Nature Reserves offers quiet reflections on our flora and fauna at GV art in London

By Mark Sheerin | 09 August 2013

Exhibition review: Nature Reserves, GV art, London, until September 13 2013

Colour photo of a collection of decomposed insects for classification purposes
Helen Pynor, The Life Raft 16 (2012). Toned and hand-coloured gelatin silver prints on archival fibre-based paper, framed© Helen Pynor. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery, London.
The delicacy of the ecosphere has plenty to answer for: rising sea levels, mass extinction, deserts on the move, freak weather. And now the fragile state of our planet has resulted in a group show which makes the case for our environment in a whisper rather than a shout.

But you cannot curate a scream of terror. Writer Tom Jeffreys has gone instead for a cerebral response to our natural world. His indirect focus is taxonomy and the scientific origins of our attitudes to nature.

The art is framed by loans from a number of museums: cases full of labels from the Grant Museum at UCL; an antique iron cabinet containing herbs from the South London Botanical Institute; and not least, volcanic rocks from the Geology Collections at UCL.

If these sound fetishistic, perhaps they are. Those good old days of exploration, discovery and classification offer plenty to cling to. But perhaps it now falls to art and artists to pry us away from our nostalgic attachment to the birth of the life sciences.

Knowledge, often presented as a tree, is lopped down in a print by Victoria Browne. Her Sweet Chestnut tree has been trimmed in the name of hubandry. But the wound in her lithograph is blood red and this is the first work in the show to sound a note of alarm.

More unease is provided by a dozen jars of yeast-bacteria colony. These scumlike growths of Kombucha occasionally bubble and almost hum with life. Artist Hestia Peppe has asked friends to nurture these at home then bring them to the gallery. They are a bit creepy.

Everywhere else you get a sense of nature as a dead thing. Deceased specimens are easier to catalogue, so the archive is a site of mourning as well as memory.

The most desolate works in this melancholic show are Helen Pynor’s photos of insect collections which have fallen into ruin. Dust-to-dust has never been so well dramatized.

Nearby, woodworm have made their way to the core of a pine tree. Amy Cutler sets one slice on its side and projects poetry onto its many rings. “Tell me have I come back/from that other world?” asks the verse.

In the case of French poet Charlotte Delbo, that other world could have meant Auschwitz. Planet earth may be in trouble, but things have been worse.

Laura Culham, meanwhile, demonstrates the loving care for nature of which we seem incapable. Her works, which look like stalks of grass, sprigs of fern, budding plants, are in fact paper engineering. The painstaking doubling of nature results in a thrilling sense of the uncanny.

It thrills because science has taken so much mystery out of the natural world. Hung on the ground floor at GV Art are five drawings of the moon by Anaȉs Tondeur. Viewable across the stairwell through binoculars, these get more recent as you read them from left to right.

The oldest is an example of paraedolia, seeing human forms where none exist. So here we see the fabled pre-Modern man on the moon. Things come most into focus with images four and five, from the Soviet Lunar 3 mission in (1959) and a 21st century Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

One might well conclude, however, that our latest take on the moon, the earth, and its flora and fauna are as naïve as ever. How could it not be?

In which case, as the show title suggests, nature always holds something in reserve. But as the anthropocine age unfolds, our ignorance is coming home to roost.

This indirect show is food for thought, but don’t come looking for answers. There may not be any.

  • GV Art, Chiltern Street, London. Open Tuesday to Friday 11am-6pm (4pm Saturday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @gv_art.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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