An Art that Nature Makes
Almost thirty years ago, from the ground of a rural scrap-metal yard came the first, and still most treasured, of found objects: two books glued together by the passage of New England seasons, and half-gnawed by mice into a nest of syllables and straw. Here, I realized, was a perfect example of manmade objects, the books, turning half-way across into an expression of animal industry, the nest. It stands at the cross-roads between artifact and nature, a hybrid object, a grafting of text to nest—”An Art that Nature Makes” * — a title which became the title of the documentary film about my work as an artist and writer and now, here at Big Town, a title for the selected photographs taken for a variety of reasons over the past decades.
An over-arching theme that unites the images in the gallery is that these disparate often wild things have been contained. The Norfolk Island Kereru dive-bombing into the box, the giant ferns in an album, even the gorilla skulls side by side linked by their differences, joined by their similarities belong within a single frame. Of course ‘containment’ in some instances has been contrived. I placed the Kereru head-down into the box to express the fateful history of this large extinct pigeon: the Naturalis museum in Leiden had a single pair of these birds, and according to their records they were first described—and last seen—in the same year, 1801.
The pre-constructed composition of ‘Book Cloth’ and ‘Moths on Music’ are also containers. 'Book Cloth' of binding, cloth, and random text is a recomposed expression of a ruined structure. 'Moths on Music' have a historical reference: on sooty telephone poles in northern England, white moths over decades developed dark smudges to better survive, camouflaged from predators on the poles. These particular moths have been ‘collected’ by my having placed them on termite-eaten music. Now contained within the framework of the music, dark spots on the wings commingle with dark details of notes from the score. But the notion behind the composition refers also to this well-known example of a strategy for survival. The ‘container’ here includes a piece of science history one does—or does not—need to know
But well beyond the box, the book, the shell, structural sameness, or natural camouflage, ‘containment’ is inherent, above all, with the photographs of eggs—the murre eggs in the collector’s box, the fossilized elephant bird egg, the eggs of the hummingbird, and the lacy hard shell of the guira cuckoo. The eggs set their own limits: their contents are invisible, vanished, or perhaps, in the case of the elephant bird, turned to stone.
*Title from Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, 4.4 lines 504-6
“over that art which you say adds to nature, is an art that nature makes.” In this scene the characters argue about the hybridization of plants, which was becoming fashionable in Shakespeare’s time and was described as an art that nature makes.