Friday, 24 February 2012

Strange Creatures at UCL

Yesterday took me to my first pop up art exhibition. And it’s going to take some beating in terms of both the art and the venue. Far away from the commercial luxury of the west end and the soulless white cube spaces of east London, there is nothing ordinary about the Grant Museum of Zoology.

The website tells us that it is the ‘only remaining university zoological museum in London [and] houses around 67,000 specimens, covering the whole animal kingdom. Founded in 1828 as a teaching collection, the Museum is packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid. Many of the species are now endangered or extinct including the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine, the Quagga, and the Dodo.’ It isn’t a large space but even without the non permanent art, there is more than enough to keep the non biologist enthralled. They have embraced interactive displays and social media so that visitors can get involved about the role of science in society and how museums should be run. The highlights of the collection for me were the skeleton of the dugong, the video of the artistic bowerbird, skeletons in the gallery and the brain coral (helpfully tagged with ‘not a brain’). The whole galleried space is crammed with curios and reminiscent of a renaissance cabinet of curiosities.

The leaflet says the selection of prints and drawings was put together by Subhadra Das from UCL Museums and Collections and inspired by a UCL exhibition called ‘Word & Image: Early Modern Treasures at UCL’. Early modern depictions of exotic and even not so exotic creatures were not entirely scientifically accurate and illustrations were often done without the artist ever having seen the animal they were drawing. Combined with the enduring love of mythological beasts, has ‘allowed for the creation of some truly strange creatures’.

Ana-Maria Pacheco ‘Untitled’ (1992)

The first that really demonstrates my point is ‘Lion in a Landscape’, (Dutch, late 17th century). The lack of live models, apart from those poor creatures in royal collections  meant that pictures were bound to be imperfect. Who can forget Durer’s Rhino? This lion has beautifully human features, making it rather friendly in appearance. It is interesting to compare it with Ana-Maria Pacheco’s ‘Untitled’ (1992) where the idea is reversed. Humans have animal masks and you get a curious sense of uncanny disorientation. Her image has other disturbing aspects in it, for instance, just why?

Picasso 'Butterfly and flowers'
A Picasso is always going to draw your attention and the aquatint on show here is worlds away from the Tate’s large scale exhibition pieces. I found his dramatic ‘Butterfly and flowers’ dark and disturbing in the context of the Grant Museum because the swirling of the petals seem to take on a foetal aspect. Nearby a preserved baby lemur in a jar echoes their positions. The butterfly is neither a scientific depiction nor a static creature pinned to a board but looms malevolently over the crouching flowers. It is a Gothic delight and perfectly at home in this space.

Of interest was David R Smith’s photograph ‘Elephant Skull and Heart’ (1991) especially given my recent excursion into photo archives. It had a vintage feel to it and looked like something that the Natural History Museum would have in their archives. It is an apt mix of art as science and science as art image, especially as there are actual specimens of both just behind you.

A beautifully executed engraving entitled 'Death of the Western World' (1976) which shows all manner of death, destruction and architectual details. I initially struggled with in terms of relevance to this exhibition. Then it dawned on me that many of these creatures in cases were now extinct, arguably due to humans impact on their natural habitat so therefore it served as a reminder that we too may go the way of the dodo.

There were many other prints of note but I wanted to mention the parallel exhibition that they have on currently. As part of the UCL Humanimals season, their contribution has been to look at Art by Animals. There are some striking images by orangutans, chimps and elephants on show as well as an informative display with videos. It points out that if ‘interest in animal language has waned, an urge to believe in a common language [of art?] still remains’. It is extremely controversial and it is perhaps unwise to project human ideas of consciousness and art onto the manipulated daubings of an elephant’s trunk. Also there are ethical issues, is it right that animals in captivity should be humanised in this way? I am very uncertain about the whole concept.

As a pop up exhibition it worked really well. Interesting images in an extraordinary space; the sympathetic relationship between the two ensured that the visitor made connections that may perhaps have been missed in an ordinary gallery space.

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