This path one time long time ago
This exhibition comes from a collaboration between myself, the Natural History department of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and AirSpace Gallery. It comes from a long term project that AirSpace has undertaken regarding the brownfield sites in and around Stoke-on-Trent. So the invitation was to think about the brownfield sites and the Natural History Museum. I did a residency in the summer of 2017 in AirSpace Gallery where I had the chance to explore the brownfield sites and also the Museum’s collection and archives. This was a great way to think about the complexity of their relation. I worked very closely with Glenn Roadley who is the museum´s Natural History curator. I see the brownfield sites as a see through limit in the city and society. They are fenced out to prevent people from entering so they become thriving ecologies of all sorts of plants and animals which are allowed to grow without much of our control or planning. Of course in them we find all sorts of discarded objects that people throw into them. So it is a repository of sorts of both nature and culture. We are able to see how plants reproduce and spread out across the space challenging harsh conditions and materials such as tarmac and concrete. I am interested in these sites from the interactions between nature and culture. There is also of course the issue of land ownership, how much time has to pass in order for a site to be reconsidered as a green area of the city or for people to use freely? Or what is the purpose of having a site fenced down for people not to use for 15 years and where nothing else is happening. Natural History museums are places where we get a lot of our ideas about nature, so that´s why I was interested in trying to use the museum almost as a material and to use some connections that are already being made.
I have been working in relation to science in a number of ways, particularly responding to devices of display or devices of `knowing´ and describing the natural world. This interest has led me to develop ways to respond to certain devices such as the aquarium, the greenhouse, cabinets of curiosities, herbaria, and the diorama. This exhibition was a unique opportunity for me to propose a site responsive work that delves into the museum context. The fact of working with the regulations, limitations and also possibilities of the museum was a learning process that became an important part of the work. For example the fact of freezing every organic object for at east two weeks before entering the collection so nothing living was left in it seemed really fascinating and revealing of relations between life and death that are present in the museum. So I had to be much more planned and organized in my decisions that made me reconcile advance planning with intuition. When you make work in relation to science but that has been shown in an art context is something I was much more used to, even when collaborating with scientists for specific projects in the past. But the fact of showing and making work in a science context made me question the role of art in that context. I had recently made a work that was a deconstruction of the Natural History Museum but I think it wouldn’t have worked in the Natural History gallery as it did in an art context. So the work needed a different kind of radicalness and that had a lot to do with being able to use what the museum had already made. My intention was to propose a cross- pollination of different departments from the Museum. So the Natural History collection permeated into the Local History displays, the ceramic collection went into Natural History, and to modify the existing Dioramas was crucial in the sense that it reflected for me the role of art in this context. How to disrupt the order of things, or propose new ways of looking and thinking through disciplines. Perhaps it has to do with the lack of certainty in art practice, or the sense of humour and other dimensions of thought that are less present in the most exact sciences. The first works I ever did which I still like where collages made with paper merging images of landscapes and anatomy books. The definition that Max Ernst elaborates about collage (1) has been always relevant for me but also felt important in the way I wanted to use the museum displays and collections.
This intervention came from a constant fascination I have of old pictures of the making of Natural History Dioramas. There is something about the artifice when its made visible that reveals some sort of fictional construction, the idea of nature as a construct. I think dioramas in this sense are places where science meets fiction. They are idealizations of nature, or places where we both manifest but also educate about the idea we have about nature. I wanted to challenge this device revealing the artifice emphasizing on the theatricality of the museum. The animals already had poses that suggested a response so it was about making it look as if the lights from the ceiling had collapsed. But because the animals are responding to this event they appear to be still conscious. I think there is a fundamental problem rooted in the consideration of ourselves as humans as situated outside our own definition of nature, we are here and nature is over there. This today is challenged by the current anthropocene era were it is no longer possible to find anything unaffected by human activity. This work for me became an attempt to visualize our stubbornness in our approach and relation to other species. If the pre-cinematic device of the Diorama is an old device for knowing that we still insist on then what would a more philosophically accurate one look like?
I am fascinated by a story I read about the English Naturalist and Architect Frank Stainbridge. He was one of the assistants accompanying Alexander Von Humboldt in his expeditions through the tropics and Latin America. In the 19th Century Stainbridge brought back to England his own collection of plant specimens and organised building a hothouse specially designed to fit his collection of plants gathered in the voyages throughout the American continent. The result was a very intricately designed cast iron building with glass and heating to maintain the plants in this new and much colder environment. There are a number of testimonies by visitors to this exclusive greenhouse when it was open to a selected few. For many this was the only way to experience what the tropics were like in the northern hemisphere inside an artificially created environment. After a violent storm the glass broke and the plants died of exposure to the winter in the north of England. After some years he decided to reconstruct the greenhouse but this time replacing the original plants with hand-made ones. He hired many craftsmen to help in this very ambitious endeavour that resulted in over 3000 manmade specimens that to his words were “free from decay and death” (2). This had a great response from its visitors that can be read in their testimonies when they experienced this replication of nature. After a while a religious fanatic burned it all to the ground because he believed it was an offense to God for trying to mimic his powers. So that was the end of it, but after Frank Stainbridge died some researchers started going through his correspondence and found out that in the first version of the greenhouse he showed plenty of “fake” plants along the live ones because many of them died in the journey; and in the second version he showed plenty of real plants among the fake ones. The important thing to me is that no one knew about this and therefore experienced a kind of hybrid between nature and culture that only he knew about. This is what I find particularly interesting about this story and that I had in the back of my mind when thinking about this work. It is the consideration of taxidermy as a cultural artefact, as a representation of an animal more than an actual animal even if it´s made using it´s real skin. So they are given the same consideration as the ceramic birds from the museum´s vast collection of ceramics. The ceramic birds are placed both merging into and also disrupting the display, they are positioned in relation to the taxidermies which appear to be perhaps frightened or intrigued by them.
This work is one of two vitrines that I used to place sculptures using materials found in the brownfield sites. I was very inspired by the metal armatures used to hold precious objects in collections. So I wanted to create something between museum metal armature stands for artefacts and early modernist sculpture. With found objects from the brownfield site which were previously discarded by other people the idea of assigning meaning and value bringing them to the museum was important. Almost like an archaeology of contemporary garbage and debris. The first museums in history that where the cabinets of curiosities now seem to hold everything from treasure to trash, just because our ways of ordering have changed so much since they were invented. It made me think about systems of value. About the consideration of something as trash or worthy of attention in a museum. The brownfield sites are in a way discarded by urban planning.
This work was the second of 2 vitrines. It was made with fragments of plant life found in the brownfield sites that where frozen for 2 weeks in order to enter the museum. This gave them a very particular colour and texture. I was focused on the vitrine as a device of knowing and display and the relationship between the natural and the artificial. A very abstract hybrid between plants and some sort of architecture. It also came after working with scale models to build large scale sculptures and realization of the potential of the scale models to be considered as sculpture. So I followed on from that to make this work.
This mobile sculpture is a deconstruction of a diorama where every object is expanded into space. Every object is also balanced in a fragile relation to all of the rest. This idea of weight and balance between all the parts is a physical metaphor for ecology. The animal form is a taxidermy mannequin used nowadays in the taxidermy process to achieve an accurate muscle structure, which is not meant to be seen unless you are part of the making of a diorama or taxidermy. The objects also where found on the brownfield sites. It insists in conforming an image even though its always shifting, as our ways of thinking about ecology are also constantly changing, or ecology is constantly changing while we keep trying to understand it.
By bringing local wildlife taxidermies from the Natural History collection into the Local History Dioramas I was trying to, perhaps it is impossible, think in an animal logic. The dioramas depict human living environments such as a Victorian House and a Pub. I tried to imagine what they would look like if humans were suddenly not there anymore and animals started to take over. There is something perhaps scary about sharing our living built environment with wild animals. Maybe it is their indifference towards our material culture that scares us because we believe so much in it. That friction between what is considered wild and what is considered civilized was very important, to see what happens when you dissolve the threshold between the inside and the outside.
- “The collage technique is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level – and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together.” Max Ernst. https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/max-ernst/collage-frottage-grattage/2 The greenhouse effect. Serpentine Gallery, Apr 1, 2000 – Art, British – 82 pages.