Natural Selection exhibition at the Former Newington Library review *****

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Andy Holden and Peter Holden: Natural Selection

Artangel at the Former Newington Library, 24th November 2017

This might just be the best exhibition I have seen this year. The Former Newington Library was new to me I confess, and reeks of institutional instruction, which matched the tone of this “installation” to a tee. Apparently it used to contained the natural history collection of a father and son, Richard and Henry Cumming. Well done to Artangel for sniffing out the space and to video artist/cartoonist/animator Andy Holden, (who i See has his own band, the Grubby Mitts), and his ornithologist Dad, Peter, for creating this marvel.

It all apparently started when Andy, who could have stepped straight out of a 1970s Open University TV programme, saw a blackbird building a nest in Dad’s garden. Cravatted Peter Holden, who could in turn have stepped straight off Blue Peter, (in fact he was did), is an avian guru and, when Andy returned home after art school, their shared passion was rekindled. This then, even before we get to the bird and other stuff, is a poignant study of a father and son relationship. (It even begins with Andy in the pram wrestling with a book on birds).

After a series of joint lectures Andy started to gather material for the first part of the exhibition on bird’s nests. Upstairs there are some marvellous examples of nests contained in a vitrine in an “old style” museum format, another collection of feathers, a smattering of bark, a giant recreation of a bowerbird’s bower and some other bits and pieces. Not all is what is seems: this turned wooden objects are created from sonograms of bird song and some of the nests were created by Andy and mixed in with the real thing. Art and nature start to intertwine.

A quick perusal and then you sit down for the video with father and son taking it in turns to explain and illuminate, whilst a central screen shows footage from their own field trips, as well as various documentaries and the like. They look like old style nature documentaries but as father and son range through types of nests, nest sites and nest materials, some fascinating themes emerge. Peter Holden focusses on the “scientific” explanations of nesting behaviour, Andy gets you thinking about the bird as creator, even “artist”. The “practical” and the “beautiful” are explored.

How do those birds who build these elaborate structures “know” what to do? Do they have a picture in their “minds” of what they want the nest to look like? Why does the bowerbird go to so much effort in creating his bower, and the extraordinary display of themed objects he gathers? How does this relate to the Holdens’ own collections? Can it really just be a process of “sexual selection”? How do partners, families and communities collaborate (various bird species of course but also here father and son)?

Downstairs we first encounter a rook character in a cartoon strip that Andy created which has his father Peter as a “Mr Holden” charged with keeping the rook in line. The father/son relationship mined further. 

We also have another “collection”, How the Artist was Lead to a Study of Nature, which recreates the hoard of 7,130 eggs police discovered at a “collector’s house in 2006. These eggs are laid out on the floor in cardboard and plastic boxes, as they were on discovery, which also emphasises their fragility and increases the level of temptation for us the audience as these are undeniably beautiful objects. As a kid I was fascinated by birds, and the opportunities the world of ornithology gave to a boy who craved the pleasure of classification. Observing, ordering, listing, collecting. This never extended to eggs, that was already forbidden, but I could see the attraction. This, fortunately, never developed into a full blown, twitching habit, I have seen the impact this can have first hand, but I understand the obsession.

Next door is a video installation, The Opposite of Time, narrated this time by Andy Holden alone, in the form of an animated crow who first appeared in Peter’s RSPB magazine contributions. The crow passes through real habitats, notably when charting the battle between egg “collectors’ and the RSPB and volunteers over the first ospreys to return to Scotland in the 1960s. However the crow, who ages, also flies across multiple paintings, representing the best of the British landscape artistic tradition (Constable, Turner, Nash, Ravilious, Hockney). There is a further screen showing photos and some film which documents the history of egg collecting in the UK, from aristocratic pursuit by “gentlemen of science”, through to the 1954 Act which criminalised it and finally on to the “working-class” undercover activity of more recent decades.

This becomes an insightful analysis of the psychology of collecting, and how the public and scientific consensus on the morality of the “hobby” has changed through time. What makes the desire to possess so powerful that “collectors’ are prepared to destroy the very thing they purport to love? How can we enjoy such aesthetically exquisite objects, knowing their history? What gives humans the right to collect from nature? Why were toffs feted for their “scientific advances”, whilst the dispossessed collectors of today are banged up?

There are multiple parallels through the exhibition with “human” artists. The materials used by sculptors (Andy Goldsworthy), the landscape artists (Richard Long’s mud), the forms we encounter (Barbara Hepworth eggs), the collections and classifications of conceptualists (Susan Hiller), the ready mades and found objects tradition (from Duchamp on), the Pollock like lines on many of the eggs, the watercolour like pastels. Play your own game with this.

So there you have it. A natural history programme. An introduction to aesthetics. A history of landscape art. A lecture on class. Science and art. Father and son. Nature and nurture. Passion and obsession. Nerdiness. Eccentricity. Nostalgia. Some very pretty things. All in a couple of ramshackle rooms in SE17. The exhibition was extended but I think is now over. I do hope it gets another outing. I really, really need to see it again. 

 

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