Artangel are well known for their site specific locations and for commissioning art that's very different to what you normally see, art that makes an impact. In the past they've been responsible for commissioning Rachel Whiteread's Turner Prize winning House and Break Down by Michael Landy in which said artist destroyed every last one of his possessions down to the clothes on his back, as well as works by the likes of Steve McQueen, Christian Marclay, Brian Eno, Scanner, Jeremy Deller, John Berger, Jem Finer, Miranda July, and Matthew Barney.
It seems unlikely that any of those listed artists would give off quite as distinct an Open University lecturer vibe as father and son duo Andy and Peter Holden. Andy's got the long hair, beard, and skinny tie of your 70s vintage OU man and dad Peter dons the more sober attire of a post-war social housing advocate. Let's just say he's no stranger to a cravat.
It was when Andy was back with his parents that the first seeds of an idea for this show appear to have been planted. Andy had finished art school and had returned to his folks 'nest' for a while when he found himself captivated by a blackbird building its actual nest. As his father Peter was a well respected expert on birds (he'd run the RSPB's Young Ornithologist's Club for thirty years, wrote several guide books to British birds, and appeared on Blue Peter as the 'bird man' alongside no lesser mortal than Bill Oddie) Andy's new found interest gave father and son a chance to meaningfully reconnect.
Soon they were giving joint lectures around the country about an oft-overlooked aspect of bird life, the nest, and if that sounds like it might in any way be a bit dry then the truth, as lucky visitors to this free exhibition will be fortunate enough to find out, is anything but.
It's a nice touch that the curators have paid tribute to the site's former use as the Cuming Museum by putting on a father and son exhibition (the Cuming's collection of archaeology, anthropology, and natural history was put together by Richard Cuming and his son Henry Syer Cuming) but it's an even sweeter one that Natural Selection appears to riff on and develop some of those very themes.
You walk in to a selection of nests collected from the natural world mixed in with others created in the artist's studio. It's almost impossible for a non-twitcher like myself to identify which is which but it's quite a fascinating selection. The huge bower bird nest (first photo) takes up the bulk of the exhibition space and is flanked by Andy Holden's Song Posts (Dawn Chorus), some spray painted telegraph poles whose inclusion in the exhibition is baffling but aesthetically pleasing.
In the corner of the room there's a glass case which contains nests of (in descending order in the photographs below) the weaver bird, the sparrow, the blackbird, the song thrush, the great tit, the oven bird, and the wood pigeon.
It takes only a cursory glance to see the great variety of nests that different birds build. From the barely there pile of twigs that make up the wood pigeon's nest to the almost solid home of the oven bird which looks like you could cook a pizza in it.
There's another, even more dramatic, weaver bird nest in the case and a guillemot egg. Placed there because the guillemot simply lays its egg on to a hard surface. The eggs have evolved to take on a slightly unusual shape that stops them rolling off the cliff and crashing on the rocks below. Also, so that guillemots know whose egg is whose, each individual female guillemot lays an egg with a pattern as unique as a snowflake. You've gotta love nature.
All of this sets you up for the first of two really rather wonderful films. Over two screens both Andy and Peter talk about birds, nests, and all things related. It would've been nearly impossible for me to retain all this fascinating information imparted but some nuggets of information stuck with me.
Most nests are built by one solitary bird, either male or female, but swans build as a couple. So romantic. Grebes, too, aren't averse to a little romance but whereas humans may like to build a nest together they'd probably not be so enamoured of the grebe's 'weed dance' courtship ritual where Mr and Mrs Grebe fill their mouths with weeds to impress each other before doing a little shimmy, throwing the weeds away, and then going on to do what comes most naturally to them.
Most nests host a solitary family but in Namibia communal living has become all the rage. Some of these 'tower blocks' host up to 5,000 nests in one single colony. The raw materials of nests are not as standard as you may think either (in fact it's quite a surprise that the solitary word 'nest' suffices such is the huge variety).
The chaffinch nest is made of moss, feathers, and spider's webs. The tailor bird goes for the even more ethereal media of leaves which they painstakingly lace together. Less pretty pretty is the cave swift who place their nests in dark caves and make them from their own solidified saliva.
Cuckoos, as we all know, don't even bother. We're shown a film of the dysfunctional relationship between a baby cuckoo and a reed warbler. When the baby cuckoo hatches in the guest nest the first thing it does is push all the other, much smaller, eggs out of the nest so they crack open on the floor and the baby birds inside die.
While this is macabre in the extreme what's weirder still is that the mother reed warbler simply watches it happen. You'd have thought she'd notice the much larger cuckoo eggs weren't her own and done something before but it boggles the mind that instead of chasing out the intruder she feeds it as if it was her own. Women do love a bastard.
Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder speculated that the art of nest building would later inspire humans to build their first homes and certainly some African mud huts don't look too different to the oven bird's nest. Although Pliny felt the swallow's nest was the more likely model.
Talking of the nest as art brings us back to the bower bird. The bower bird's nest doesn't function as a traditional nest at all in that the female doesn't lay her eggs in it. Instead the male bird uses it to impress potential mates. It's a work of art designed for just one set of eyes and it's not just the elaborate nest that impresses but the 'garden' as well. The male will collect objects and then lay them out around the nest using a strict system of colour coding (blue is a favourite so lots of water bottle lids). When people have moved the objects the bower bird has returned to place them back in their original place proving that it's not random but a very precise, specific, design similar, of course, to a piece of abstract art.
Down in the basement there's another film narrated by an on screen animatronic, and incredibly knowledgeable, corvid about the history of egg thieves. As the crow flies across a series of well known landscape paintings by the likes of Constable, Hockney, and Turner he tells us the story of the eggers, or oologists if you want to get technical about it. They're a strange breed of, almost always, men who have been risking life and limb climbing trees to steal valuable eggs for well over a century now.
In the early days there was good money to be had and borderline illegal groups were formed but as law, and attitudes, have caught up nobody can really live off the proceeds of egg theft. The few men who continue to clamber up trees to steal eggs now resemble drug addicts or alcoholics. They say they want to stop but they just can't seem to. We see an old film of a legendary oologist who fell to his death from a tree and we see an interview with an egger, Matthew Gonshaw, who hopes his collection of stolen eggs will impress a woman enough that she'll fall in love with him.
Gonshaw is a white working class male and represents the complete opposite end of the social spectrum to Lord Rothschild who gifted the Natural History Museum his collection of pilfered eggs and rode around in a carriage pulled by zebras but it's here that the exhibition, which has already encompassed so many seemingly disparate strands yet managed to tie them together neatly, perhaps outstretches itself a tiny little bit. I'm normally happy to shoehorn politics into anything but here it doesn't seem as good a fit as everything else in this marvellous collection of oddities.
Of course these eggers are deluded, but there's something very fascinating about them and the insights they offer into vast unknowable territories of the human mind. An area as fertile as nests, art, the social architecture of SE17, and father and son relationships. The fact that this show managed, somehow, to touch on each of these subjects in a kind, gentle way made it one I'm very glad I attended. Some exhibitions seem to have their wings clipped but this one soared.