The Universe in a Puddle

Hundreds of little placards were displayed. Each one carried a drawing, a photograph, or an inscription, and the whole constituted a veritable encyclopedia of what we call ‘human knowledge’. A diagram of a plant cell, Mendeleieff’s periodic table of the elements, the keys to Chinese writing, a cross-section of the human heart

The quote above is taken from Rene Daumal’s 1952 book Mount Analogue, but it could serve as a press release for the exhibition currently on display in Gallery 7 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Surreal Science is a small exhibition structured around a ‘cabinet of curiosities.’ The Italian contemporary ceramicist and video artist Salvatore Arancio has been invited to pick from the private collection of George Loudon, a collector of nineteenth century natural history models and objects. Scattered amongst these nds are some of Arancio’s own works, in ceramic and film, without warning or clear distinction from the original objects. From famous works like the Blaschka family’s glass models of marine invertebrates to anonymous velvet mushrooms, passing by two-faced taxidermy kittens and a deconstructed human skull, it is a captivating, if unevenly presented, collection.

The exhibit’s power – and its greatest flaw – is in the sometimes clever, sometimes jarring juxtapositions, particularly as they relate to human perceptions of nature. One small cabinet contains two slides of images copied from lenses: one the interior of a diseased eye painted as seen with an ophthalmoscope, the other a miniature relief of the moon. The first, from 1863, is a tangle of red veins and blots, looking something like a Hubble photograph of sunspots and ares. The second shows a volcanic crater called ‘Erastothenes’, which was copied by the artist Henry Blunt through a telescope in 1849. New technologies of seeing had an immense impact on post-Enlightenment science, whether in the telescopic advances of astronomy or the microscopic discoveries in biology; new worlds opened up, from the micro-beasts in a single drop of water to lunar mountain ranges and valleys. As Proust wrote (and Loudon quotes in the exhibit’s accompanying catalogue): ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but having new eyes.’ Deep space is reflected on the underside of our eyes, and humans reach out and name moon landscapes after their own scientists: the 19th century was a time of profound shifts in scale, and uneasy resemblances all round.

Such repetitions of form are made particularly notable thanks to Arancio’s curatorial choices. Although by no means the most striking object on display, there is a profound visual significance to be observed even in a mundane little twig of coral from the family Dendrophylliidae. Its name refers to the dendritic (tree-like) branching of its shape; such dendritic forms are visible in the spread of lines across moss agate, veins stretched over an eye, the threadlike extensions of a neuron, or river basins seen from space. A plaster squid is displayed next to an anatomical dissected torso, and as the eye moves swiftly from hanging intestines to curled tentacles, they blend together grotesquely. Nature seems almost like a Rorschach test: in the repeated swirls and tendrils of the ferns, intestines, invertebrates and corals favoured here, echoes of the same forms and patterns come up again and again, tempting the viewer to non-scientific reflection and recognition. Throughout history, people have attempted to ‘read’ nature, whether in classical astrology, medieval divination of deformities, or 19th century phrenology; Loudon and Arancio suggest a new reading, entirely personal and irrational, a questionable but compelling psychoanalysis of nature’s unconscious.

But other opportunities for comparison are missed, as nineteenth century shifts in scale were also mirrored temporally, in the discovery of ‘deep time.’ Through crucial fossil finds and the startling discovery of cave paintings (Altamira cave was the first to be found, in 1870), first scientists, then the mass public of the late 19th century were propelled into an increasingly personal knowledge of our earliest human ancestors. The philosophical impact of ‘deep time’, as prehistory was called, was profound; even popular writers like Jules Verne featured climactic scenes like an early man found living in a subterranean ancient world in Voyage to the Centre of Earth. This impact can be observed in Loudon’s collection, which includes a hand- axe from 6000 BC and etchings of fossils. Yet his accompanying text for the aforementioned hand-axe in Object Lessons (the exhibition catalogue) reveals the limitations of his insight: ‘I bought this because I felt it was very beautiful. It does not tell much of a story because I know nothing about where it was found, what sort of people made it or what was happening at the time.’ Loudon’s pointedly non-scientific background in art collecting may allow for exquisite taste, but it comes at a price.

There are several points in Object Lessons where it seems like Loudon doesn’t quite know what he hopes to achieve through his collection. In Lynne Cooke’s interview with Loudon, she draws his attention to this collection’s relation to other movements in history where contemporary curators and artists have popularised artforms outside of the Western canon, specifically the wave of interest in African sculpture from Picasso and his fellow modernists. Loudon stumbles in response, providing just a one-word answer of ‘Yes’ when compared to the Picasso case, and then suggesting that these objects reflect nothing more than a personal interest of his unlikely to garner much attention in 50 years. Such a view is bound to be unpopular, particularly given that this is just one of many exhibitions popping up in the past few years which reimagine curation as an artform in itself. The ability to meaningfully select and relate disparate objects or works by various creators, encouraging an illuminating dialogue or revealing striking connections, is a skill that should be celebrated.

In comparison, the presentation of Surreal Science takes the form of a jumbled cabinet of curiosities, and while the confusion is presented as ‘a conscious decision to refrain from structuring its contents in any predictable way’, the impact on the viewer is something of a cop-out. This is particularly acute given that, as Robert McCracken Peck mentions in his essay at the beginning of Object Lessons, ‘The study of taxonomy, which focuses largely on the organisation and classification of nature, is reflected in many of the models and illustrations in this collection.’ is impulse towards classification is indeed visible in some of the objects on display, such as the boxes of seashells (the accompanying text lovingly mentions 19th century ‘conchylophilia’) or the jars of carefully labelled plants. As such, the lack of structure imposed by Arancio or Loudon seems to be an oversight, given its significance in the historical development of natural history. More concerningly, in the interview with Lynne Cooke, Loudon mocks exhibitions that display natural history models alongside contemporary sculpture, suggesting they say: ‘Hey! I’ve included a contemporary artist just to make you think this is contemporary art.’

Yet this is precisely the effect achieved by the insertion of Arancio’s sculptures across the display, bringing to light the question of what role his sculptures have in this exhibition. Their juxtaposition is so close that in one display a ceramic flower by Arancio cradles a bezoar stone taken from the stomach of a cow. The presence of Arancio’s own works in this exhibition is somewhat confusing, given Loudon’s own professed distaste for exhibitions that try to confuse the viewer on the visual distinction between modern art and older craft (similar criticisms were leveled against the British Museum in 2013, when they included Henry Moore and Matisse sculptures alongside ice age female gurines). Arancio’s ceramics are largely in the form of bulbous owers and turrets, notable mostly for their unique colour scheme which pervades the rest of the display: a slick iridescence of pinks, blues and greens, exactly like the sheen of oil on water – an iridescence which also appears in the Arancio film projected on the wall, and the sheets of plastic dividing some of the cabinets. The irony of a thin shining layer of man-made pollution, usually observed coating nature, is too acute to be seen as accidental; the contemporary presence of Arancio as an artificial, semi-toxic gauze seems intentional, particularly in his blown- up sculpture of the 8000 year-old handaxe, coloured pink and green. Yet the real question is whether this is a useful, illuminating response, and the answer seems instinctively negative: his glittering grotesqueries don’t seem to provide anything more than a surface-level reflection of the objects in Loudon’s collection.

But such a criticism ignores the overall effect of Arancio’s inclusion. In the throbbing discordant music of his films and the dreamlike colour palette, his work brings out an aspect of the exhibition hitherto ignored in this review: the ‘surreal’ element of Surreal Science. The Tate art dictionary defines surrealism as a movement that ‘asserted the value of the unconscious and dreams’ and rejected ‘a rational vision of life’… is vision of nature is strengthened by a short Arancio lm displayed on a shelf, called ‘Dedication to the Blue Soul.’ Repurposed documentary footage, rendered psychedelic through colour alteration and cropping, a narrator reads from an 1890 text, Soul Shapes, which purported to provide a visual taxonomy of souls, an individual mapping of the reliefs and contours of the human spirit. The text from Soul Shapes is an uneasy listen, a reduction of positive human attributes to the simple classification of people into ‘surface souls’, ‘yellow souls’, ‘blue souls.’ This film is placed not too far from a collection of tiny phrenological models, 12 in total, with the characteristics lumps and bumps of each ‘type’ carefully labelled: the mystic, the murderous son, the degraded idiot. Human souls become subject to the same sort of visual interpretation used to classify a box of Indian shells, or a glass plate of butterfly wings, but with the heightened melodrama of surreal psychoanalysis: death, sex, family. It seems that his film contributions to the exhibition lend far more strangeness and atmosphere to the exhibition than his sculptures, providing the sort of striking juxtapositions that his somewhat mute objects don’t.

Surreal Science isn’t only an example of one exhibition trend of the last few years in its curatorial slant; through its focus on natural history, it also has its place in the gallery-centred wave of aesthetic philosophy seeking to ask what the beauty in ‘natural’ forms is. This isn’t a new question (Montaigne asks it in 1580, in relation to the craft of swallows’ nests and spiderwebs), but it is one particularly visible today, whether in the Nasher’s exhibition of Palaeolithic hand-axes as sculpture, or the Musée Zadkine’s display of precious minerals as art. However, Loudon is openly more interested in representations of nature, their construction and artisanry, than in the work of nature itself; in this, Surreal Science is a stark contrast to another recent London exhibition, Andy and Peter Holden’s Natural Selection at the former Newington Library. There, the Holdens displayed stunning examples of bird nests, from a massive reconstruction of a bowerbird structure, to real collected examples of tailorbird nests, formed of leaves sewn together with spider silk, and baya weaverbird nests, remarkable hanging bells of woven vegetation. They argued eloquently for the aesthetic properties of nature’s own creations; in contrast, Loudon is visibly entranced by the craft and materials involved in humans representing nature. He even says of a selection of velvet mushrooms that they are ‘very beautiful, possibly more so than the real thing.’ Loudon isn’t interested in what it means for a bird to make a nest, but rather what it means for a human to make a reproduction of one.

I thought of the Holdens whilst leaving the Whitechapel. Heading back downstairs, I passed by Gallery 4, where a single Jackson Pollock painting was on display. The mad splashes and dashes of colour seemed to be far better positioned to capture that non-controlled eruption of form that occurs in nature, a lack of intentionality where happy accidents survive and multiply.

Surreal Science isn’t about this – it’s about perception, representation, Proust’s ‘new eyes.’ In wax, papier-mâché, plaster, and velvet, we are shown an elaborate and absorbing construction of the natural world; altogether, perhaps the most memorable aspect of Surreal Science is how deeply unnatural it all feels.