Hanging the Lawn

I'm not really into lawns. So long as there's more grass than bare dirt around my house, and it's short enough to see a tricycle in it, I'm happy. There was a time in my life when I found myself at parties where much of the conversation was devoted to lawns: the methods, machines and chemicals used to grow, mow and trim a little patch of vestigial savanna in front of one's house. These conversations set my teeth on edge. I couldn't drink heavily enough to deal with the subject. Anyway, my old neighbors ought to love the current installation at the Rice University Art Gallery. Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have found a way to cover interior walls with green grass. Not only that, they make pictures with it.

"Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey: Green Brick, Greenback" consists of two large photographic images with green and yellow grass as the print medium. One is a room-sized photo of bricks, and the other's a smaller enlargement of the back of a folded dollar bill. True, the grass here would make for a puny lawn. But it can be shown on a vertical surface, which may make it more useful for lawns in places less flat than Houston.

Ackroyd and Harvey select site-specific images for each of their installations, aiming for something that relates to the exhibit space and its environment. For an installation in London, they used photographs of locals on a crosswalk near the gallery. At Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, they used images of the museum itself, as well as photographs of items from the collection. At Rice, the dominating image is a photograph taken in the courtyard in front of Sewall Hall. It's an interesting photograph, depicting a row of brick archways at an angle. It shows only bricks and mortar, creating contrast and angle from the unseen gaps between the columns. Ackroyd and Harvey think of their work as a means of bringing the outside in. And in this case, they're literally creating an image of the outside of the building inside the gallery, with the grass itself echoing the fine Rice University lawns in which the building is placed.

The artists spent significant time here in Houston, learning about it and trying to select images that would make some comment upon the city. Did they conjure up an image that refers to freeways, the skyline, the frenzy for new stadiums, the oil business, the Ship Channel, space exploration, traffic, the lack of zoning, the Enron scandal, cheesy billboards and topless bars? Sort of. In addition to the bricks of Rice University, they chose the back of a dollar bill. Seems like they could have tried a little harder. Their medium itself evidences more imagination than does this image or the one of Sewall Hall.

In a talk at the installation's opening, Ackroyd and Harvey claimed that the notion of using the dollar bill occurred as they were driving into town from the south on I-45, viewing and smelling the Ship Channel refineries. And they're right that the dollar bill's got a lot do with Houston, but lots of cities exist because of trade or manufacturing of some kind -- and the money to be made from it.

The installations are a form of photographic print that uses chlorophyll and grass instead of photographic chemicals and paper. The gallery was turned into a large darkroom for several days before the opening, with black plastic sheeting keeping external light out. A photographic negative was projected onto the grass as it hung on the wall. The areas through which the most light shone turned the darkest green. Those that received the least came out yellow.

The process allows for a fine degree of photographic resolution with precise variations in gray (or green-yellow) tone. The grass is dried, so that by the time it's ready for display, it's effectively dead, and the yellow areas won't fill in green when exposed to the light necessary for viewing. The lighting is reduced in the gallery to avoid fading caused by ultraviolet light.

In interviews, Ackroyd and Harvey describe their work as combining science and art. For the science part, they received help from some scientists at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Wales, who've developed a "stay green" grass that doesn't lose its tint as it dies, allowing their pieces to last longer. This is accomplished by manipulating the genetic switch that causes dying plants to lose their color. (Such technology would surely reduce the resources in water, chemicals and energy required to keep the world's neighborhood associations satisfied with their members' lawns.)

Before they met, Ackroyd had been working in performance art and Harvey in sculpture. They had both used grass in their individual work before, and when they decided to collaborate, they figured it was a logical focus. The pair did their first project in the self-proclaimed "international artists' village" of Bussana Vecchia, near San Remo in Italy. The piece, called The Other Side, involved covering walls of a building with live grass. When a ladder that had been leaning against one of the walls was moved, they noticed the yellow color of the portion that had been in its shadow. This observation was the beginning of their exploration of grass as a photographic medium.

As both freely admit, anyone who's picked up an object left lying on a green lawn would observe the same thing. Noticing some kind of phenomenon and then taking it a step further is something both artists and scientists do. A mind (or a couple of minds) starts playing with an idea, and some kind of progress is made.

It seems unlikely that a performance artist and a sculptor born in the same year, both of whom use grass in their work, would hook up to work together and stumble upon a way to create photographic grass images. But in retrospect, their collaboration takes on a certain inevitability. As do all important scientific discoveries and artistic accomplishments. If this were happening in a scientific context, somebody would already be trying to find engineering applications for the discovery. And if we start to see lawns that double as wedding photos, sports fields with grass advertisements, or folks with high-resolution pink-and-tan pictures on their bodies (just bring a photographic negative into a tanning bed), we'll know who deserves the credit.

The images Ackroyd and Harvey create are sometimes called photosynthesis images (though not directly by them). You probably remember the term "photosynthesis" from high school biology. It's the green-plant magic that, using light as an energy source, creates carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water, and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. It's a good thing. Without it, there'd be no life. As applied here, the term's not really accurate. But photosynthesis is a big word, and it does sound scientific.

Even though the works here may not cause any strong immediate reaction, give them time. Maybe they'll grow on you, even if a love of lawn care never does.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Fahl