In Andy & Peter Holden’s wonderful Artangel comission ‘Natural Selection’, staged in the Former Newington Library in Vauxhall, South London, the three-channel video A Natural History of Nest Building (2017) peeks out from a huge willow tunnel set in a pile of aromatic tree bark. The central screen mainly shows images of birds’ nests. On the right, Peter, an ornithologist and some-time TV presenter, gives expert scientific explanations. The ovenbird, for instance, might measure out its enclosed, shell-like nest by the reach of its beak as it pivots on its heels inside, laying down mud and twigs in precise curves. On the left, his artist son, Andy, argues for nest building as a sign of creativity: when researchers tamper, birds can make repairs and corrections, suggesting they have a mental image of what they’re doing.
When the same tests were carried out on the bower built by the male bowerbird to attract a mate, this suggested to Charles Darwin that they possess a concept of beauty. Holden Junior has reconstructed one in willow in front of the screens. It becomes a two-way portal between the human and the animal: the researchers who first found these bowers thought they had been built by uncontacted human tribes, and in the era of human plastics, the bowerbird’s in eye-catching incorporation of coloured objects into the display has expanded to include drinking straws and bottle-tops.
In Daisy Hildyard’s new book The Second Body (2017; Fitzcarraldo), the worlds of nature, science and art inundate each other in similarly wonderful ways: the testimony of a butcher, a green criminologist, a biologist, and a geneticist of fungi flow into Hildyard’s sensory memories and brilliant readings of Elena Ferrante, Shakespeare and Nina Simone.
Hildyard pairs the theory that we are living in the Anthropocene – ‘an epoch during which the human species is producing its large, clear, distinctive signature in the stratum of the earth which is currently forming’ – with Earthrise, William Anders’ celebrated 1968 photograph of the earth while he was on the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned voyage to orbit the moon. The problem with both, Hildyard explains, is their encouragement of a sense of superhuman superiority over the planet.
Instead, she proposes that beyond the skin we’re enclosed in – the body the butcher might understand – we have a second body comprised by all of the imprints we have on the planet around us. Rather than an abstract concept, this second body is ‘your own literal and physical biological existence’, it is:
‘floating above a pharmaceutical plant on the outskirts of the city, it is inside a freight container in the docks, and it is also thousands of miles away, on a flood plain in Bangladesh in another man’s lungs.’
Hildyard has a PhD in 17th century scientific literature. Lines such as ‘soil-dwelling bacteria might comprise the very smell of the earth – the scent of a garden after rain is the scent of actinomycetes’, distantly echo the cadences of Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82), the doctor, writer and collector of whom W. G. Sebald – the tutelary spirit of Hildyard’s debut novel Hunters in the Snow (2013; Jonathan Cape) – was the great 20th century archaeologist. Browne made his home ‘a Paradise and Cabinet of Rarities’ according the diarist John Evelyn, ‘a collection of Eggs of all the foule and birds he could procure … as Cranes, Storkes, Eagles etc: and variety of Water-foule.’
Egg collecting – with its central tragic contradiction of destroying the loved object, and its parallels to the taxidermy involved in art collection – is the subject of the second film in Natural Selection.
Ventriloquizing through a computer-animated rook which flies through reproductions of canonical landscape paintings, Andy Holden picks up the story with the gentlemanly amateur oologists of the mid-19th century, and explains the 1954 Protection of Birds Act. This made wild bird egg collection illegal, yet the practice persisted. One Richard Pearson amassed a 7,130-strong collection which the authorities destroyed to dissuade others: the boxes full of beautiful, hand-painted ceramic eggs in the adjacent room of the exhibition memorialize them. In the catalogue, Helen Macdonald mentions Barry Hines’ Kestrel for a Knave (1968), drawing out the history of egg collecting as ‘one in the eye for the elite’ from people with ‘claim on the landscape around them is through local, field knowledges, rather than literal possession’.
The Holdens’ project started when Andy moved back to the ‘family nest’ after art school in London. Hildyard describes the flooding of the riverside house in North Yorkshire that she shares with her husband and daughter as her second body coming to visit the first. After weeks of cleaning sludge from walls and throwing away possessions, she spent the small compensation on flights to a Mediterranean island; the book ends with her stumbling across the perimeter fence of a holding camp for refugees. The Second Body and ‘Natural Selection’ are both about how we try to be at home in the world.
Andy & Peter Holden’s Artangel comission ‘Natural Selection’ runs at the Former Newington Library in Vauxhall, South London until 26 November.
Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body (2017) is published by Fitzcarraldo.
Main image: Andy Holden, How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, 2017, details of the sculptural installation of porcelain eggs in Andy Holden & Peter Holden, ‘Natural Selection’, 2017, installation view, former Newington Library, London. An Artangel commission. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith
Tom Overton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the archives of the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He edited Portraits: John Berger on Art and Landscapes: John Berger on Artists (Verso, 2015), and is writing Berger’s biography, and a book on archives and migration (Allen Lane). He tweets at @tw_overton and collects his articles at overton.tw.