Freud would have loved this exhibition. Ostensibly Natural Selection – a collaboration between artist Andy Holden and his father, ornithologist Peter Holden – is about birds, nests and eggs. It’s actually about art, sex and death.
As a philosophy undergraduate I was lucky enough be taught by the phenomenologist Dermot Moran. Phenomenology, he explained in our initial seminar, was not the study of the object (modelled by his left hand held out in front of him) or a study of the subject (modelled by his right hand held out in front of him), but the study of their encounter and combination. Andy Holden’s modelling of birdsong, in the first room of Natural Selection, returned me to Moran’s explanation. Birdsong exists in the airy space between human and bird, interchangeably characterised as both subject and object in this exhibition. By carving these usually invisible curls of birdsong out of wood, Holden solidifies the phenomenological “in-between” of bird and human relations. As such, these birdsong spindles offer an apt introduction to an exhibition concerned with human-bird relations and, in particular, the parallels between avian and human creation and display of art.
What sets Holden’s sculptures apart from any screen-based or other material representation – Elisabeth Pellathy’s 3D prints (Visualised Bird Song, 2017), for example – is their orientation. Where birdsong is usually visualised as a landscape narrative, mimicking (Latin and Cyrillic) text in its direction of movement, from left to right, Holden presents his sculptures in portrait, with the line of song running south/north or north/south. They stand like totems on their plinths. In the third room, birdsong has been further totemised in the form of similarly north/south inscriptions painted onto wooden poles. A phallic reading of these pieces might be over-simplistic were it not for the gendered undercurrent that infuses the rest of the exhibition.
Take, for example, the treatment of nests. The far wall of the first room is covered with a nest/egg-inspired wallpaper. This leads you into a second room with a three-screen film work, where wooden benches sit in a central clearing surrounded by a generous scattering of wood chippings. The audience is invited to nest in this space. Appropriately, the film instructs us on the ways in which birds nest and lay eggs. The Holdens lead you through a description of the moss and gossamer creations of the long-tailed tit, the one-off hollows of the woodpecker, the cup nest of the chaffinch and the delicately threaded leaf nests of the tailor bird. We are told that African basket weavers learned their craft by imitating the weaver bird and that man first learned to make mud huts from observing the mud nests of swallows. There is some ambiguity as to whether nest-making is a double act or principally the domain of the female. I wonder who constructed the nest we are sitting in now?
The film ends with a discussion of the male Bower bird’s habit of building elaborate structures that are not nests but sites for courtship displays. Each bower is populated by an array of coloured objects arranged in piles around and within the bower. The female Bower bird will choose her mate, ostensibly on how impressed she is by his collection and its supporting structure. The parallel between the art gallery as display space and the bower built to showcase the bird’s collection is unmistakable. The human-sized bower built in the third room presses the point further. If we are to follow the line of this analogy, as visitors we are cast in the role of the female bird who may or may not be won over by the contents of this gallery space. The art exhibition, according to this analogy, is a site of seduction. The Holdens appear to be courting us.
The link between courtship, mating and display does not end there, however. After an introduction to nests the film moves on to eggs. We’re given close-ups of the shape, colour and markings particular to each egg. We’re told how the guillemot lays its eggs nest-free on cliff ledges and how the conical design of the egg means it spins when knocked, preventing the egg from rolling off the ledge. The flecked markings on the shell are left by broken blood vessel. If the film shows some ambiguity in the gendering of nests and nest-like structures, the egg is firmly female. And if nests and nest-like structures are presented along a spectrum of aesthetic object, craft, architectural and curatorial spaces for display, the egg figures singularly as the work of art.
This gendering of art and its associated spaces is developed in the penultimate room, where a pair of screens – one small, one large – provide a brief history of egg collecting. The story begins by characterising egg collecting as a pursuit of the landed gentry and aspiring naturalists. It proceeds to trace its progressive adoption into the realm of science and follows its cultural characterisation out of the 1800s into the twentieth century when egg collecting is outlawed and swiftly becomes an underground activity. In the space of a century, egg collectors fall sharply from their place as culturally valuable adventurers to criminals, vilified for endangering and destroying the bird for the sake of the egg.
In tracing this history, the film expressly observes that egg collecting in the British Isles has overwhelmingly been the domain of the white male. In comparison to the objects gathered together by the Bower bird, which are displayed in order to seduce the female, the egg here figures as an object, if not designed to seduce, then certainly one that engenders desire in the male collector.
The death of the other-than human is presented as a necessary prerequisite for expanding human knowledge.
At one point, one of the criminalised collectors despairingly acknowledges the damage his addiction has caused to bird numbers, whilst wistfully recollecting the adventures he had whilst hunting for eggs. He laments how solitary this pursuit was and how, now in his fifties and with no mate of his own, he might have taken a girl with him to impress her with the amazing experiences that egg-collecting generated. The irony of trying to impress a potential mate by stealing and thereby aborting the young of another female, albeit of a different species, seems completely lost on him – but not, one assumes, on the Holdens.
There is arguably something in this displaced desire for eggs – which leads to the theft of an emblem of female fertility – that offers a counter-narrative to Freud’s account of penis-envy. The Bower bird’s arrangements are presented as impressively beautiful, but ultimately derivative attempts to simulate the genuine creativity of (female) nest and egg-creation. In the subsequent representation of egg theft and recreation, the male artist/curator/collector is cast as a pretender to the throne of creativity that is manifested by the female bird nesting on her egg. There is a sense in which the creation, theft and appropriation of art (eggs) is a proxy activity to salve the male disappointment at being unable to create new life out of himself in the way that a female might. The thwarting of this desire to create leads the male to destroy the creative act that the egg symbolises thereby endangering the life of the bird, and in some way – through the prison sentencing that puts life on hold if not obliterates it – threatening his own.
This idea is encouraged by the display, in the final room, of one of the largest egg collections ever found, which was confiscated, subsequently destroyed, and has now been recreated by Holden. Mimicry satiates both the creative drive of the male artist and the aesthetic appetite of his audience whilst placing the real eggs out of harm’s way. Except that the detail of these designs would never have been known had the crime (would murder be too strong in this context?) not been committed in the first place. The death of the other-than human is presented as a necessary prerequisite for expanding human knowledge or augmenting human pleasure. The similarities between arguments made by animal rights activists regarding the suffering and death of animals for food or medical research is pertinent here too.
This exhibition inspires a series of suggested questions that give the impression of an argument without any clear conclusion. The human male desires the art object (egg) of the female bird. His desire leads to the death and sometimes extinction of the birds or attempts to create his own. Bird song, historically regarded as the domain of the male bird, is rendered into a series of phallic objects by the human male to seduce the visitor in this curatorial bower. Here, eggs and nests are both human and bird-made. Only occasionally, in the moments of anthropomorphic mimicry (the crow voice-over in final film and the series of corvid cartoons) does this movement between human and bird realms collapse ineffectually. Ultimately, Natural Selection’s slippage between genders and species productively questions what it is that’s so natural about the process of selection and, of course, creation – whilst simultaneously warning against the dangers of loving something to death.
Andy Holden and Peter Holden, ‘Natural Selection‘ is at Towner, Eastbourne until 20th May 2018.
If you’re visiting Towner, be sure also to take in ‘Inhabit‘, an innovatively presented exhibition of works from the collection featuring the likes of Edward Bawden, Gertrude Hermes, Peter Liversidge, Tania Kovats, and Zoe Walker.
Image credits (from top):
1. Andy Holden & Peter Holden – Natural Selection. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2018. Photo by Alison Bettles
2. Andy Holden & Peter Holden – Natural Selection. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2018. Photo by Alison Bettles
3. Andy Holden & Peter Holden – Natural Selection. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2018. Photo by Alison Bettles
4. Andy Holden & Peter Holden – Natural Selection. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2018. Photo by Pete Jones
5. Andy Holden & Peter Holden – Natural Selection. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2018. Photo by Alison Bettles