‘A show of marvels’: Natural Selection at the former Newington Library, Elephant & Castle, London.
The swallow sculpts its nest out of mud. The horned coot works with pebbles in streams, an avian Andy Goldsworthy. The weaver bird is famous for its elaborate globes and sheaths conjured out of grasses; but the bowerbird surely takes the biscuit, decorating its lavish pavilions with flower petals, shells and shards of shining plastic. It has even been known to use masticated berries as paint.
A magnified bower dominates the opening gallery of Natural Selection. An enormous assembly of reeds with a central eye-like hole, it’s so suggestive of art as to strike the mind first as some sort of sculpture. Which is both true and exactly the point. For everything in this marvellous Artangel exhibition – a show of marvels in itself – turns upon the astonishing connections between ornithology and art, or more precisely between birds and their visions, whether their nests and even their eggs can be seen as expressive creations rather than just evolutionary imperatives.
The argument is played out using eggs and nests from all over the world, as well as paintings, sculptures and films. These are the work of Andy Holden, sometimes in conjunction with his father, Peter. Holden senior is a household name: national organiser of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists’ Cluband former “bird man” on Blue Peter; Andy is an artist, animator and musician with the Grubby Mitts. Posters for Peter Holden’s first book featured infant Andy reading bird magazines in his highchair. This show is also about the evolution of their relationship.
Here, for instance, is the blackbird’s nest Andy once found in the tree outside his childhood home. A perfect circle, it turns on a revolving disc, emphasising the lovely roundness of the bird’s creation; whereas for Peter the design is about cupping the eggs as safely as possible. Swallows are equally security-minded to the father, nesting in high eaves. But a greater wonder for the son is their ability to sculpt in a medium as quick-drying as renaissance terracotta using only beaks and claws. Andy shows photographs of the bird that even built its home on an emblematic trowel.
‘Knowledge from the father, poetry from the son’: Andy Holden, left, and Peter Holden, right, and the nest of a long-tailed tit. Photograph: Andy Holden & Peter Holden
Bark, nests and branches are all used in quasi-scientific displays, as well as installations and depictions (a vast collection of stolen eggs, subject of a famous crime, is recreated in spectacular facsimile). But the dialogue between father and son has its principal focus in a split-screen film where they give a brilliant two-headed lecture on nests, taking in, inter alia, the homicidal cuckoo; the tailorbird, stitching leaves together with spider’s silk; the massive airborne apartment blocks of the sociable weaver bird; and the mute swans that work together in pairs.
What is an egg but a perfect creation, a triumph of form and beauty, removed from the flow of time
For Andy, the swans’ nest measures the strength of their marriage. Knowledge from the father, poetry from the son: that seems to be the pattern. Except that Peter Holden opens your eyes to beauty too – to nests as exposed pockets, fragile cradles or invisible cities, as he refers to rookeries. He may be sceptical of Andy’s chicken and egg claims – did mankind really make mud huts in imitation of the swallows, as Pliny says – but he points out just how astonishing it is that young long-tailed tits can make their bottle-shaped nests without ever having seen another bird do it.
Downstairs in the disused Victorian library (formerly the Cuming Museum, a father-son ethnographic collection) is Andy Holden’s latest film installation. Ostensibly narrated by a cartoon crow that once starred in his father’s RSPB magazines, now grown into a wise old animatronic bird, this is an enthralling history of egg collecting from eccentric pastime, when aristocrats swam Scottish lochs with eggs in their hands, to childhood hobby, competitive pursuit and eventually – after the 1954 Protection of Birds Act – organised crime.
Watch a clip from Andy Holden’s film installation.
The crow flies through landscapes by Turner, Ravilious and Hockney (this is a concise history of English art en route), hops in and out of a mist-rolling Paul Nash, enters into documentary footage of egg robbers discussing their crimes. Most unforgettable are the stories of Colin Watson, who cut down the tree in which endangered ospreys were nesting, in protest against the 1954 Act, then died while clambering up for an egg. And Matthew Gonshaw, jailed in 2011 for egging, who speaks on camera of his addiction, and the romance of it, betraying a forlorn desire to return to the innocence of childhood.
Andy Holden twines the strands together like a weaver bird himself, subtly suggesting all sorts of parallels – between the cuckoo forging other birds’ eggs and his own artfully faked collection; between the tailorbird’s lacing and the shoe tying learned from his father (what’s learned, what’s instinctive?); between egging and art collecting. Egg thefts might almost be construed as a kind of art crime, except that to steal an egg is to steal a bird’s life.
Collections of eggs on display in Natural Selection. Photograph: Marcus Leith
And what is an egg but a perfect creation, a masterpiece of form and beauty, removed from the flow of time. Look at the owl’s moonlight egg, known as an immaculate. Or the guillemot’s eggs, laid directly on the rocky ledge, and apparently painted to resemble it. Each is different in its graphic abstraction; this one like a Henri Michaux ink work, this one like a Jackson Pollock. How are they even made?
The show circles back in the end to the bowerbird, making its nest for fun, or love, a free invention in which no eggs will ever be laid. This bird, the Holden’s agree, has a singular sensibility. For the father, this is a triumph of natural selection; for the son, it’s the essence of creativity. The bird has a concept of beauty that precedes and governs his creation. It is by definition an artist.