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Trees of knowledge: Interview with Ackroyd & Harvey

Ackroyd & Harvey have fused nature and engineering to mark London 2012’s legacy and the Olympic Park’s hidden history

While Anish Kapoor’s blood-red Orbit Tower twists up from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park into the east London skyline, last month saw the unveiling of another, more organic art commission that will also be a permanent—and living—reminder of this summer’s sporting events. The environmentally conscious artists Ackroyd & Harvey will mark each of the ten entrances to the Olympic Park, in Stratford, east London, with a large, specially planted mature tree, each one supporting a stainless steel or bronze ring. The rings, each six metres in diameter and weighing more than half a tonne, are engraved with texts providing information—horticultural, historical, anecdotal—about their specific sites. Ackroyd & Harvey have worked together since 1990 and are known for their architectural interventions involving the covering of buildings in seedling grass: in 2007, they grassed over two sides of the concrete “flytower” of London’s National Theatre. They have also made expeditions to the Arctic with the Cape Farewell project, resulting in Stranded, 2006, a six-metre-long whale skeleton with a glittering coating of alum crystals. Another work involves the germination of acorns from Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks, 1982. The first three trees for their Olympic project have been planted and their rings installed. The remaining seven will be in place by the end of 2013.

The Art Newspaper: What influenced your choice of trees? As well as English oak and common ash, many come from across the world: a Turkish hazel and an Indian bean tree, for instance.

Ackroyd & Harvey: We chose the most beautiful specimens we could find; the largest, the most mature and the species that would thrive in the environment of the park, with a feel of an arboretum. We wanted very large trees and those we have chosen are all more than 30 years old—the English oak is closer to 50—and have been grown specifically for transplanting, with their roots pruned for minimum shock to the tree. We have also had to work very closely with engineers from the very beginning, as some trees would never be able to support the weight of the metal rings. So the aesthetics were also developed closely with the pragmatics; we needed to have trees with a long trunk stem height so that we can get the rings as high as we can in the canopy. Some trees fork quite early on—for example, we looked at a very handsome hornbeam tree, but it branched too early.

Three trees have been installed and the rest will be planted after the Olympics, so is the work as much a reminder of the event as a celebration?

We see it very much as a historical project. The specific commission was to create a piece that would act as a memory of the event and respond to the history and narrative of the site. So our trees will mark the positions and entrances to what is the Olympic Park during the Olympics, but afterwards some of that will alter. But just as integral to the work is the recognition of the site before the Olympics. So even though the full force of the Olympics has been felt on this site over the past few years, once the park was cleared, there was suddenly this extraordinary blank canvas that allowed the Museum of London to excavate more than 100 evaluation trenches, and eight deep excavations. They found some extraordinary evidence going back to Paleolithic times of channels being created, Iron Age huts, Neolithic burial pits and Roman dung heaps. So what we recognised about this whole area was that it has been subject to an enormous amount of change, and underlying this is the fact that it’s a marshland, so the rivers and the waterways have been intersecting and carving and affecting the land all the time. The Olympics are part of that, but the engraving on the rings that are suspended in the trees is actually dealing with all the evidence we could access prior to the Olympics.

It is also a contested site; many people within and beyond the local communities resent the disruption, expense and displacement that the Olympics have caused.

In the immediate short term, the conflicts are very deeply felt and they are very emotional, and it cannot be denied that there have been some significant losses. The way in which we approached the project was by thinking: “What do we really want to be looking at, 30 years down the line? What is going to hold itself? What is still going to maintain a presence when we go back to the site?” And the answer seemed to be a tree. Trees accrue beauty as they mature and grow old, as opposed to some sort of sculptural thing glorifying the Olympics that might become dated over time. The work is very much a celebration of what was there, going back almost to prehistory, but also right up to the compulsory purchases of businesses on the site [due to the Olympics]: their names are written in the rings. It’s very much a recognition of the whole history of that particular space and also looking to its future: it will be the largest urban park in this country for more than a century, which was also a major factor in making us want to take on this project. Most of these trees won’t reach full maturity for another 40 to 50 years, and many easily have another 100 or 200 years’ life in them.

Organic processes seem to be embedded in all of your work.

Yes, and also the tension between our notion of nature and these urban constructed environments. When we grew seedling grass on the flytower, we were introducing a slice of the pastoral to this extraordinary, austere concrete building. With the trees, we are looking at this living medium and its relationship to engineering and technology. We can only get these half-tonne, six-metre-wide rings suspended in the trees because of the brilliance of the engineers and arboreal experts we are working with, so they also form a counterpoint between these two processes: the organic and the technical.

Will people be able to read the texts on the rings?

The texts will be visible from the ground, but they don’t have a beginning and an end, and they are not in chronological order. Over time, they will become more engulfed in the canopy of the trees, especially when the trees are in leaf—but although they might be tantalisingly out of reach, they will never be completely obscured. They are like time capsules. Just as the internal time rings of a tree tell you a great deal, but you have to cut a tree down to get this information, so with our rings: when these trees eventually do come down—hopefully long after our lifetimes—all that information will be there.

Biography

Born: Both 1959

Education: Heather Ackroyd: BA Hons, Manchester Metropolitan University, 1980. Dan Harvey: BA Hons, Cardiff College of Art, 1978; MA Sculpture Royal College of Art, London, 1984

Selected solo shows: 2010 “On the Field”, Mladi Levi International Festival, Ljubljana, Slovenia 2008 “Twist”, Newfoundland Gyratory, Cabot Circus, Bristol, UK 2007 “Flytower”, Royal National Theatre, London 2004 “European Space”, 9th Sculpture Quadrennial, Riga, Latvia; “Green Brick, Green Back”, Rice Gallery, Houston, Texas 2003 “Dilston Grove”, LIFT, Café Gallery Projects and “Artsadmin”, Bermondsey, London 2000 “Zuel di Qua, Creating Sparks”, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Selected group shows: 2011 “Ars Apocalipsis: Art and Collapse”, Kunsterverein Kreis Gütersloh, Germany; “Principia”, Piazza del Duomo, Milan 2010 “Terre Vulnerabili: a Growing Exhibition”, 2nd/3rd/4th Quarters, Hangar Bicocca, Milan 2009 “Earth: Art of a Changing World”, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2005 World Expo, British Pavilion, Aichi, Japan