A Gift of Presence: Living Art at the Gardner

The gap between art and science is narrowing. Certainly, Presence: The Ephemeral in Focus, now at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, would suggest that art and science are a match made in heaven—or in this case, the Elysian Fields. British couple and collaborators Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have perused the DaVinci-esque tradition of artist as scientist and scientist as artist. The astounding works they have created are grown out of their combined efforts as both. Their show is currently on view in the back gallery of the Gardner, just beyond the museum’s wonderful courtyard garden. But Presence does not feel separate from that green haven, but instead it seems an extension of it: All seven of Ackroyd and Harvey’s works are photographic images on grass.

Yes, grass. And no, not photographs of grass, but a photographic process using grass as a sort of photo paper. Ackroyd and Harvey have created a method in which the photosynthesis of grass is used to make an image. The artists plant grass in clay screens and expose the grass to an image as it grows. Depending on the amount of light different areas receive the blades will develop different pigmentation. Less light turns the grass to a white or yellow; more light means more different intensities of green.

Though the process of creating a grass photo itself is something of a science, Ackroyd and Harvey turned to purely scientific enquiry to overcome a flaw in the material. Like photographic paper, an image printed on grass will fade if it is not fixed in some way. The images Ackroyd and Harvey created would last only as long as the chlorophyll (the green pigment) lived. Once the grass died, so did the chlorophyll and the image would fade in a relatively short period of time, several months at most. So Ackroyd and Harvey teamed up with scientists to overcome the fading problem. Working at the institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, they found the gene for greenness grass, the “Green Forever” gene. Using this discovery they were able to engineer “stay-green” grass, that remains green after drying and for lengths of several years.

Selected for the Gardner’s artist-in-residence program, Ackroyd and Harvey spent last March living in an apartment perched—appropriately—above the gardens and greenhouse of the Gardner. The program allows resident artists to take inspiration from some aspect, work or artist in the museum. During their stay they created the seven photos printed on “stay-green” grass that are now on view in Presence. This was not the first time either artist had worked with grass. In fact, both were already working in the medium when the met and began to collaborate over 10 years ago. Some of Ackroyd and Harvey’s other work have included grass-covered buildings and clothing made of grass. As part of a campaign against the use of fur, they created a grass-fur coat grown on burlap that was then stitched together.

One of the inspirational features that Ackroyd and Harvey focused on was role that light played in the Gardner. Light is both a destructive force and one that allows creation. In the Gardner this dual nature of light is particularly evident. Many of the masterpieces that it houses, particularly Rembrandts’ work, are stunning examples of art’s ability to capture the ephemeral nature of light. At the same time, the museum must constantly fight to protect those same works and their many tapestries from the decay that overexposure to sun will accelerate. In Harvey and Ackroyd’s own work the relationship between the creating, life giving power of light and its destructive aspect is condensed into a shorter span of time. Their work explores the inevitability of time’s passing and the desire to control—and even freeze—that passage through art making.

The seven images in the show consist of five large portraits and two very large still lifes. Under dim lighting (important to their preservation) the grass canvases seem to glow gently. At the request of the artists, only five visitors at a time are allowed into the show. Whether this is because of the delicate nature of their work, or an impression they wished to create, this choice makes Presence feel like a quiet, spiritual space.

Ackroyd and Harvey used as the subjects of their photographs people and objects that inhabit the Gardner. The two largest pieces face each other and have a particularly compelling relationship. One, a triptych on hinges, is comprised of three panels: a bookshelf in the museum at the center and the exit doors on the side panels. Facing that piece is “Script.” As if one had been able to open a book on the photographed shelf “Script” displays a close up of an excerpted passage from Dante’s Inferno. The excerpt is from Canto IV in which Virgil leads Dante to a garden-like place that is the home of Virgil and other great thinkers of antiquity. “Script” is particularly effective. The letters seem to sit almost on top of the grass, as if they were three-dimensional.

Two pairs of portraits enter into dialogue with each other across the room. The images themselves are not particularly unusual. One pair is portraits of a male staff member and a female visitor, the other a religious sculpture of man and the bust of a woman. But what is unusual is that they seem utterly alive. The combination of the fact that Ackroyd and Harvey’s images are almost three-dimensional and are made of organic material, give them a quality unlike any photographs. As one moves across the room the angles that the blades intersect each other shift and this too makes it appear as though the viewer were seeing breathing moving images. And, in fact we are: These are living photographs.

Though it is possible to understand the process that Ackroyd and Harvey use to create their works, the affect they produce is very adequately expressed by what one young visitor to Presence wrote in the museum’s guest book: “How the hell did you guys do this?” The sum of Ackroyd and Harvey’s work is indeed far more than can be explained by its parts.

Artist-In-Residence Program

The Isabella Stuart Gardner artist-in-residence program, established in1992, continues the tradition of giving patronage to artists held by Gardner, the museum’s creator. More than 30 visual artists, writers, musicians and composers have participated in the program since its inception. During their month stay, the program encourages contemporary artists to study and take inspiration from some aspect or piece in the museum’s collections. Out of that inspiration the resident artist creates his or her work to be presented at the end of the stay. Lectures and community events are also an integral part of the artist-in-residence program. The program is also an innovative and intelligent way of bringing freshness and modernity to a permanent collection that cannot be changed by decree of Gardner’s will.