Thursday, 2 August 2012

Unnatural – Natural History

The summer exhibition at the RWA this year is Unnatural - Natural History, billed as ‘an artistic exploration of an alternative world where the dominant species are not human and natural objects are metamorphosed into unexpected and unnatural forms’.

It was the express intention of the curators, Coates & Scarry, to ‘create a stir’ and to prompt discussion about what is and isn’t natural.  I’m always wary of exhibitions that set out to manipulate so visceral an emotion, as often what disturbs us at the deepest level is peculiar to us. I remember taking my elder daughter to see an exhibition of art by William Blake in what was then the Tate Gallery in 2000.  She was 12 years old and had such bad dreams that night that she woke up screaming and was sick.  Clearly the visionary artist and poet had made an unexpectedly profound impression!

Upon climbing the stairs to the exhibition, we were confronted by two installations by Kate MccGwire.  The sculpture, Wrest, was indeed challenging, consisting of a thick serpentine knot covered in meticulously layered feathers which were at once creepy and familiar, as anyone familiar with the Georgian feather frieze at the National Trust's A La Ronde would attest.  Similarly, ‘Stigma II’, consisting of two feathered holes in a sheer dark surface, was the stuff of nightmares.  I was also very impressed by Angela Lizon’s ‘Come Fly with Me’, in which a beautifully depicted newborn baby is flown in a sling by a very sinister-looking Marabou stork – the ‘Undertaker Bird’.  Never mind the Masai Mara, this bird looked to be heading straight for Baba Yaga’s hut deep in the forest.      

These, along with Natalie Shau’s memento mori, ‘Vanity’, were the high points.  Elsewhere, Patrick Haines’ sculpture ‘Hermetic Bird’ and Rose Sanderson’s ‘Starling’ were covetable but hardly alarming, and the rest of the exhibits were at best insufficiently innovative to provoke much of a reaction and at worst banal.  ‘Deep and meaningless,’ Dru's daughter, Katie, had pronounced and I’m afraid I have to agree. 


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