Critique and Materiality in Ackroyd & Harvey’s Photographic Chlorophyll series

Avery Shoemaker
2nd year undergraduate student
McGill School of Environment

Lawns are luxurious. They require heavy inputs and heavy upkeep. In their expanse, homogeneity, and lushness, lawns indicate wealth, control, abundance, and power. Maintaining these lawns of suburbia, of golf courses, and of private property demands water, frequent mowing, and fertilizers: they require, and draw to them, human labour. The resulting homogeneity renders lawns timeless, season-less—or perhaps frozen in the perfect moment of a perfect summer. Lawns indicate the use of enough resources to render the common plant something greater—a merging of a natural substance and process with a very human and very linear use.

Lawns, it would seem, are an easy symbol for modernity—the control-driven relationship to the environment, where linearity and predictability are central and strived for. The “ideal” lawn, an uninterrupted stretch of a single plant, is a monoculture. Most other species are eliminated, and uniformity of color and texture is maximized. Grass as lawn, like any other monoculture, is largely divorced from its wider ecology, or what in environmental criticism is described as “first nature.” Grass as lawn is both a medium and a symbol of this human-nature relationship. Chlorophyll here, manifested as “lawn” in its homogeneity, becomes performative, expressing control, of power over and mastery of “nature” and the natural. Yes, it provides the necessary biological conversion of light into energy, but here it also fulfills a more anthropocentric role. We humans tend to like our nature within certain parameters, such that the natural serves a linear purpose, to provide a service for us–whether aesthetic, agricultural, or scientific. We like our nature soft, pliable, and cooperative–like a lawn.

The lawn represents an orientation to environment we may leave behind as we find ourselves ever more deeply entrenched in the Anthropocene, with all its precariousness and uncertainty. Increasingly, we are seeing the necessity of shifting our relational paradigm from the impulse to control, conquer, and perhaps overcome the natural to one that takes into account the intricate webs of connection–and acknowledges that we humans are embedded in all this and are subject to it.

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s Photographic Chlorophyll series takes grass, or the chlorophyll giving it its greenness, as its medium. Their process involves covering surfaces—from building facades and interiors, to staircases, to surfaces on which to display more traditional artworks like paintings or photographs—with a layer of clay, then “seeding” the surface with a special “stay-green” variety of grass seed.[1] They then expose the seeded surface to light, and let the grass grow without cutting it or otherwise altering it. To create images in the grass, the amount of light exposed to some areas of the grass is limited, thus limiting the amount of chlorophyll produced, and resulting in variations in color.

So, Ackroyd and Harvey grow their grass within certain set parameters, using a certain set of materials, but then let it grow with minimal upkeep. Ackroyd and Harvey’s work, thus, could be deemed a “quasi-lawn”; it shares some material and some symbolic similarity to the lawn of modernity, but is rendered distinct by meaningful differences.

The question of materiality of Ackroyd and Harvey’s work exists within a larger context, as materiality has come to the fore in discussions of contemporary art, especially those works which deal with climate and ecology. Having an ecological conscience requires a conscious use of resources, and a new imperative to consider materiality as central to the meaning of a work. The tension that emerges out of work of this sort engages the interaction of the materially and theoretically useful—which seems to be a persistent problem in aesthetic practice.

This tension is apparent in Ackroyd and Harvey’s work–on the one hand, theoretical implications and aspects of their material use critique, while also mimicking, the lawn of suburbia, of private property, of an unsustainable past and present and the notion of a separate and controllable natural world. Instead of aiming for a homogenous expanse of grass, Ackroyd and Harvey harness the variations in color produced by altering the light “fed” to the seeds, thus nuancing and complicating rather than simply reproducing our relationship with grass. So, in a sense their material choice is more chlorophyll than grass. It’s the biological process of conversion and change, not its sum as a lawn, which drives the work. Instead of fervent upkeep, their grass is allowed to run its course, and respond to irregularity in its environment. It is not frozen in time, but embedded within it and subject to it. Their grass portraits in particular, through the transience of the image, engage notions of time and decay, perhaps leveling a critique at the preservationist orientation of art museums and traditional art works. Their work, in this way, accepts decay, change, and temporality, and lets go of the impossible timelessness of the modern orientation.

On the other hand, the material differences between Ackroyd and Harvey’s work and lawns themselves are not all together substantial enough to be wholly separate from the unsustainable practices they critique. Ackroyd and Harvey’s work mimics monoculture—both use straightforward inputs to yield a specific output. There is a measured dose of each component and a set technique for carrying out each piece. Production of their work requires that the elements involved will behave in a predictable way. The use of a genetically modified strain of grass emphasizes this, and perhaps also makes subtle reference to the loss of genetic diversity we are experiencing in monoculture—and the vulnerability and precariousness that emerges. Unresolved, though, is the fact that their grass is an ecologically separate, rather than integrated, material. It serves no real ecological function beyond its own existence. This contrasts with a piece like Joseph Beuy’s 7000 Oaks, where each tree could become integrated into the greater landscape, embedded and implicated in the web of human and non-human interaction. Ackroyd and Harvey’s grass may be biodegradable, may be temporary, or nontoxic, or otherwise “safe,” but it is nonetheless a divorce of a species from its ecology, an arguably “unnatural” condition.

Ackroyd and Harvey’s work skirts an interesting divide: between the theoretically and materially useful, and between critique and reproduction. Existing in this space, it embodies the turbulence and precarity of human identity in the Anthropocene. The problems of Ackroyd and Harvey’s work extend to many other works of material-driven realism—it may be conditional to our time. On a broader level, using an ecological object or process to communicate a critique is still a human purpose, even if fundamentally critical. Maybe this is unavoidable: since all materials we use come from the earth, virtually all art is thus “resource extractive.” This is not at all to propose elimination of art production, but to underscore the necessity of a new ethic of aesthetic material use in this resource scarce era. We cannot divorce ourselves from the very materials we employ to produce an aesthetic object. Ackroyd and Harvey’s work can be read in this manner, tangled in implication and spanning a few distinct paradigms. Still, despite the useful and interesting theoretical implications of their work, it could, perhaps by someone thirsty, be regarded as a waste of water.

[1] – Alison Bracker “The Emergent Blade”, 2001