Contemporary Expressions - artists respond to Darwin at the Natural History Museum

By Alice Burton | 21 July 2009
video projection of gorillas on gallery wall

(Above) Gorillagorillagorilla by Diana Thater. Picture © Natural History Museum

Exhibition: After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions, Jerwood Gallery, Natural History Museum, London, until November 29 2009

After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions is the work of nine artists who have taken inspiration from Charles Darwin's 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the result of 30 years of research outlining how humans express their emotions.

Darwin believed all humans expressed their emotions in the same way, and thus should be treated as equals.

For many the Natural History Museum is antonymous with modern and contemporary art and, as a fan of Darwin and contemporary art, I was eager to find out if this museum, famous for its dinosaurs and 100 million-year-old fossils, could concoct a powerful exhibition inspired by the scientist's ideas.

woman looking at video installation

The Chameleon Project by Tina Gonsalves. Picture © Natural History Museum

When a group of artistic minds are asked to interpret a 130-year-old book, the results are going to be unexpected and the exhibits are as varied as the book itself, featuring prose, video, poetry, photographs and installations.

Upon entering the gallery you are greeted by a 10-foot high projection of gorillas in a sanctuary in Cameroon. These are primates saved from poachers, filmed by American installation artist Diana Thater.

It's a heart-warming thought and I could understand the connection to Darwin, but ultimately it only worked well as an attractive wallpaper for the gallery wall.

Two other video installations dealt with human emotions – Tina Gonsalves' The Chameleon Project, which shows 12 people experiencing different emotions, and I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, by Bill Viola.

The Chameleon Project aims to show the effects one person's emotions can have on a group. It was fascinating to observe, as even though the 12 people were filmed at separate times, their emotions are cleverly linked to each other.

woman looking at portraits around the room

(Above) 24 Emotions by Mark Haddon. Picture © Natural History Museum

Bill Viola's video strays a little further from the subject, and his footage of people sticking needles into their faces makes for difficult viewing. For me it strayed too far from Darwin's book or his theories.

Mark Haddon's contribution to the exhibition makes for a refreshing antedote. 24 Emotions features portraits from Darwin's book of people in different emotional states, accompanied by original prose relating to what the person in the portrait is feeling. Each story is amusing and features characters and feelings which are easy to relate to.

mirror with ape pictures next to it

Aping by Jeremy Deller, Matthew Killip and Richard Wiseman. Picture © Natural History Museum

Aping, a collaboration between Jeremy Deller, Matthew Killip and Richard Wiseman, also raises a giggle – what appears to be a window looking out into the gallery hallway is actually a two-way mirror, allowing a view of oblivious crowds on the other side.

On the opposing side a sign reads "can you make a face like a chimp?", accompanied by a series of pictures. An amusing moment when a group of schoolchildren start making ape-like faces, unaware that you're watching, is made more amusing when the adults have a go.

Despite this, I couldn't help feeling unfulfilled after the visit. In many of the pieces I found the link to Darwin's theories to be too tenuous – ironically, the exhibition failed to evoke many emotions.

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