BLOG Claire Pickard

NWR Issue 109

Ackroyd & Harvey: Stranded, Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Detail from ‘Stranded’, whale bone & crystal, Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey


One of the most striking aspects of Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s exhibition is its pared-down quality. From the number of pieces – there are only four – to the nature of those pieces, the emphasis is upon stripping things back, in some cases literally, to their fundamentals. The centrepiece, from which the entire exhibition takes its name, is the skeleton of a Minke whale. At over six metres long, it dominates the space. Accompanying it is a film which explains how the artists themselves removed the flesh of the decomposing whale, through a butchering process fit to test even the strongest of stomachs. The bones were then cleaned with enzymes before being placed in tanks of a supersaturated chemical solution. Seeds formed as the solution cooled, causing the skeleton to become encrusted with fragile crystals.

The resulting piece is arresting – even without the crystals, the bones are beautiful. Their whiteness, and the cleanness of their lines, stand in dislocating contrast to the gore-filled process of their excavation, images of which play continuously on the wall beside them. Yet, however tempting it may be to turn away from these images, to do so would be to limit our understanding of the piece. As Ackroyd and Harvey have written in relation to the exhibition, ‘Our site-specific artwork involves processes of growth, decay, erosion and transformation. It is transient. It is about change. And in our world there is continual change, and therefore continual loss.’

These processes – and the fact that human beings can influence and distort them – are central. As well as being artists, Ackroyd and Harvey are environmental activists. Whilst it would not be fair to state that the visual and aesthetic aspects of their work are placed in the service of their activism, the two cannot be easily separated. Their notes emphasise that their work, on this piece and the whole exhibition, reflects their intense awareness that the continued use of fossil fuels is increasing the acidity of the oceans to such a degree that the life forms that exist within them – from corals to whales - are threatened.

This intersection between activism and creativity is even more apparent in another exhibit, ‘Polar Diamond’, inspired by the artists’ trip to the Svalbard Arctic Archipelago in 2004. The diamond was grown from the carbon graphite created when the leg bone of a polar bear was cremated. The process is one that occurs naturally, but usually over millennia. Ackroyd and Harvey were able to artificially accelerate this process. The resulting diamond provides a visual representation of the financial and environmental price of carbon and signals ‘an anticipation of loss, and the knowledge that rarity inevitably increases value.’ By engineering the creation of an object as resonant as a diamond, with associations of beauty and endurance, but also of extravagance and exploitation, from the bone of a creature whose increasing rarity reflects how little it has been valued, the artists ask those who view their work to interrogate the very notions of cost and worth.

The final pieces in the exhibition are a film of the Ecocide Trial and a series of Automated Feather and Ink Drawings. The former follows a ‘Mock Trial’ at the Supreme Court based on a fictionalised account of an environmental disaster. The drawings deploy gestural patterns of black and brown lines against a white background. They remind the viewer simultaneously of the juddering movement of birds caught in oil slicks and the smoke of air pollution. These drawings served as ‘exhibits’ in the mock trial, providing arguably the most explicit expression of the symbiotic relationship between the artists’ art and their activism thus far. As well as the particular issues that Stranded raises in relation to the dangers of climate change, it is this relationship, and the broader purpose and power of the arts, that the exhibition forces into the spotlight.

Claire Pickard is a regular contributor. She lives north of Aberystwyth.

Burning Bone, Polar Diamond’, 2009, bone & diamond, Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey


Ackroyd & Harvey: Stranded is at Oriel 1, Aberystwyth Arts Centre until 16 January.




       


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