Nature Reserves, a group exhibition curated by Tom Jeffreys, seeks to examine human understandings of the natural environment, and features work across a rich range of media – photography, printing, sculpture, sound and projection – by 12 contemporary artists. In addition there are archival materials from a range of museums, universities and other institutions; field recordings of deceased species of birds; and an installation of a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast known as kombucha, from which visitors can take away samples to start their own culture at home.
Nature Reserves explores the way that our understanding of nature is influenced by different methods of constructing meaning – across literature, science and the arts – with specific reference to thinking around systems of archiving. Of particular interest is the two-way relationship between knowledge storage (classification, organisation etc) and knowledge creation, and the tangled effect this has on our changing conceptions of the natural world. Nature Reserves is also shot through with ideas around writing, printing and technology, as well as gender, legacy, death, domesticity and the problematic politics of collecting.
In short, to borrow from the title of a work by Theresa Moerman Ib: what it means to leave an impression.
If our initial impression of Tom Jeffreys’ Nature Reserves is of something rather more homely – safe, even – than a Serengeti or a Lake Baikal, the past is a ‘foreign country’ that resonates throughout this collection of photography, printing, sound forms, sculpture and projection. Our natural history overflows these media in all its living bacterial warmth, reminding us that it is in fact an ongoing narrative, genetically encoded and constantly regenerating outside our attempts at dominion.
Individual glass cases protecting unidentified botanical samples of insect wing fragility (Liz Orton, Splitters and Lumpers) and labels minus their referents written in copperplate and ancient typefaces suggest to us that our empire over nature can never be more than a temporary illusion – our attempts to define become dated as we scramble to catch up, while gelatinous forms defy tools and hands.
What nature bestows upon us it can quietly but all too readily take away, as Sally Ann McIntyre’s reconstructions of extinct birdsong remind us. Yet while nature can be silently still, it can also be volcanically sinister: outside, a wetly centipeding vertebral cord creates dark obsidian power from skeletal anatomy that offsets the gentle, fertile decay of forest floors evoked in Hestia Peppe’s jars of ‘microbial familiars’. All around our futile taxonomies is the twitter and chatter of unlabelled life, the woodland textures of perpetual disintegration and regeneration – insects and crustaceans in brittle collapse (Helen Pynor, The Life Raft), soil blocks in mute absorption and receipt.
Amy Cutler’s “PINE”, a verbal play on a dendrochronology sample projected with modern French poetry, might lead us to feel that such palimpsests of another life signal regret – they are in fact equivalent to and at one with the life that remains, stored in genetic reserve in bubbling colonies of Kombucha tea, tactile and available to us. Temporally circling nature, here the predator never fully possesses the prey; nature inevitably recolonizes what man has attempted to fit to his tune.
Words by Mary Selman