Beuys’ Acorns

When a tree is a work of art, a forest a social movement

“We must continue along the road of interrelating socio-ecologically all the forces present in our society until we perform an action which extends to the fields of culture, economy and democratic rights.”  Joseph Beuys, 1982. (1)

 Beuys’ Acorns is an open-ended research project initiated in 2007 when the artists germinated hundreds of acorns collected from Beuys’s seminal artwork “7000 Oaks”. Drawing on the agency of ideas integral to the provenance of the seeds, Ackroyd & Harvey are entering a new research phase that critically engages with political and economic drivers that seek to undermine socio-ecological justice and democratic rights throughout England.

“Our sense of protecting these tender trees is heightened by our sharpened awareness of Beuys’s relevance in 2017, where vicious political vanities and corporate economic stealth seek to actively undermine decades of nature protection, social democracy and fragile climate change agreements.” 

 Artist Joseph Beuys declared a need for radical action and with the planting of an oak sapling in the German city of Kassel in 1982, inaugurated Documenta 7 with the first of seven thousand trees planted over the ensuing five years. Each tree is paired with a column of basalt stone mined from a regional quarry, a crystalline mass standing four foot above ground, a marker for the symbolic action of making the world a big forest, making towns and environments, forest-like.

Radical late ME A. Adj. Of or pertaining to a root or roots. Forming the root, basis of foundation; original, primary 1560. Going to the root or origin; thorough; esp. r. change, cure 1651. (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary)

The tree in Beuys’s art is an element of regeneration, which the artist regarded in itself a concept of time. The planting of seven thousand trees across the city activated residents, kindergartens, neighbourhood associations in the creation of a huge urban forest: a living, breathing agent that ultimately transcends the breadth of peoples’ lives. 7000 Oaks is a sculpture that Beuys regarded as relating to people, to their everyday work, and he termed this concept of art as ‘social sculpture’. Ultimately, 7000 Oaks epitomises his ideals about the transformative power of art, as a symbolic start for the metamorphosis of the social body, a means for a future social order:

The capital of the world is not the money as we understand it, but the capital is the human ability for creativity, freedom and self-determination in all their working places.’ Beuys 1982. (1)

 Through his multi-faceted practice, Beuys, both artist and educator brokered new relations between art, performance, teaching, ecology, economics, politics and philosophy. In the 1970s he was also a founding member of the fledgling German Green Party, its origins shaped by the student protests of the 1960’s, the environmental movement of the 1970’s where emerging green protest was aimed at nuclear power enthusiastically endorsed by businesses and politicians after the sharp rise in oil prices in 1973. At the heart of Beuys’ artistic vision was a transformation of consciousness, where the biosphere, as a healthy, biological and essential atmosphere would be consistent with human and multi-species needs.

 Joseph Beuys did not live to see the completion of 7000 Oaks. His son planted the last tree in 1987, eighteen months after his father’s death. The raw material of Beuys’s works, trees, stones, felt, fat, dead hare, batteries, electricity and honey all fed his ‘unifying belief in the primal, transformative power of energy, whether electrical or human, scientific or artistic.’ (2)

Beuys’ Acorns (2007 -) is a project started ten years ago in late autumn when we took a train to Kassel to gather hundreds of fallen acorns from 7000 Oaks. To date we have around 200 surviving saplings, perhaps not a great rate of return, but we had not really taken into account in the early days just how opportunistic grey squirrels would be. Given oak trees may grow to be 300 hundred years and more, Beuys’s trees can be regarded as relative juveniles and ours in their infancy. In its formative stages over the last decade Beuys’ Acorns has been an extended enquiry into both the agency of ideas associated with the provenance of the trees and the cultural and climatic impact of trees within the urban space. Now we enter a heightened activist phase, and our sense of protecting these tender trees is sharpened by our awareness of Beuys’s relevance in 2017, where vicious political vanities and corporate economic stealth seek to actively undermine decades of nature protection, social democracy and fragile climate change agreements.

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A forest close to our studio in Surrey, England is a site of resistance. A fort has been built. An architectural jamboree of wooden crates, hay bales and branches built by an itinerant band of ‘earth protectors’, forest outlaws using the legal framework of Section 6 Criminal Law Act to call the fort their home. Their presence has galvanised the local community.

Here on Leith Hill, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where many birds that frequent the woods are listed by the Royal Society of Protection of Birds as being globally threatened, the oil industry has been granted license to drill.

In the 9th century, the hill was scene to battle between Saxons and Danes; in the 19th century Charles Darwin did formative studies on the digestive action of earthworms and formation of leaf mould at Leith Hill Place, and poet Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote The Sleeping Beauty; in the 20th century the celebrated composer Ralph Vaughan Williams enraptured with The Lark Ascending, the bird he heard singing on the wing high on the hill.

Now its scenic beauty is under siege.

The battle pitch between fossil fuel and renewable energy has reached a new climax with an incumbent British government dramatically increasing fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks whilst suffocating support for solar and energy efficiency. The only country in the G7 block actively pursuing an unbridled fossil fuel agenda, the UK Government seeks to extend hundreds of drilling permits across England’s green and threatened land as it blatantly commits to mass industrialize the countryside in the name of energy sovereignty at the ruin of decades of nature conservation and the expense of a ravaged atmosphere.

Beneath the trees, deep down in the layer of Kimmeridge clay lays a speculated wealth of ‘tight oil’ reserves. An estimated 5.64 million barrels gross.

Leith Hill could be the fifth most productive onshore seam in England and oil speculators and share investors are banking on its spoils.

The outlaws in their forest fort are not.

In their forests they haunt the law’s shadow, but in doing they confuse the conventional dichotomy between light and shadow. By placing themselves outside an arbitrary or corrupt law, they appear as the true champions of natural justice, while institutional law appears as the mere shadow of its resplendent ideal.” (4)

In February 2017, the oil company secured a High Court Eviction against the fort encampment alongside an Injunction naming local residents, artists, a mother and baby group and campaign organizations as being in Contempt of Court should they be seen within five metres of the demarcated zone of the proposed drill site.

An overtly oppressive legal reaction has suppressed the apparent visibility of those of us who resist, yet in the process of pushing resistance underground has proliferated a radical activity that seeks to disrupt and challenge through lateral interventions, a social movement that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points, a wide map of attractions and influences that can be seen as a shared cultural process across a multitude of different disciplines and organisations: radical actions of resistance that embrace ecology, geology, poetry, polemics, art, activism, music, Morris dance, drama and carnival.

Resistance is fertile! With botanical reference to the word rhizome, inspirations are propagated both independently and communally, continually nurturing the original action to stop the drilling for oil in this sacred place to root, shoot and grow.

“ …neither mere criminals nor enemies of justice. They appear in the legends as rebels challenging a law that had perpetrated injustices against them, hence as enemies not of the law but rather of its degradation. In their forests they haunt the law’s shadow – “ (5)

1.     Joseph Beuys in America, Energy Plan For The Western Man’. Writings by and interviews with the artist.

2.     A Man of Mystery, Sean O’ Hagan. The Observer, 30 January 2005

3.     Joseph Beuys in America, Energy Plan For The Western Man’. Writings by and interviews with the artist.

4.     Forests: the shadow of civilisation. Robert Pogue Harrison

5.     Forests: the shadow of civilisation. Robert Pogue Harrison