor Fotografie, np.
Velmans, Max (2000) Understanding Consciousness, London: Routledge.
Warr, Tracey (2007) ‘Feral City’, in Sladen, Mark & Yedgar, Ariella ed. (2007) Panic Attack!: Art in the Punk Years, London: Merrell.
Warr, Tracey (2007) ‘Interview with Marcus Coates’, The Dawn Chorus. Bristol: Picture This. DVD Publication Series.
Warr, Tracey (2007) ‘Contemporary Metaphysics’, in Farquhar, Angus, ed. Half Life, Glasgow: NVA.
Warr, Tracey (2005) ‘Measuring Beauty in the Upper Ice-World’, in Gilchrist, Bruce
& Joelson, Jo, eds. Little Earth. London: London Fieldworks, pp. 11-19.
Warr, Tracey (2003) ‘Image as Icon: Recognising the Enigma’, in George, Adrian, ed. (2003) Art, Lies & Videotape: Exposing Performance. Liverpool: Tate Liverpool, pp. 30-37.
Warr, Tracey (2003) ‘A Moving Meditation on a Dead Line’, Performance Research, 8
(4), pp. 130-136.Warr, Tracey (2002) ‘Tuning In’, in Gilchrist, Bruce & Joelson, Jo,
eds. London Fieldworks: Syzygy/Polaria. London: Black Dog Publishing, pp. 6-11.
Warr, Tracey (2001)’ Being Something’, in Coates, Marcus, Marcus Coates.
Ambleside: Grizedale Books, np.
Warr, Tracey (2001) ‘Circuitry’. Performance Research, 6 (3), pp. 8-12.
Warr, Tracey (2000) ‘James Turrell’s Roden Crater’, Contemporary Visual Arts, 30, September, pp. 42-47.
Warr, Tracey ed. (2000) The Artist’s Body, London: Phaidon.
Warr, Tracey (1998) ‘In the Dark About Art’, in Stankevicius, Evaldas ed. (1998)
Twilight, Vilnius: Centre for Contemporary Arts.
Warr, Tracey (1996) ‘Sleeper: Risk and the Artist’s Body’, Performance Research, 1
(20), pp. 1-19.
Zhijie, Qiu http://www.qiuzhijie.com
Zhijie, Qiu (2006) ‘Interview’ in Curtis, Philip; Hualin, Gu; Johnson, Petra; Warr,
Tracey; Yeates, Liam; Yongjie, Cao (2006) Artist Links UK-China Research
Project, unpublished report for the British Council China.
March 11, 2008
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The following essay on artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey was published in Ackroyd, Heather & Harvey, Dan eds. (2002) Afterlife. London: Beaconsfield / Arts Admin, np. A few copies of the book still available from http://www.artsadmin.co.uk/artists/ah and http://www.beaconsfield.ltd.uk
Warr, Tracey (2002) ‘Passing Presence’.
For the last ten years Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have been using grass as a living photographic medium. Conventional photography captures a present moment and in an instant turns it into the past. Photography sets up, in effect, not a perception of the being-there of an object… but a perception of its having-been-there.1 Ackroyd and Harvey’s photography, on the other hand, is without closure.
Exploiting the light-sensitivity of young growing grass, they imprint photographic images on to grass grown vertically, so that the image is on the length of the blade, rather than dispersed over the tips. As the grass grows, the image becomes sharper. The further away you stand from the image, the higher the resolution – the more distinct it is. But time is, of course, embedded in the fragility of these chlorophyll apparitions. We know that the image will fade, the grass will yellow and die. The gradual disappearance of the image from vision, memory, life, is implicit in what we are looking at. Ackroyd and Harvey are giving photography a performative charge. As Peggy Phelan has pointed out, performance is about disappearance rather than preservation. Performance plunges momentarily into visibility in a maniacally charged present and disappears into memory.2 Ackroyd and Harvey’s work is a potent evocation of presence and presentness. It briefly delays the passing present but eventually both medium and representation mimic their subject and fade away.
Alongside their photographic work with grass, Ackroyd and Harvey have also been making architectural and spatial interventions with grass. The Other Side, made in Italy in 1990, was the first of a series of architectural interventions altering and engulfing structures with grass. In this work they grew the grass up the interior walls of a vaulted room. Grass House, 1991, in Hull, was a derelict house covered with a green skin. Their environment, The Undertaking, 1992, was made underneath The National Theatre of the Palais du Chaillot in Paris. where a labyrinth of tunnels leads to the city’s ancient catacombs and cemeteries. Here, they lined the walls, floors and ceilings of passages and stairways with grass, evoking both the claustrophobia of the open turf-lined grave and a sense of life renewing and springing up again. Footsteps worn in the grassy stairwells bore witness to time and memory.
In Theaterhaus Gessnerallee, Zurich, 1993, grass was grown over the entire exterior fayade of a building, emphasising the outlines of its classical proportions through the blanket of grass. In The Divide (Wellington, New Zealand, 1996) they split and separated a derelict building and grassed the vertiginous walls of the narrow divide. Like Gordon Matta-Clark’s severed buildings or Rachel Whiteread’s House, Ackroyd and Harvey bring these buildings into the consciousness of the viewer in the form of ghosts – their pasts temporally remote. But they are also given new life becoming verdant abstract sculptures.
In 1996, Ackroyd and Harvey collaborated with Pierre d’Avoine Architects on the Host interventions in Venice. The fact that the city is relentlessly undermined year by year by its canals, prompted them to create and exhibit lumps of plaster – pummelled under a dripping tap for ten days or holed like cheese in a stream for four days – which displayed the effects of water over time. In their work nature becomes a performer. And this performance by nature is even more pronounced in Ackroyd and Harvey’s photographic grass work. It began as an accidental discovery in their first architectural intervention. Having left a ladder leaning against the growing grass wall, they found that its image had been imprinted. They began to explore the capacity of grass to record either simple shadows or complex photographic images. The haunting presence of the emergent organic image was and still is quite revelationary to us.3
In 1997, with support from a Wellcome Trust Sci-Art Award and subsequently a NESTA grant, Ackroyd and Harvey started working with scientists at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth to explore the possibility of preserving the image longer. Professor Howard Thomas and Dr Helen Ougham were working on a stay-green grass, studying leaf aging and developing techniques for controlling the enzyme that degrades chlorophyll as a leaf dies. During the course of their collaboration with the artists they have advanced hyperspectral imaging which allows them to study minute colour changes in grass and a prototype stay-green grass seed which is growing in trials at the moment. In 1998 Ackroyd and Harvey made Mother and Child using staygreen grass and then dried it for exhibition in Santa Barbara, California. This process lasts longer than their earlier grass photography but still fades eventually, maintaining the concern with transience and presentness in their work.
These grass photographs recall the strange magic of early images made by photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot. He placed an object on paper sensitised with silver salts and then placed both in the sun. When the object was removed, the exposed paper retained the silhouette of the object. The frustration of capturing and then losing the image as it faded led him to seek ways to fix the image. In the 1920′s Man Ray adopted a similar technique with his Rayographs or Photograms and in 1950, Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil made Blueprints in which Weil’s nude body was placed directly onto light sensitive paper.4
Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface. .. the physical transposition of an object from the continuum of reality into the fixed condition of the art-image by a moment of isolation, or selection.5
In the fixed photograph there is a predatory, acquisitive instinct at work – an appropriation, a commodification, a stealing of souls. The fixed photographic image evinces a desire to hold on to things, an attachment to visibility. The camera has been theorised as a tomb, the photograph as a form of death. Things in process become images of frozen moments, artefacts of the past.
Ackroyd and Harvey have developed a deviant form of photography, without closure. Their works briefly stabilise the elusive and transient, and then let it fade away. Instead of the impression of having been there, in their grass photography we experience presence as fleeting present. Imprinting the human image on the living medium of grass they succeed in conjuring presence and presentness, in a celebration of the living moment. At the same time, reminding us of the inevitability of grass, image and subject fading away.
Ackroyd and Harvey’s grass photography makes literal the idea that pervades Thomas Hardy’s writing that Nature is both a mute witness and an inexorable contributor to the tragedy of human transience. And verdant Nature rolls on, recycling, regenerating while we must imagine a world eventually without us in it. Confrontation with our own mortality emphasises the intensity and vitality of the present lived moment. Ackroyd and Harvey’s choice of subjects is celebratory rather than morbid – the lined faces of the elderly who have lived long, a family picnic, mother and child. In Sunbathers, 2000, exhibited at Exit Art, New York, both subject and medium are soaking up light. In their imprints of the human face and body on grass Ackroyd and Harvey collide the surface of the material with the subject, mutability with the indexical.
Lush, green grass, saturated with light and water, is a symbol of life, fertility, abundance. The vegetable resurrection myths of the Green Man, Osiris and Balder celebrate the regenerating cycle of life. Plant photosynthesis gives us life by producing oxygen, but grass grows lushly too on our graves. The association of the human body with grass reduces us to temporary coagulations of matter and consciousness, a mere flow of flesh through food chains6 Like the skull, grass is a momento mori – all flesh is grass7 – an image of the inevitable corruption and decay of all living matter.
Ackroyd and Harvey’s use of grass as a photographic medium is an indexical practice, rather than a representational methodology. In their grass works there is a continued physical relationship with the subject. Physical traces – stains, footprints, body casts, shadows have all been identified as indexes rather than symbols.8 In Marcel Duchamp’s ten foot wide painting Tu m’ (You/Me), 1918, cast shadows of his readymades, including the bicycle wheel and the hatrack, were projected onto the surface of the canvas. In other indexical works, Piero Manzoni marked his inky thumbprint on eggs (To Devour Art, 1960). Bruce Gilchrist’s enlarged thumbprint was tattooed on his own arm (Transmutations, 1996) and relayed to an audience both as visual performance and as the sound of his pain, through the use of a galvanic skin resistance meter. In her essay, ‘Notes on the Index: Part 2’ Rosalind Krauss describes a performance by dancer Deborah Hay in which she did not dance but instead delivered a monologue to the audience, insisting that she was there. In their performance, Nightsea Crossing (1981-86), Marina Abramovic and Ulay sat in immobile silence, over a total of 90 days, making the same mute point. These are all indexical documents of presence, to which can be added Ackroyd and Harvey’s grass photography where presence and presentness is momentarily slowed.
For their new work, Afterlife, at Beaconsfield, Ackroyd and Harvey have captured their human subjects on a nearby zebra crossing in Vauxhall. The portraits of these passers-by are imprinted larger than life onto screens of growing grass but are not just pictures of other people in an unusual medium. Looking at these green images striding through the gallery and life, we see our own reflections caught briefly in the act of passing on.
1. Roland Barthes, Rhetorique de /’image, Communications, no. 4, 1964, p 47.
2. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, 1993, p 147.
3. Heather Ackroyd, Dan Harvey & Professor Howard Thomas, ‘The Ephemeral in Focus’, Royal Society Lecture delivered at Creating Sparks, Victoria & Albert Museum, 17 September 2000.
4. Helen Molesworth, ‘Before Bed’, October, 63, Winter 1993, pp 69-82.
5. Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: Part 1’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1985, pp 203-06.
6. Manuel DeLanda, ‘Nonorganic Life’ in Jonathan Crary & Sanford Kwinter, eds. Incorporations, Zone, New York, 1992, p 149.
7. The Bible, Isaiah ch 40: vv 6-8.
8. See Georges Didi-Huberman, The Index of the Absent Wound (Monograph on a Stain), trans. Thomas Repensek, October 29, Summer 1984 and Krauss, ‘Notes on the Index: Part 1 and Notes on the Index: Part 2’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, ibid, pp 196-219.