The impulse to collect, categorise and organise our natural world speaks to a general human desire to better understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The history of what we currently think of as earth and environmental sciences is filled with inquiring minds – be they monks, gentleman scientists or explorers – who had a deep desire to understand the natural world. While the typical natural history collection may seem far removed from modern science in an era of cybertaxonomy and gene sequencing, it is something with which many scientists still engage. Any geologist or botanist will have a specimen cabinet in their office containing carefully labelled samples for future reference and use.
Nature Reserves, an exhibition at GV Art curated by Tom Jeffreys of Wild Culture, is a beautiful and elegant show that looks at our impulse to collect the natural world, but also reflects on this impulse in an era when we are, generically, more disconnected from nature than ever before. Taking a look at this display of work, I am reminded of the Classical idea of the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical classification of the universe, with God and the Angels at the top, progressing down to Man, other bits of life on earth and, ultimately, the stones beneath our feet. This need to put everything in its place is something that has been with us for a very long time.
The presence of humanity in Nature Reserves is pervasive. After all, we are looking at nature through human eyes, and the desire to quantify and classify the world in the way that we do is a distinctly human preoccupation. This is particularly well-captured by drawers containing hundreds of labels from the Grant Museum that have become detached from their original specimens. Displayed in this way, they are amazingly diverse, personal and poignant. There are many different papers and types of writing, each one embodies a history: a collector, the collection of a specimen, when it happened, what happened.
And, what of this impulse of ours to taxonomise the living world? Splitters and Lumpers by Liz Orton most directly addresses the natural history collection, with photographs of uncatalogued botanical samples from Kew. The specimens have a beautiful stratigraphy, and brings our attention to the ways in which we classify things—are you a splitter or a lumper? Meanwhile, The Life Raft photos by Helen Pynor engage with the materiality of specimens: they are fragile things, subject to decay, and now adrift in their specimen drawers.
But the practice of collecting specimens is not without its cost, and at its worst it implies an enormous arrogance on the part of man. In Huia Transcriptions by Sally Ann McIntyre, we listen to the faint tinkle of a music box in a forest playing the calls of the Huia, as recorded by a Mr. Ht. Caver in the late 1800’s. In Collected Silences for Lord Rothschild we are told that we will be presented with recordings of the now extinct Laughing Owl (or Whekau). You sit there for ages waiting to hear something other than the gentle sound of a camera, but nothing comes. This poignant work of McIntyre highlights the dark side of natural history: that the act of collecting of Huia and Whekau specimens was instrumental in their extinction. These are silences that cannot ever be filled.
There are also the bits of nature that are overlooked at their best, and battled with at their worst. Weeds, 111 by Laura Culham, presents a series of exquisitely constructed paper weeds: at a 1:1 scale, these small sculptures—complete with root structures—remind us of the bits of the natural world that we ignore, or even do battle with. Charlie Franklin’s Relic reminds us of the ground beneath our feet: fragile and crumbling. Franklin has unsuccessfully attempted to preserve peat. Half-embedded in empasto, this piece seems half-nature and half-art, with nature battling against Franklin’s intentions of it becoming the latter.
Despite this quest for dominion, there are works that remind us that we are reminded that we are still rather small. Mutation of the Visible is a beautiful series of drawings of the moon—as captured by artists and scientists at various periods over human history—by Anaïs Tondeur. The drawings reflect our endless fascination with the night sky, and how our perspectives on it have changed over the centuries. The first drawing in the series, After a pareidolia: the man in the moon gives a nod to our romantic tendency to anthropomorphise nature and provides a stark contrast to After Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (21st century).
The great strength of Nature Reserves is that it represents an exploration and a questioning: it is neither a celebration, nor a condemnation of natural history as a discipline. Rather, it delves into the need within us to give things names, to understand how they are related to one another and, of course, to place ourselves in the context of all of this. From a scientific perspective, we moved away from the Great Chain of Being a long time ago, as we have also moved from taxonomies to phylogenetics and metagenomics. However, given the current biodiversity crisis, there is a need for art that meaningfully engages with and interrogates our relationship with the natural world. Both hearts and minds must be won in order to tackle the crisis facing our planet.
Nature Reserves is on display at GV Art, London until 13 September 2013. There is also a programme of events associated with the exhibition.