Arts: True Colours: Green ; Colours Are Powerfully Significant in Our Perception of the World, but Can We Ever Establish What Their Meanings Are? in the First of an Occasional Series, Leslie Forbes Examines the Basic Hue of Nature
Forbes, Leslie, The Independent (London, England)
The sum of light and shade is green, a fleeting colour, as all artists know. Green paints and dyes are known as "transient", "fugitive", "volatile", words that bring the colour to life, give it an outlaw's unstable personality. We feel an ambivalence about its uncontrollable nature, which "slows tools, chokes outlets", as the poet Alice Oswald writes in a recent collection, "like something struggling to be held". Green is sunlight forced through each leaf and wedged unwillingly in a narrow place. Just look what happens if we don't keep an eye on our patch, our slice of Arcadia.
Subverting the British love of gardens, turning the lawn upside down and inside out, is the speciality of artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, who work with green's transient nature instead of against it. Their vertical lawns have covered every surface, from a church in Zurich to the vaults of the Palais de Chaillot in Paris and a skeletal blasted oak. Chlorophyll is their medium, and they manipulate its photosensitive powers by growing grass vertically in a dark studio and then exposing it to light, thereby achieving shades of green grass in their "living" photographs equivalent to the greys in black and white film.
For several years, the two artists had been searching for a way to arrest the ephemeral nature of their extraordinary pictures, inhibit the loss of chlorophyll and "fix" the photographic image permanently within its grassy skin. But until three years ago, when a Wellcome Trust Sci-Art award allowed a collaboration between Ackroyd, Harvey and scientists at IGER (Aberystwyth's Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research), the living canvases were destined to die as soon as their meagre supply of nutrients was depleted.
Now, using a stay-green seed developed with the help of IGER geneticists like Professor Howard Thomas, the life of these grass photographs can be extended. By the spells of their natural magic, as early photographic pioneer John Herschel put it, these artists and scientists together have managed to capture "that most transitory of things, a shadow, the emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary".
IGER's pioneering work has resonances far beyond the art world, of course, but for Ackroyd and Harvey it is the equivalent of the discovery that pigments ground from water, when "frescoed" onto a lime-plaster wall, would survive as long as the wall. Professor Thomas has confessed that this is the most creatively satisfying part of his research. "As you may imagine, I am inordinately fond of the colour green," he said.
A man as elusive as the colour he studies, he is not unlike the fugitive magnesium molecule at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule: invisible in the picture, but essential to it. He has weighed the colour green, put it on the scales before and after it faded to yellow, measured what we are losing day by day. And his obsession lies at the root of my new novel, Fish, Blood & Bone, which was grafted from the buds and stems of those real artists, real scientists. Impressed by meeting them three years ago, I noted: doesn't their need to "fix" the ephemeral in time go against the very beauty of green?
Oscar Wilde, with a green carnation in his buttonhole, thought so. He believed that the ambiguous, unstable energy of green was linked to creativity (Dorian Grey was evergreen while his portrait browned and cracked like an old leaf); it certainly was to intoxication: absinthe, a favourite drink among the artistic set of Wilde's time, was often called "the green fairy", and drunk during l'heure verte. …