Ackroyd & Harvey: The Lark Descending

As part of Surrey Unearthed, artist duo Ackroyd & Harvey will present The Lark Descending, an evolving exhibition and dynamic events programme exploring the ecology, geology, history and culture of Leith Hill. Taking place in the former Body Shop in Dorking, the exhibition will be built around six key elements: Air, Terra, Soil, Water, Clay and Oil, assuming the multiple layers of the land itself, and referencing the imminent threat to Leith Hill from exploratory oil drilling.

The exhibition commences with ‘Air’, for which the artists will grow a large-scale photosynthesis work within the exhibition space. An aerial view of Leith Hill, documenting its breadth and diversity, will be captured through detailed drone footage and subsequently imprinted directly onto a wall of living grass, producing a living bio-chemical photographic work. Speaking of the process, the artists said that ‘grass grown from seed on vertical surfaces has an extraordinary capacity to record complex photographic images through the production of chlorophyll.’ Ackroyd & Harvey have adapted the photographic art of producing pictures on light sensitive film, utilising the light sensitivity of emergent blades of young grass to ‘breathe plant life into a planet too often gasping for air’.

Moving into ‘Terra’, the artists will install a series of trees from their open-ended research project Beuys’ Acorns, which in 2007, saw Ackroyd & Harvey germinate hundreds of acorns collected from Joseph Beuys’ seminal artwork 7000 Oaks. The trees grew for many years on the slopes of Leith Hill, and drawing on Beuys’ 1982 statement that ‘all cities and towns should become forest-like’, early research was dedicated to trees in the urban space. The focus of the project has now shifted to socio-ecological justice, with the artists looking at the close proximity of the proposed drilling well in Leith Hill to a Site for Specific Scientific Interest (protected by law to conserve wildlife and geology), and preserving the legality of human rights to peacefully protest without fear of an injunction.

Ackroyd & Harvey will present their 2009 animated film Bookworms to illustrate ‘Soil’. The film, commissioned for Darwin Originals to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, is a conversation between the artists and antiquarian booksellers, Chris and Michèle Kohler, exploring Darwin’s relationship with Leith Hill Place. It was here that Darwin’s sister Caroline had lived with her husband Josiah Wedgwood, and where Darwin conducted his formative worm studies. In observing stones left on the foundations of a kiln within the estate, he noted that the earth had started to bank-up the sides of the stone and that the stone itself had sunk into the ground, Darwin later concluded that parts of the stone became buried by the action of earthworms excavating soil from beneath and depositing it above the surface. ‘Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.’ Charles Darwin

The subsequent level, ‘Water’, draws the audience down to the aquifers and springs that lay below the surface of the hill, the source of water courses that supply the Mole Valley catchment area, and further afield to South London. This is represented by a bound publication and a public workshop led by Dr Julian Manley. The book comprises over 103,000 signatures submitted to 38 Degrees’ petition ‘Don’t risk water pollution from oil drilling on Leith Hill’, an indicator of major public concern around contamination from drilling techniques. Seeking to engage with visual imagination and emotional awareness, the public workshop will open up new pathways to understanding human relationships with the landscape of Leith Hill, and encourage participants to delve deeper into their subliminal perceptions of place.

The minerals of ‘Clay’ are ubiquitous in the targeting rocks of oil and gas exploration. For this layer of the exhibition, the artists will introduce a series of objects to the space, including their 2017 work The Satanic Formula (after Senanayake).

Ackroyd & Harvey will conclude with ‘Oil’, a pertinent topic for the artists and the community of Dorking, as they continue to contest commercial exploitation of oil. The space will be populated with local people and activists, creating an open platform for discussion, and probing conversations that resound locally, nationally and internationally.

The exhibition will be augmented by a series of talks, workshops and discussions covering, respectively, the protected flora and fauna of Leith Hill; the work of Charles Darwin and the importance of worms; psycho-social dreaming and our innate connection with the land; and the on-going mission of A Voice for Leith Hill, Leith Hill Action Group and campaigners to protect and preserve the land.

The Lark Descending, a playful take on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece The Lark Ascending, seeks to ‘unearth’ our emotional connection with the Surrey Hills, revealing the fragility, beauty and deeper chords of influence wielded by Leith Hill.

Images: Protector Series Constance, Leith Hill No Drill 2018 © Ackroyd & Harvey; Beuys’ Acorns, Trees on Tour 2015 © Ackroyd & Harvey (Jardin Botanique, Bordeaux); The Satanic Formula (after Senanayake) © Ackroyd & Harvey, 2017