Natura natura

The LAB Gallery Cube Space, Dublin & Natural History Museum, Dublin
28th August - 4th November 2014

Fill in the blank
Lichen, sycamore, blackbird legs. 2014

Chicken bones, 18 x 18 x 3 cm. 2014

Mettlesomeness and Stroke
Badger hair, silver fork. 18 x 3 x 2 cm. 2014

Essay by Dr. Siún Hanrahan
Commissioned by Dublin City Council Arts Office

Saidhbhín Gibson's Natura natura exhibition takes place across two locations in

Dublin's city centre: The Natural History Museum on Merrion Street and The LAB

Gallery on Foley Street. Developed during a recent residency at The Natural

History Museum, the exhibition explores our understanding and experience of

nature, and plays with how we expect to make sense of the questions this throws

up depending upon where they are posed.

Four drawings, portraits of common Irish birds - a Robin, a Mistle Thrush, a

Blackbird and Song Thrush - are being exhibited in the Irish Birds Cabinet on the

ground floor of the Natural History Museum. At the same time, a total of six

'objects' - sculptural works that include materials such as Beech nut cases, Oak

leaves and Badger hair - are being exhibited in two stages (changing mid-way

through the exhibition) in the Cube Space at The LAB Gallery. Natura natura

thus involves a swapping of 'kinds' between the two sites; mixed-media

drawings are inserted into the museum, and a presentation of materials in a

preserved state is made in the gallery.

This swapping is intended as a playful disruption, one that might 'spark

something in the viewer's mind'. For Gibson, it invites consideration of

differences between how we perceive and approach objects in a museum and

how we perceive and approach objects in a gallery; 'in one things are

unquestioned, in the other they are open to question'. For me, this apparent

difference in knowledge-kind, social value and appropriate response, in turn,

invites reflection upon a curious coincidence of ambition for public well-being in

relation to both natural history and art - an implicit (and occasionally explicit)

belief that both are good for you, that they each have the capacity to serve as an

anti-dote to disorder in society.

In a more straightforward way, the juxtaposition of the exhibits and public sites

of natural history and fine art encourages further comparisons, and suggests

certain coincidences of practice. Amongst the competing definitions of natural

history, some are reminiscent of Gibson's work. One deliberately expansive

definition (T. Fleischner) suggests that natural history is 'A practice of

intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human

world, guided by honesty and accuracy'. This definition is wholly apt in relation

to Gibson's art practice; to her sustained attention to minutiae within the natural

world - leaves, twigs, lichen, wood, avian and mammal matter - whereby she

collects these materials on a continuous basis, carefully noting the location and

time of year for each item. Even a more prosaic definition (from Wikipedia)

whereby natural history is described as 'the research and study of organisms

including plants or animals in their environment, leaning more towards

observational than experimental methods of study', is suggestive of Gibson's

practice - of the subtlety of her interventions, whether in museum or gallery, as

well as her process of making drawings, gathering material and note-taking.

Gibson's intervention in The Natural History Museum, the placement of fine art

objects (the four bird portraits) in the Irish Birds Cabinet, can be argued to be

Janus-faced: looking back to the origins of many renowned natural history

collections as cabinets of curiosities (encyclopedic collections of objects,

signifying their patron's knowledge of and authority in the world); and toward

possible reconfigurations of the taxonomy underpinning our understanding of

the relationships between organisms, living and extinct. The juxtapositions

within the original 'cabinets of curiosity' invited comparison and analysis,

transforming natural history in the 18th Century, and contemporary scientific

developments, in genetics for example, may effect such transformation again.

Gibson's portraits do not claim a place in such transformation but they do

disrupt a comfortable assumption that 'the natural order' of things is something

already known, albeit hard to remember in detail.

In a similar vein, the portraits themselves touch upon the anxieties of

anthropomorphism. These are not simply drawings of a type of bird, or even of a

particular bird. These are portraits. Each of the birds portrayed is given a name,

the Mistle Thrush is called Holly, and thus we are invited to relate to it as an

individual, a character. And each character is framed by a loosely described

landscape, a collection of lines and marks, accumulated and configured for him

or her alone. Such anthropomorphism plays a vital but contested role in the

stories we tell to make sense of the world. In science in particular,

anthropomorphism has traditionally been condemned as indicating a lack of

objectivity. And yet, more recently there has been increased acceptance that

anthropomorphism or empathy has a role to play in research, that in fact there is

an equal risk to objectivity through assuming that only humans possess certain

traits, a kind of anthropocentrism. And so, through Gibson's portraits, we are

invited to attend to the individual, everyday creatures - Ireland's very many

small brown birds - as our neighbours.

Gibson's intervention in The LAB, sculptural works that present foraged organic

matter in a preserved state, explicitly invites consideration of the natural world

and its place in our lives. As with Ireland's small brown birds, the preserved

specimens encountered in the gallery are ordinary, everyday materials; and yet,

in the context of artmaking they are extraordinary. Their extraordinary

challenge lies not only in their fragility, but also in the peculiarity of this

particular category of material - the material itself, or nature, dictates how she

can access it. As a result, Gibson is constantly careful about what she collects

(ensuring that she has enough medium-sized oak leaves, for example), as a given

material may not be available at a later date, and about documenting what she

collects so that each sculpture is a pocket-guide, a distillation of facts in relation

to an environment.

And yet the artworks, far from being didactic, are playful in their response to the

foraged materials: from the alliance of Beech nut cases and folded paper in Quads

(the folds of which remind me of a puzzle we made as children), to the visual and

linguistic puns of Mettlesomeness and Stroke (a likeness is proposed between a

fork and a badger or fox, the one being made of silver and the other hardy and

brave, for example); or through straightforwardly descriptive titles being

disrupted by their namesakes (Oak leaves that are pierced and pinned in an

elegant swirl and thus …We're all in this together, or left-over chicken bones

enfolded in knots of silver coloured thread in Wrap). In each case a feature of the

material is amplified, inviting us to think about the smaller things that come

together to make something bigger.

The title of the exhibition, Natura natura, also emerges from a playful response

to its material. It names its object of enquiry, nature, in a language attractive to

natural scientists for purposes of nomenclature and to Gibson for how it sounds,

Latin, in a pattern (the same word twice) reminiscent of the Latin name for Fox

(Vulpes vulpes), and after Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr Fox, who runs rings

around humans. It might also call to mind a disjunction between 'natura

naturata' and 'natura naturans', phrases coined in the Middle Ages that might

prompt us to question the relationship we assume between ourselves and 'the

natural world'. Not along lines pursued by Spinoza (pantheist and determinist)

but, more simply: do we assume natura naturata - nature as passive, already

created and out there somewhere, or do we assume natura naturans - nature as

active, created by and creating humanity, inextricable from our everyday lives

and open to chance encounters.

Gibson's juxtaposition of fine art and natural history and the renewal of attention

provoked by this subtle disruption, invite the viewer to attend to and question

the more-than-human world, as presented at both exhibition sites and in

traversing the space between, the City itself.

Dr Siún Hanrahan



We're all in this together
Oak leaves, enamel. 13 x 9.5 x 0.5 cm. 2014

Natura natura (installation view) 
Natural History Museum, Dublin, 2014

Bill II (detail)
Mixed media on paper. 14 x 9 cm. 2014

Holly I (detail)
Mixed media on paper. 23 x 20 cm. 2014

Natura natura is an exhibition of new work by Saidhbhín Gibson presented at both the Natural History Museum, Dublin and the Cube space at The LAB Gallery, Dublin.

Dublin City Council Arts Office and Denise Reddy in 
collaboration with The Natural History Museum provided a temporary residency to facilitate research by the artist of the museum collection. The work developed in response to conversations with staff and time spent researching wildlife from Ireland. The exhibition investigates our understanding and experience of nature in both rural and urban settings.