Where is the line?

UnNatural History, Coventry’s 2021 Capital of Culture centre-piece exhibition, constituted the first major UK environmental overview exhibition in many years. Wrapped around ‘nature’ through a sci-art lens, the modern mindset was questioned and critiqued, yet the exhibition never quite dispelled the sense that it was cut from the same rulebook itself.

Tania Kovats –Untitled commission for UnNatural History – Photo Tania Kovats

Walk along the gallery corridor and first contact with UnNatural History comes in the form of weeds growing through the cracks of the grey-blue marmoleum. Touch one, and bronze’s cold hardness courses through the veins. Nature isn’t what it seems, it isn’t even natural.

Tony Matelli’s Weed #274 – Left Oliver Lowenstein, and right, Tony Matelli and Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Stockholm, Paris

Just how unnatural the world is, was  – unsurprisingly, given its title – a key rhetorical point, announced by Tony Matelli’s copper weeds, though woven throughout UnNatural History, the inaugural art offering of Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, part of the UK’s City of Culture tri-annual programme, which ran from May through to August 2021.

Round the corner and into the first gallery space, and Andy Holden’s 2017 The Oologist’s Record – a twitcher’s paradise of an installation: bird eggs, nests, and other items of an egg poacher – is a transient personal moment in the exhibition’s critique and commentary, aimed full square at the overwhelmingly impersonal role of science in the ordering of things.

Beside the egg poacher installation, the work of one-time YBA Michael Landy’s exacting yet simple drawings of street plants, including Nipplewort, Bristly Ox-Tongue 1 and Canadian Fleabane, all out-of-place weeds, hint at anthropologist Mary Douglas’s classic Purity and Danger thesis: that dirt is matter on the wrong side of one classificatory line or another. On the other side of the room is one of the four commissioned artists, Tania Kovats, with another personal – this time, Covid-related – collection, of her son’s growing school shoe sizes, amidst the detritus of country walks. As elsewhere, playing with the collection of nature is expressed through the nature of collection.

Modernism in the jungle: Alex Hartley’s The Present Order assemblage – Photo Alex Hartley/Victoria Miro

For the most part, though, the ordering is impersonal. A first taste appears in the Herbert’s atrium foyer, where, as you make your way to the first-floor galleries housing the exhibition, one passes a replica, life-size yet brightly decorated, rhinoceros: Raqs Media Collective’s However Incongruous installation, that remakes an Albrecht Dürer drawing, and sixteenth century example of communicating the pre-modern book of nature, and signals the exhibition’s loosely organised past-to-future chronology. After the introductory Landy and Kovats works, in the next gallery room the historical emphasis is immediate, drawing the visitor back to the European Age of Reconnaissance and the early modern scientific period. Two video pieces, which depicts botanical artists on scientific missions involved in identifying and documenting lineages of species, connect to Britain’s relatively recent colonial past. German artist Sonya Schönberger’s Company Art video compares Western and Eastern perceptions of nature through the medium of seventeenth and eighteenth century botanical drawings, while the young British artist, Frances Disley – another of the four specially commissioned artists – explores the work of nineteenth century botanical artist, Marianne North, through sculpture and video, the latter in collaboration with a contemporary medicinal plant researcher from South West London’s Kew Gardens, Rebecca Lazarou. Another line is toyed with: to what extent are these research works scientific, or artistic?

Again and again, while covering a strikingly diverse number of bases, UnNatural History clusters around critiques and appraisal of aspects of scientific methodologies and mindsets. Curated by Invisible Dust, the sci-art organisation whose projects have generally focused on climate and environmental issues, the shifting representation of natural science sits alongside other recognisably contemporary critiques, colonialism and feminism, including a pronounced emphasis on the Global South and women artists and scientists. Wide-ranging yet focused, the exhibition features fifty-two works by twenty-six artists/collectives (thirty-three artists in all), spread across five first-floor galleries. Given the limited history of sizeable environmental art exhibitions, and putting aside the science related themes, UnNatural History constitutes a major UK environmental group show.

Beyond this foreground, though, classification and indeed something of the spirit of Carl Linnaeus hovers over the exhibition as a whole. Categorisation, systemisation, the need to collect and archive, of sifting and sorting threads through many of the pieces. Modernity itself, alongside colonialism and feminism, is an implicit third pole by which much of this major group show is cast. Yet if modernity’s requirement for organising and ordering, and its reliance on the growth of bureaucracy and administration, is a tangential presence, it remains unspoken and seemingly unacknowledged. A symbolic foil to Linnaeus, the German sociologist of bureaucracy, Max Weber, lurks off in the wings, albeit invisible and inferred. However much the rise of bureaucracy and science are intertwined, the artist’s work is limited to responding to, evaluating and critiquing the scientific apprehension of the natural world, and, more generally, how we human creatures experience the natural today.

So, in Alex Hartley’s The Present Order, a decaying piece of concrete is part of a large assemblage that also highlights a monochrome photograph crossed by a modernist grid, depicting scientific civilisation fast being reclaimed by jungle foliage. Likewise, Irish Gerald Byrne’s stark black & white photographs of stuffed birds set in the Gothically austere environment of Stockholm’s Biological Museum draws the viewer back to the modern institution. Not dissimilarly, Kovats has distributed dead, taxidermied animals across the exhibition’s floor-space, mixing human manipulation with nature, raw in tooth and claw. Kovats is among various artists, where, in a nice touch – and another category transgression: this time, the ordering of the gallery space – playfulness and humour is brought very much to the fore. NOTE - Mushroom image here Calvin Pang and David Robinson’s miniature ceramic mushrooms pop up in various ground-level places, including on the exit stairwell, while two anti-anthropocentric video works: Belgian David Claerbert’s re-rendering of The Jungle Book, with animals behaving like animals rather than in Kiplingesque/Disneyesque manner – sleeping, grooming, looking for food – and ignoring near-by Mowgli; while Doug Aitken’s migration (empire) brings absurdist humour to pointing up the sheer distance between human and animal realms, and all within a motel room’s four walls.

Calvin Pang, ‘Where Am I?’, 2017/2021 – Photo Calvin Pang
Buffalo Stance; still from - Doug Aitken’s migration (empire) video - 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
The Mouth of the Ground: Gosde Ilkin - Photo artist

Play and humour then, though also play and making. For another of the commissioned works, The Mouth of the Ground, the Turkish artist, Gosde Ilkin, collapses hard with soft, fabric with rock, into another mixed category. Ilkin, unable to visit the Herbert due to Covid, was sent rock specimens from the museum’s collection, for which she stitched fabrics together to hold the stones, embroidering messages and knowledge of non-modern folklore health into the reclaimed textiles – an environmental thread drawn all the way through the work.

Sarah Sze - Magenta Stone Photo Sarah Sze/Victoria Miro

There are other female artists, including loaned works from international stars such as American Sarah Sze, her relatively small-scale Magenta Stone installation taking up one space, and figures from the Global South such as Kenyan Wangechi Mutu, and Danh Võ, transplanted Vietnamese, by way of Denmark, are part of UnNatural History’s middle galleries. Võ’s unassuming pink wallpaper turns disconcerting when you realise that spread across the wallpaper are the lost original Vietnamese names of plant species that disappeared after the arrival of missionaries. In the corner a dead crow lies.

Up until recently, these, and works by many other artists featured, such as Ireland’s Dorothy Cross, New Zealander Francis Uprichard, or the UK-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare and his youthful yet precarious Butterfly Kid, would have surely all felt bracing and adventurous. But set alongside Resurrecting the Sublime, a collaborative piece by fellow Americans Christina Agapakis and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and German Sissel Tolaas – the former two synthetic biologists, the latter a scent artist – I felt ushered into the current moment, the brave new twenty-first century, and, in cybernetic artist Roy Ascott’s pungent phrasing, the ‘moist’ post-biological world, adding a further layer to the exhibition’s strikingly diverse number of artistic voices, even as these repeatedly returned to critiques and appraisals of scientific methodologies and mindsets. To my mind, there weren’t any other works which so clearly inhabited the twenty-first century world as counterpoint to this group installation.

Matt Collishaw’s The Machine Zone, an automaton, kinetic art which incorporates a zoetrope, though shiny, felt as if it could have emerged from the end-of-the-garden shed of a sophisticated robotics enthusiast, while Jon Gerrard’s The Smoking Tree video in which biodiversity and the carbon future meet were both tech led. But compared to the strange new world of synthetic biology, theirs were already old new technologies, seeming, at least to me, closer to turn of the twentieth century’s Digital 2.0 culture boom twenty years on.

The fifth and final gallery room contained the last of the four commissioned pieces. Here, Afro-Futurism met an abandoned post-Apocalyptic jungle lair, the insect soundscapes and old tv monitors pumping long gone programmes, hinting that any final extinction rebellions had failed. The culminating work, DubMorphology’s joined up ‘Colony’, ‘Untitled’, ‘Void’ and ‘Portal’ installation, echoed – with ironic tongue seriously in its cheek – the kind of pop futurism found in blockbuster super-hero films. After an exhibition upping the climate emergency ante, DubMorphology’s pulp survivalism only further primed an audience with heads full of worries about imminent global breakdown and collapse, yet also the sense that it was all only a movie. Bringing – kind of - a smile to the cheeks, pop post-modern irony didn’t quite cut it in these critically serious or – depending on where you’re standing – seriously far too po-faced times of Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate.

An exhibition of two dozen plus artists was never going to deliver a single voice, but what was starkly clear by the time one descended the exit stairwell, was how UnNatural History’s overall sensibility still evoked modernity’s mindset. As if one part of today’s bureaucrat machinery – the art industry infrastructure – had alighted on another – the scientific world – to guide its organisational theme for its client audience. At once coolly provocative yet oddly paradoxical for a public arts commission, UnNatural History provided a pocketbook guide to one slice of the sci- meets eco-art world, seen through the lens of the current moment’s cultural-political preoccupations.

UnNatural History was at the Coventry Herbert as part of the city’s 2021 Capital of Culture from 28 May – 22 August 2021
This is an old art piece. We are working on bringing up to date a number of art pieces waiting in the wings


Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg et al’s Resurrecting the Sublime – Photo the artist and Invisible Dust