By Esther Fox
Natural Selection at Towner Gallery, by artist Andy Holden and his father Peter, a well-known bird expert, looks at perhaps two unlikely themes for a contemporary art exhibition – nest building and egg collection. The exhibition information states “Resuming a conversation about birds was a way for father and son to reconnect with each other.” This sentence seemed to beautifully emphasise why this show connected so strongly with my interests.
My arts practice and research interests are concerned with the ever changing and complex issues relating to reproductive choices and genetic screening. As this is a field that is multifaceted and often emotionally charged, I find it helpful to reflect on some of the key concerns through arts practice as this helps us to re-examine our own motivations. This exhibition provided a perfect opportunity for this further reflection.
The nest as “home” beautifully encapsulated both fragility and strength. This juxtaposition for me reflects our own insecurities. What happens when we discover our “perfect” baby may indeed have a life changing condition? Is there enough strength in our “nest” to sustain and nurture such an unexpected eventuality or will this sudden wind change prove too fatal for that delicate structure. How well would our homes hold up?
I come from the position of one who lives with a genetic condition. My particular condition, SMA, is often described by medics as “life limiting” and “Britain’s biggest genetic killer for children under 2” yet I am 42 and have lived happily under this grim prognosis my whole life. So how did our family “nest” hold up? Thankfully and fortunately, very well.
My parents had built a nest that was secure and able to withstand what must have felt like hurricane winds to them. However I am sure not many other nests would have fared so well. Of course 42 years ago there was no genetic screening, so no advanced “choice”, they just had to weather the storm until the sun started to come out. I often wonder whether if they had faced the decision today as to whether or not they should terminate their pregnancy, what their choice would have been and therefore the implications for our family nest.
But nests don’t just provide a safe home for the chicks.
Entering the second large gallery space we were confronted with a huge structure comprised twigs and branches forming a sort of tunnel, rather than what you would classify as a typical “nest”. As I read more about the work I discovered this was a representation of the nest of the bowerbird, made from willow. Apparently the construction of the bowerbird is not actually a nest – as the female doesn’t lay eggs in it – but it is a stage in their courtship ritual.
“Hoping to attract a mate, the male bird carefully arranges objects around the bower, guided by considerations of shape and colour…This remarkable behaviour prompted Darwin to consider the bowerbird as the closest thing to an artist found in nature”.
Considering these acts of this bird encouraged me to draw comparisons between our own human courtship rituals; what sort of car does someone have? Do they have a nice home with interesting furniture and objects within it?
These are very primal choices that some of us make during our courtship process. As the title of the exhibition suggests, there is still a strong sense of “natural selection” being played out. I guess this is to be expected, but are our more basic methods for selecting a mate really the best ones and how does that help to inform a supposedly civilised society? Is genetic screening in fact just playing into these less thoughtful facets of being human as we revert to a more animalistic set of guiding principals?
In the not so distant future no doubt we will not just be selecting our life partners on their capabilities to build a strong nest, decorated with beautiful things, but we will also ask them for their genetic profile, so we can determine whether or not we will be able to produce beautifully conceived chicks.
You can find out more about the exhibition here: http://www.townereastbourne.org.uk/exhibition/natural-selection/
Note: quotes taken from the exhibition leaflet