A sculptural installation with plants hanging from a tree-like wooden frame, lit by grow lights and decorated with golden foil.

UnNatural History

Like an unpacked curiosity cabinet, there are myriad viewpoints to enter in UnNatural History. In this rich and varied exhibition of finely crafted works – each increasing our appreciation of the natural world and our place within it – we are asked to closely observe and consider questions of authenticity and artificiality, categorisation, hierarchy, fragility and interdependency.

The extensive show occupies five galleries (with additional spaces dedicated to films), and contains works by over twenty artists, including four commissions inspired by The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum’s own natural history collections. The galleries begin by introducing the subjects and processes of natural sciences study, moving through areas which consider present-day relationships with the environment and factors that have led to our current state of emergency. Later rooms are more speculative, offering provocations about the future.

On the ground floor is a life-size rhinoceros, a sculptural reinterpretation by Raqs Media Collective titled ‘However Incongruous’ (2011) of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut, itself based on descriptions of actual sightings. But it is ultimately less a rhino in the foyer than an elephant in the room; ecologically fragile despite its size, the animal’s stoic and mighty presence is at the same time an urgent plea.  

Ascending to the galleries, I pass mushrooms sprouting appealingly on the stairs (Calvin Pang & David Robinson’s ‘Where Am I’, 2017/2021), reality preserved and embellished, quietly rooted. Acting as the maître d’ at the exhibition entrance, visitors are met by the common parkland or pavement crack weed. This reproduction by Tony Matelli, titled ‘Weed 274’ (2012) is so closely observed it is hard to believe it isn’t alive. No longer ignored, the weed is cast in bronze and painted, a ‘cultural object’ of significance.

Calvin Pang, ‘Where Am I?’, 2017/2021. Image credit: Jaron James.

Mammalian life is introduced by way of Tania Kovats’s taxidermied badger, ‘Badger’(2021). Lying spot-lit on the floor, you see clearly its gentle face, terrifying claws and surprisingly colourful coat of greys, browns and creams. The animal’s lifelessness is somehow hard to acknowledge. Further on, a long vitrine holds twelve pairs of worn school shoes in chronological order, once belonging to the artist’s son (‘The space between 8 and 18’, 2021). Appearing initially as a row of coal or turned earth, they are muddied, split and frayed, correlating with ‘Badger’ in form and colour. These two works from Kovats’s commission quietly reflect on death, loss and extinction: the shoes empty but for memories; the badger rarely seen alive, now permanently performing its own death. Preserved without embellishment, she honours their end as much as the lives they once contained.

Kovats’ pieces also resonate with the room’s theme of collecting. A neighbouring work by Yinka Shonibare from 2019, ‘Butterfly Kid (Boy) IV’, is caught somewhere between taking off and falling. Pinned like a specimen by his brown Victorian boot, he connects the precariousness of our climate with slavery, colonialism and appropriation. Beyond, Andy Holden’s treasury of jewelesque porcelain eggs nestle in cushioned drawers (‘The Oologists Record’, 2017/2021). Positioned around them are binoculars and maps, restaging the trappings of an infamous egg collector-thief. Whether butterflies, eggs or Pokémon, collecting can be a childhood passion that lasts a lifetime. Holden warns against seeing this activity as solely destructive whilst turning a blind eye to bigger issues of property ownership and state policies. To prevent further species decline, we must challenge profit motivated behaviours of multinational companies and interrogate our own habits and systemic complicities.

Andy Holden, ‘The Oologist’s Record’, 2017/21. Image credit: Jaron James.

Colourful botanical images can be found throughout the exhibition, reminding us of the role of natural science in the advancement of medicine and economic power. Representing plants we denigrate as ‘weeds’, Michael Landy’s etchings are rendered in painstaking detail, realistically depicting imperfect but tenacious specimens: ‘Nipplewort’, 2002; ‘Bristly Ox-Tongue 1’, 2002; ‘Canadian Fleabane’, 2002; and ‘Pineapple Weed’, 2003. In the second space, the focus is on botany, or more precisely a connection to ‘place’ through its flora and fauna. To care for the planet, this space suggests, we must first love the places in which we live and their varied lifeforms. By tending to plants and insects – not regarding them as a nuisance – we access ways to nurture ourselves too.

This room is bright with reflected light from fluttering gold foil, grow-lights directed onto the various greens of growing flora and two television screens. Frances Disley’s video works, ‘Getting to know you’, 2021) and ‘Love letter to the mystery (Wavertree Park)’, 2021, impart fascinating information in a delightfully conversational manner. Experts share insights into the medicinal properties of everyday plants and weeds, and discuss what it means to dwell with nature in cities. These are interwoven with Disley’s own musings on her fluctuating relationships with dandelions and similar plants as she introduces us to her local park and its flora. We also see the hands of two collaborators meditatively arranging leaves and flowers on a table, and the antimicrobial properties of propolis (a resinous substance of wax and tree sap made by honeybees) being playfully explored. It feels like a shared experience, gentle and inviting.

The videos are part of an installation that include two sculptural compositions by Disley (‘I never noticed it before but she could play there forever’, 2021; and ‘I think it’s going to be alright tomorrow, meet me under the tree’, 2021). On a compact, multi-levelled plaster construction, jars of mysterious concoctions glow from the bottom. Above, living plants burst forth from dark soil in clear plastic bags as their progress is aided and monitored by instruments. Elsewhere, an entanglement of dried medicinal herbs; and on the uppermost shelf there are casts of stones and twigs in herbal balms. Standing adjacent to the islands of process and potions is a second, tree-like sculpture, similarly displaying plants. They hang from arms, dangling alongside gold foil reflectors and other articles. Together, the works blend the scientific and aesthetic into something approachable, reminding and urging us to care for what’s around us while having our wellbeing enhanced in return.

The third room beckons with Danh Võ’s delicate pink motif ‘Wallpaper’ (2009). Its repeated blooms seem innocuous at first, but in fact they address the loss of indigenous plant names when they were given new ones by French missionaries. A crow lies on its back with wings outstretched, gleaming black, eye bright. Its beak open, the deceased birdseems to cry up in mute lament. ‘Crow’ (2021), weighted with mythological symbolism, is another taxidermy offering from Kovats, a further reminder of the inescapability of death.

A cast bronze foxglove glistens, alluring yet foreboding. Perfectly preserved from root to tip in Dorothy Cross’s ‘Foxglove 4’ (2013), its fragile form is partially augmented by the artist’s physical presence; replacement fingertips hidden amongst the flower bells. Inspired by childhood warnings not to touch, it honours the truths and second natures that are passed down to us.

Mat Collishaw, ‘The Machine Zone’, 2019. Image credit: Jaron James.

The later galleries pose questions about the future of diversity and our interactions with nature and the planet, challenging us to look critically at the state we are in. Entering the fourth room, Mat Collishaw’s skeletal metal animatronic bird, ‘The Machine Zone’ (2019), compulsively pecks in its glass case, asking to be ‘fed’. Seemingly part Swiss army knife component and part watchstrap, the work replicates a real avian experiment but also ominously mirrors the ways humans interact with personal technology. Conversely, Alex Hartley’s ‘The Present Order’ (2016) has an air of hushed abandonment. A decaying concrete block and a black metalwork gate stand on either side of a photograph of lush vegetation. A smooth, resinous mound is displayed in a museological case as a precious specimen, suggesting a world in which bitumen becomes a relic, where buildings and roads are reclaimed by jungle.

In Gözde İlkin’s 2021 commission ‘Mouth of the Ground’, soft stitched forms hold rock specimens from The Herbert’s Natural Sciences collection, complete with brown identification labels. Embroidery and paint embellish reclaimed fabrics, illustrating medicinal, ritual and folkloric associations, inspired by drawings and notes made whilst walking and collecting geological examples. The textile sculptures discuss our past, current and potential future relationships with rocks, again highlighting climate crisis and the imperative to care for the land – not ravaging it for materials held beneath or building over unsympathetically.

The commissioned artists, unable to respond to The Herbert’s collections directly due to COVID-19 restrictions, sought alternative source materials. Kovats, Disley and İlkin all looked locally to personal relationships to natural environments within their permitted lockdown horizons – touchingly considering what collecting, archiving and remembering means to them.

The final room is dark with grey walls, a final chance to assess the circumstances of a bleak future held in delicate balance. It contains Dubmorphology’s commissioned series of works, ‘Colony’, ‘Untitled’, ‘Void’ and ‘Portal’ (2021), an imagined return from the future to understand how and why life on Earth failed. A central installation of scaffolding spills over with revolving molecule sets, obsolete technologies, plants, packages, old books, bowls of coffee beans, rice and shells. Two television screens show ant and bee colonies, litmus of the broader health of ecosystems. In one corner of the room an oil drum is suspended, dripping over a cooking pan. The structures may provoke amusement and curiosity, but the soundtrack is serious – extracts of found interviews describe economically driven destruction of the environment and subsequent insect/bird/animal species loss – whilst bleak vistas and graphics are projected nearby. We are urged to confront the increasing rates of destruction and eradication, to usher in a different world order of balance and collaborative harmony.

An art installation with a video screen and a honeybee, surrounded by plants.
Dubmorphology, ‘Colony’, 2021. Image credit: Jaron James.

There is no single moment of revelation in UnNatural Histories, but rather a building of connections, a gradual knowing and an awakened appreciation for the natural world.  As we observe it through the eyes of the artists, we can perceive the attitudes, policies and behaviours that have brought us to our current environmental state. The attentive curation guides us beyond the beauty of the works towards urgency and self-examination. It is an intelligent, serenely provocative, lamenting but hopeful combination of works. While it is undeniably a serious and contemplative exhibition, moments of delight, wit and humour abound.

At a time when the global human population is reeling from the effects of an intelligently mutating micro-organism, when extreme temperatures are causing flash floods, heatwaves and wildfires all of which are accelerating species extinction, I have to ask if a quiet exhibition is what we need. But how are we to know what we are losing without being made to look more closely? Unless we begin to understand the delicate interconnectivity of ecosystems and actively care for their multitudinous lifeforms, we won’t survive. As William Blake urged in his Auguries of Innocence of 1863, we co-exist with the natural world and should delight in it, but don’t expect an eternity without change.

Further information about the show, including artist interviews and films, can be found on the websites of The Herbert Gallery and Invisible Dust.

Sarah Pennington is an artist, producer, researcher, facilitator and writer based in Hull, East Yorkshire.

This review is supported by Invisible Dust.

Published 23.09.2021 by Sunshine Wong in Review

1,861 words