In Natural Selection, the artist Andy Holden teams up with his father, the ornithologist Peter Holden, to explore the politics of collecting and classification and the relationship between human activity and animal behaviour.
Natural Selection is educational and informative. When they appear together on screen in the documentary ‘A Natural History of Nest Building’ (2017) – a film about the understudied topic of nest-making which is Holden Senior’s specialist subject – Holden and his father present a quirky double act, pairing the learned expert with the enthusiastic amateur. With his brown tie, long hair and beard, Holden Junior looks like a stereotypical 1970s geography teacher, giving the air of a children’s TV programme.
At times, Natural Selection feels like a visit to a natural history museum, exhibiting artefacts extracted from the natural world, including cabinets of feathers arranged according to type, nests resembling highly crafted sculptural forms and old-fashioned scientific drawings. At others, Holden attempts to bring the outdoors inside, with bark underfoot and the smell of wood in the air that invite the visitor to become an explorer of the natural world. The centrepiece of Natural Selection is a large-scale recreation of a bower, an elaborate arch of twigs, from which the central concept of the exhibition arises. As we learn in ‘A Natural History of Nest Building’, rather than using it as a nest, the bower bird selects objects such brightly coloured berries, beetles or plastic debris for display. This process is likened to our own conception of the creation of a work of art, suggesting that, like humans, the bower bird is capable of making aesthetic judgements.
Natural Selection, too, seeks to transcribe nature into art. ‘Silent Spring’ (2017) is a series of delicate wooden representations of bird song by wood-turner Geoffrey Leeson, each carved in the wood of the tree in which the bird nests. In the installation ‘How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature’ (2017), an array of hand-painted painted porcelain eggs spill out of chocolate boxes like fragile, hidden treasure. Underneath their apparent beauty, however, lies a reference to the clandestine, illegal pursuit of egg collecting.
This niche pursuit is explored in the poignant film work ‘The Opposite of Time’ (2017), the highlight of the exhibition. From its origins as a peculiarity of British culture pursued by aristocrats and ‘gentleman scientists’, egg collecting reached the popular imagination as a country pastime in the mid-twentieth century with the advent of mass leisure and increased access to the countryside. Ultimately, however, this pursuit had a sinister, and addictive, side. Holden presents a revealing insights into the twenty-first century criminal world of competitive egg stealers and shady bedroom collectors.
Natural Selection highlights issues around conservation, legitimacy and changing cultural attitudes. It is about who creates and who has access to knowledge. By bringing it into the gallery, Holden presents the natural history specimen as something that is displayed, studied and admired, but ultimately abstracted from its setting in the world. Natural Selection suggests that we may seek to understand and co-exist with nature, but offers a cautionary tale for those who seek to possess and own it.
Natural Selection, Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, 8 June-2 September 2018.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester.