Friday, 15 September 2017

Artangel ‘Natural Selection’

Former Cuming Museum @ Former Newington Library
155 Walworth Road

London SE17 1RS

Wednesday September 13 2017

As you will know by now our interpretation of what counts as a museum is ‘flexible’ as you might say including as it has a few stately homes and private galleries. Today’s visit was to an installation /exhibition put on by the wonderful organisation that is Artangel, who have for many years promoted and curated interesting artworks in site specific locations (what in another context you might call a ‘pop-up’). So not strictly speaking just a London thing.

The venue however has been a Museum, namely Southwark’s very own Cuming Museum named for a father and son collecting duo who donated their exhibits to Southwark. From the sound of things they covered similar ground to the Horniman’s collection (natural history, artistic and ethnographic artefacts) and remained open to the public until the fire of 2013. The same rather fine Victorian building also housed a library, and the clinic which lingers on next door. Whether it is all the new building at the Elephant (glimpsed in this photo taken from the bus stop) but the former library complex has now been occupied by some local art and art education projects with presumably free space for exhibitions. And it was for the exhibition that we came….

‘Natural Selection’ with its echoes of Darwinian theory,seemed an appropriate title for a display looking at the variety, complexity, flexibility and longevity of nest building, and along with that the eggs that go into these nests and the people who have collected them. Yet ‘selection’ also implies that choices go into the materials chosen for each nest (and indeed the works chosen for an exhibition).

The exhibition has been assembled by father and son team Peter & Andy Holden.  Peter worked for the RSPB for 30 years during which time his roles included setting up and running the YOC (Young Ornithologists Club) so what he does not know about birds is not worth knowing. As there are photos of Andy in his pram clutching an RSPB brochure I assume he is pretty knowledgeable also but inclines more to the artistic. The show is over two floors each with a half hour video. The upstairs one is about nest building – divided into three chapters technique, site and materials – and while Peter gives you the natural history commentary Andy’s is more about the artistic aspects – he cradles nests like precious ceramic bowls which in a sense they are. He examines the materials from crude twigs to mosses and mud with colourful embellishments and the different patterns and textures they achieve, and ponders the question of whether there is more at work than instinct and inherited behaviour. It is a wonderful synthesis. In a side cabinet you can see particular nests closer up – three examples of the weaver bird,  who has evolved an ever longer tunnel approach to the tree-hanging nest in order to protect from ever longer snake predators – a kind of ‘evolutionary arms race’ as the video puts it.

The guillemot’s egg is just placed simply on a small plinth – no nests for them as the bare conditions of the windy cliff faces has little nest material available. However the eggs have a distinctly pointed profile which combines with the effect of the yolk ‘weighing down’ the egg so that it won’t roll off – meanwhile the individual colourings allow the birds to distinguish their own eggs amongst the thousands in the colony.

I was very dismissive of one nest – wood pigeon it turned out – which looked like nothing more than an untidy heap of twigs.  However apparently they spend so little time building it leaves them more for breeding, unlike the weaver or even more so the Bower birds, whose elaborate structures are courtship devices (I suppose driving a Ferrari may attract you a different kind of mate from driving a second hand Reliant Robin). The most arresting exhibit is a person-sized replica of the Bower Bird’s nest but without the adornment of blue plastic spoons or colourful berries which they seem to prefer as decoration.

The Latin American ‘oven bird’ has a structure akin to a mud hut (birds got there first and some have theorised that humankind copied them) which made Andy wonder how anyone can build something so complex without having a concept of what the finished article should look like before you start…. And up to now we have not thought any living creature apart from ourselves has this capacity??

As you can see this exhibition with its combination of artefacts/film and found objects was both thought provoking and moving. A further room contained less nest-specific but still bird-related items, including posters for previous Holden lectures and events, a graphic design realised as a wallpaper, and some turned wood artefacts whose profiles represent sonograms of the songs of various bird species.

While the upstairs part focussed on nest building the downstairs looked specifically at the social history of egg collecting with much archive footage. This film is narrated by ROOK (familiar to YOC members), here animated and flying across a ‘background’ of iconic UK landscape pictures from Constable to Hockney. Egg collecting may have started as a ‘respectable’ way of studying nature and birds but it quickly became collecting for its own sake with all that means – competition, greed and eventual destruction of several rare species (such as the Red Shrike) whose eggs were sought after. Eventually egg collecting from the wild became illegal but still happens with the perpetrators unrepentant.  That the egg collectors are almost without exception MALE is interesting: I cannot imagine any woman wantonly destroying the unborn offspring of another woman or parent who has gone to the trouble of building a safe protective nest in which to nurture said progeny. After all the later weeks of pregnancy are known for ‘the nesting instinct’. That some of the nest building is instinctual is almost certainly true as young long tailed tits will build quite superior nests without any prior instruction or examples.    

The last display shows the huge range of eggs that birds can produce – each a different colour with different markings, each peacefully beautiful. This comes as quite a shock after the brutality of some of the egg collectors but these eggs are porcelain.

We normally lose interest in the video components of some exhibitions but these today were so integral and interesting that it was very easy to spend an hour at this moving and absorbing installation. 

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