Housed in the former Cuming Museum – an institution founded by a father and son collectors Richard and Henry Syer Cuming – it feels particularly apt that for this project Andy Holden has chosen to collaborate with his naturalist father Peter Holden. Titled Natural Selection, the pair’s Artangel commission marks the culmination of a seven-year venture in which father, a leading ornithologist, and son, an artist whose work spans many mediums, have come together to examine the connections between the seemingly disparate fields of ornithology and art. Andy views the building of nests as an artistic process and contemplates on whether the birds have a final image of their creations in mind, or if they are simply guided by an inherited predisposition as his father Peter believes.

Birds held a constant presence within Andy Holden’s childhood home, with his father running the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists Club for over thirty years and even featuring as Blue Peter’s “bird man”, although young Andy’s interests lay firmly in art. However, it was upon his return to the family home in Bedford following graduation from art school, that he began to engage with his father in bird-related conversations after noting the sculptural qualities of blackbird nests built in their garden. The exchanges that followed have been shaped into Natural Selection; encompassing film, sculpture, and natural specimens collected by both Holdens. The installation is comprised of two distinct areas; the ground floor considers the act of nest building, while in the basement the perilous pursuit of egg-collecting is examined.

At one end of the large ground floor exhibition space a three-screen video installation features the father-son duo presenting an informal documentary, titled Knowledge from the father, poetry from the son (2017), which outlines the process of nest-building. Discussing varying nest shapes and materials Peter’s approach is firmly grounded in Darwin’s theory of evolution and the process of natural selection, while Andy talks of the creativity involved in the birds’ creations as akin to his process of art making, instead of simply a result of evolutionary imperatives. “Nests are a neglected area of study even though every species builds a different nest and they are arguably as individually distinctive as a bird’s plumage or song”;[1] and while the two may disagree on the reasons for these varying nest forms, they share in wonder and marvel at their creation.

This room exploring the act of nest building centres around a towering recreation of the bowerbird’s nest woven in willow. Considered by Charles Darwin as the closest thing to an artist found in nature, the bowerbird’s nest forms the stage for an elaborate courtship ritual; a creation the bird surrounds with objects remarkably arranged according to colour and size. In a similar way Andy and Peter Holden have displayed their collections, of nests and feathers retrospectively, surrounding their human-scale nest. Presented in vitrines, these assemblages of objects echo those found in a natural history museum. Andy’s found nests are shown alongside replicas created by the artist, further emphasising the creativity inherent in the discipline of nest-building and helping emphasise the connection between art and nature inherent to Andy Holden’s concerns within Natural Selection.

In addition to these quasi-scientific displays, turned wood sculptures replicate the sonograms of different birdsongs, each crafted in the wood of the tree that that bird typically nests in. The work is titled Silent Spring, the name referencing Rachel Carson’s environmental science book which documented the detrimental effects of pesticide use;[2] exposing its destructive impact and spurring revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. These sculptures are mounted on plinths in front of colour photographs by Peter Holden depicting an infant Andy avidly reading the book British Birds, even if held by the child upside down.

After descending the stairs into the building’s basement visitors are met with a crumbling corridor, its walls lined with cartoons redrawn by Andy Holden after appearing originally in Bird Life – the magazine of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists’ Club founded by Peter Holden. In a room lined with shelves previously used to store objects of the Cumings’ collection, the three-screen video The Opposite of Time (2017) features an animated crow, voiced by Andy, narrating a social history of nest collecting. As the crow flies across a backdrop of landscape paintings by the likes of Turner and Hockney, he explains how egg collecting has transformed within Britain, from an aristocratic pursuit and encouraged hobby, into an illegal activity.

A second screen streams footage of interviews with Richard Pearsons, one of Britain’s most prolific known egg collectors, who was jailed in 2006 following a raid on his Cleethorpes flat. RSPB Investigations Officer Mark Thomas spoke of Pearson’s actions as showing “a selfish disregard for nature, denying the rest of us the joy of seeing these wonderful creatures in the wild so he could amass this macabre collection for his own perverse satisfaction”.[3] The 7,130 eggs discovered, housed in biscuit tins and polystyrene boxes, have been painstakingly recreated in porcelain by Andy Holden. Referencing a newspaper image showing Officer Mark Thomas’ discovery of Pearson’s illegal collection, Andy’s eggs are accompanied by a wall chart identifying each astonishing replica egg. Following Pearson’s conviction his amassed collection was destroyed by the RSPB in order to discourage further individuals from engaging in this illegal hobby. “The installation lays bare the pathology of the collector, driven by an uncontrollable desire to possess something unique even if it risks killing the thing that is loved”.[4]

This beautifully constructed exhibition makes the topic of ornithology unexpectedly engaging, and gasps were heard from the audience watching both of the two films during my visit. Natural Selection, weaves natural history, art history, and social history together with the pair’s father-son relationship seamlessly, making this more than your standard exhibition.

Natural Selection is showing at the Former Newington Library, London SE17 until 5th November. For more information see here.

 

[1] Peter Holden quoted in Louisa Buck,Andy and Peter Holden’s nesting instincts make for an extraordinary installation in south London”, The Art Newspaper 1st September 2017. http://theartnewspaper.com/blog/andy-and-peter-holden%27s-nesting-instincts-make-for-an-extraordinary-installation-in-south-london

[2] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Houghton Miffin, Boston 1962.

[3] Mark Thomas quoted in “Guilty! Egg thief goes to prison”, RSPB 2nd April 2008.
https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/news/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-186733#Mpua1j6ZQuCW8UW1.99

[4] Andy Holden & Peter Holden – Natural Selection Accompanying text, Artangel 2017.