Natural: History (A fable of progress) or ‘oh no we’ve killed the last unicorn’

Natural:History (a fable of progress) Or, ‘oh no, we’ve killed the last unicorn’ by Richard Dawson & Jacqui Symons at Gallery Oldham. Photo by: Jacqui Symons
Natural:History (a fable of progress) Or, ‘oh no, we’ve killed the last unicorn’ by Richard Dawson & Jacqui Symons at Gallery Oldham. Photo by: Jacqui Symons

Anthropocene – relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, beginning with the industrial revolution around 1800.*

Largely inspired by the work of the 19th century naturalist and correspondent of Charles Darwin, Percival Farrington, Gallery Oldham’s current exhibition, Natural:History (a fable of progress) by artists Richard Dawson and Jacqui Symons, offers a refreshingly nuanced perspective on the current ecological crisis. This is not quite the typical, guilt-inducing polemic against our abuse of the environment, although a concern for the destruction of our natural habitat is a key implication of the show. Instead, its ultimate focus seems to lie with a very real sense of the wonder of nature itself.

The show seems to hint that humankind has, for the most part, failed to recognise its own inseparability from nature, its origins within the natural world, the illusory nature of its separation, and its imagined supremacy over nature. This sense of separation and removal from the natural world emerges as the root cause of the harm and disruption caused to the environment.

The industrial revolution, much like the first atomic bomb detonation (an alternative start date for the Anthropocene) endowed humankind with greater power over our environment than ever before. Dawson and Symons’ work shows, with a blend of comedy, tragedy and poetry, that this power is being used without regard for the natural habitat on which we ultimately depend.

A striking example of this is the spatial centrepiece of the show; a suspended sphere of paper butterflies ‘Defaunation ( & the Sixth Mass Extinction )’ beneath which colourless butterflies lie – apparently deceased – fallen from the static sphere suggesting that it has thinned considerably. This follows nicely from ‘The Extinction Sensor’ installation at the exhibition entrance. Every few seconds the archaic typewriter jolts out another extinction. A species of insect which only experts in the field will be familiar with (the moment the species becomes known to the viewer is the moment it becomes extinct). Surrounding this machine and expanding on the same theme of documentation is ‘All The Names’ – a “cenotaph to the non-human” listing the names and dates of species which have become extinct over the past two hundred years.

The short film, ‘A Question of Consciousness (part ii)’, is a (deliberately) simplistic, almost comical exploration of a more imaginative human attitude towards animals. Those moments when we wonder how the world we share with them appears from their perspective, when we try to imagine what – if anything – these creatures experience. But in the end, we can only project our own experiences and feelings onto them.

The triptych ‘The Vital Insignificants (three ways of looking)’ returns to Dawson’s theme of records and documentation (the human attempt to grasp the natural world in terms that we can understand). The work explores the various ways of seeing animals: political (use value to human beings), scientific (subjects for theories of evolution) and artistic (the wonder of the animals themselves). There is an interesting play here between symbols and reality. Could we ever escape from our self-imposed world of signs and signifiers to see the world around us as it really is? Is this not the root cause of our illusory separation from nature?

Dawson’s kinetic sculpture ‘There is No Away (It’s just a drop in the ocean)’ is a lampoon of ecological waste disposal. Where exactly is this away to which we throw plastics and other non-biodegradable materials? The point being that it is the very manufacture of these items that needs to stop in order to preserve – or rather restore – the ecosystem which produced homo-sapiens in the first place.

The series of large monoprints ‘Species (Quercus SE 019032) / (Quercus SE 015028) / (Quercus SE 017028) Or, ‘the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature’’ were made using actual oak leaves inked and printed by hand. They reinforce the suggestion of nature’s innate beauty with elegant simplicity. Then lastly (or initially depending from which side you enter), ‘The Denial Machine (an ode to lying)’ is a kind of testament to stupidity, printing out quotes from notable climate change deniers, the reasonably assumed consensus being that these people are either genuinely ignorant or positively malicious, representing humankind heading in blissful ignorance for its own extinction.

On the whole, Natural:History doesn’t condemn the viewer for their lack of sensitivity to the natural world, but rather endeavours to demonstrate its beauty and indeed contrast this with the absurdity of so much human activity. There is a strong current of humour and wit running through the show. It explores the contradiction between our innate sense of the wonder of nature and the ruthlessness with which we go about destroying it. As Dawson himself put it, the work derives from “a hope that wonder and fascination can spark respect and responsibility for nature.”

All works dated 2018.

Natural: History (A fable of progress) or ‘oh no we’ve killed the last unicorn’, Gallery Oldham, 19th April – 12th June 2018.

Published 29.04.2018 by Sara Jaspan in Reviews

837 words