Natural Selection review - Logic and Myth 


Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is one of my favourite plays. It details the battle between the badly-behaved Johnny “Rooster” Byron and the orderly bureaucrats of Avon Council. Avon Council want to evict Byron so the land his caravan sits on can be redeveloped. Byron has other ideas. 

He is a Romantic: speaking of giants, fairies, ghosts, and myths. The Council employees, on the other hand, speak only of regulations, orders and by-laws. 

This tension: between logic and myth, Apollo and Dionysus, Avon Council and Rooster Byron, is at the heart of Natural Selection, a new exhibition by Andy Holden and his father Peter.

How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, 2017

How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, 2017

Andy is an artist, well known for his excellent Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape. Peter, on the other hand, is an ornithologist, and a bloody good one at that - a former Blue Peter ‘“bird man” who worked for the RSPB for over 40 years. 

Therefore, as one might expect, the exhibition is about birds. More precisely, it's about the mysteries behind the things birds create, and the lengths that humans have gone to in order to try and solve these mysteries.

Andy and Peter explore the topic in a thirty-minute video installation, A Natural History of Nest Building.  Andy is on the left, and Peter is on the right. A screen in the middle divides them. They take turns discussing different types of birds’ nests, nest sites and materials. 

They discuss everything imaginable. The shape of guillemot eggs. The “weed dance” of the great crested grebe. The way gannets place themselves on a cliff. And everything is interesting. It’s funny as well: at one point we see an osprey’s comically over-sized nest, and we’re also treated to a view of a tiny, oblivious, mother feeding its laughably large cuckoo chick.

However, both tell the story with a subtly different spin. Peter is a man of science - placing the developments in a logical, rational, context. His approach lies firmly within the tradition of the Victorian taxonomiser. Andy takes a more Romantic view - embracing the mystery and creativity inherent in the birds’ creations. Rooster Byron’s battle is waged once more. 

Or is it? There is no sense of tension or disagreement. Andy and Peter, as father and son, have a respect and understanding for their differing takes. Here we see not a battle of opposing ideologies, but two different ways of seeing. And what binds both Andy and Peter is a mutual awe and enthusiasm. It is, remarkably heartening. 

Nest Collection, ongoing

Nest Collection, ongoing

Downstairs, however, the darker side of ornithology is shown. In The Opposite of Time, Andy, as an animated rook flying through English landscape paintings, narrates the history of egg collecting. 

Whilst he soars through painted English landscapes we learn of the Victorian gentleman scientists, and their drive to classify, control and understand the natural world. We learn of how this desire to collect and taxonomise bird’s eggs came with a disastrous downside: the potential destruction of many bird species. And we learn about how the pastime was criminalised and driven underground. It is a history of the decline and fall of the gentleman amateur.

Accompanying this video installation is How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, a recreation of a 7,130 egg collection belonging to egg collector supremo Richard Pearson. This oological treasure-trove was discovered in a dawn raid in 2006, and, in order to discourage future collectors, it was soon destroyed. This incredibly crafted installation - a real spectacle of skill - is all that remains. 

And so concludes Natural Selection. Like the Venerable Bede’s tale of the sparrow in the mead hall, this is an exhibition not so much about birds, but about what birds tell us about ourselves.  On one floor the wonder and mystery inherent in the birds’ creations is uncovered, and, alongside Andy and Peter, we attempt to understand the mystery. In the basement below the dark underside of desire is revealed: the point where collection becomes obsession.

So how do we do the impossible: understanding the birds’ creations, whilst preserving the sense of wonder?

Well, I can’t tell you how. But I can tell you that the Holdens have managed it. 

Natural Selection is at the former Newington Library, London, until 5 November

rakespicks, reviewsWilliam Hazlitt