Natural:History (a fable of progress) Or, ‘oh no, we’ve killed the last unicorn’
24 March – 2 June, 2018
Review by Sara Jaspan
On 20 March 2018, the last male White Northern Rhino (who lived in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, under the watch of armed guards to protect him from illegal poachers) was put down. The media reported the event extensively, as you might expect. But what about the other 3 to 136 less ‘glamorous’ species that quietly slip into extinction every day without mention?
This dizzying question, posed by artists Richard Dawson and Jacqui Symons, sum up some of the central themes contained within their current exhibition; Natural:History (a fable of progress) – Or, ‘oh no, we’ve killed the last unicorn’ at Gallery Oldham. An exhibition which draws on the fundamental problems that the concept of human ‘advancement’ has had in light of the devastating impact of our activity on the Earth’s climate and environment over the past 200-or-so years, a period now commonly known as ‘the Anthropocene’, and draws scathing attention to our flawed relationship with the rest of the natural world. Fittingly, a strong sense of nihilistic absurdity permeates throughout.
In one corner of the gallery, tucked away behind a stud-wall, a perplexing, cumbersome machine continuously regurgitates a pile of shredded plastic – a cynical reference to monumental shortcomings of the various ‘green measures’ we blindly follow and pin our hopes upon. As Dawson writes in the accompanying handout (which serves as a kind of ‘field guide’ to the exhibition, providing an ongoing source of sardonic commentary throughout); the purpose built, yet purposeless contraption is ‘A Pointless Device in every way, wasting energy, achieving nothing’ ¬– echoing our collective failure ‘to accept that ceasing the manufacture of pointless plastic items is a necessary, vital undertaking.’
Elsewhere, a Victoriana cabinet (described by the artists as a ‘creative reimagining’ of the 19th century Oldham-born naturalist Percival Farrington’s study) contains a curious set of displays, including a ginormous, remarkably beautiful ‘tusk.’ To the less-informed, this improbable object might seem a fanciful product of human imagination. Yet, as a nearby exhibition label explains, it is in fact the protruding canine tooth of a Narwhale – an endangered species, nicknamed the ‘unicorns of the sea’ for this somewhat distinctive feature. Titled ‘The Last Unicorn (A horse with an arrow in its head?) Or, ‘Missing You’’, the piece disparagingly comments on our ability to dream-up myths of fantastical creatures, whilst so often failing to appreciate and protect the reality of what exists.
In ‘The Vital Significants (Three Ways of Looking)’ Dawson and Symons re-focus their attention on highlighting the supreme anthropocentricism that underpins our understanding of the world. The series is made up of three framed pieces, each containing alternative schematic displays of different insect invertebrates. The first (subtitled ‘Or, Where they fit in the Grand Scheme of Existence’) lists the Latin name of each creature, bookmarking its place within science’s phylogenetic system. The second (‘Or, Their purpose to us ¬¬– ecosystem services’) diagrammatically maps the various specimens in relation to the economic functions they provide us with, such as pest control, pollination and waste recycling. The third (‘Or, The thing itself’) simply presents each being as it is, without comment or justification.
While these creatures may not be deemed as exciting as Sudan (the name humans curiously gave to the last male White Northern Rhino), they have just as much right to exist. Yet, as a series of pamphlets presented alongside state; there has been a 75% drop in insect populations since 1989.
Perhaps the most poignant of the many works that make up Natural:History, however, comes towards the end – an immersive ‘memorial’, in Dawson’s words, to 300 of the uncountable number of species that have become extinct since the start of the Anthropocene; their names (only the names of the known, the artists notes) are listed on a series of plaques, reminiscent of the type we resurrect in honour of the human victims of war or natural disasters. In one corner of the darkened room in which the piece is presented, a typewriter is setup, intended to record – in real time – all the species that are being lost over the four-month run of the exhibition. Ironically, the machine was jammed whilst I was there.
Though the approach taken by Dawson and Symons seems a little heavy-handed in parts, this is perhaps rather apt. However patently damaging human activity has become to both our own species and the rest of the world, we still continue along the same destructive path, almost entirely unabated. The inherently selfish nihilism of such behaviour is perfectly captured by the exhibition title itself; performed within the abject, hapless shrug – ‘Oh no’, indeed.