When I asked one of my teachers what came first, the chicken or the egg, the response was unequivocal: the egg, as unicellular organisms precede multicellular ones. I liked the answer, but, of course, it doesn’t really get at what the question is about. To ask what came first is not to seek a literal explanation, as the enquiry itself is a metaphor. When people evoke the chicken and the egg in conversation, it is to index a paradox or impossibility, something that in fact has no answer, like asking if a chessboard is black or white. What matters is the context of the question rather than its letter. It’s a question that is not meant to be answered.
Like most unanswered questions, it revolves around one - or more - of three things: sex, reproduction and death. However precise our biological accounts of these phenomena, there is always a failure to address the question, as the register of language and meaning can never entirely subsume them. In the Monty Python film ‘The Meaning of Life’, while the teacher and his wife copulate in front of the class in their sex education lesson, the pupils are still distracted, looking out of the window and messing around as if the literal response to their curiosity was inherently unsatisfying. An egg, in this sense, constitutes a riddle rather than a solution.
Andy Holden’s eggs pose this problem in a slightly different way. His question is less, what came first, the bird or the egg, than what came first, the egg or the nest. Ornithological literature privileges in a quite astonishing way the reproductive habits of birds, to such an extent that almost all other phenomena of avine life are affiliated to this. From migration to feeding, everything is invested with a meaning linked to the perpetuation of the species, with nest building given a secondary and purely functional place. Birds build nests to protect themselves from their predators and ensure the survival of their young. End of story.
Just as nests were linked to this narrative of generations, it was in a discussion with his father, the ornithologist Peter Holden, that Andy realised the importance of the nest. As his father explained nests as the result of evolutionary imperatives, to generate innate mechanisms of construction which could subsequently be “ignored”, the son saw something else. Just as Freud had challenged the idea of dreams as contingent and secondary by-products of the psyche, so Andy Holden sensed that more was at stake here. And just as the nest had been more or less written out of ornithology as a subject worthy of study in itself, he wanted to bring it back. The nest, Holden says, was like the unconscious of ornithology.
In his staged but entirely authentic dialogues with his father, they clash on precisely this topic. While the father describes nests in terms linked to reproduction, the son points to the non-functional aspects of nests and the details of their construction. As he shows images of the quite extraordinary variety of builds, the nest becomes not a mere vessel of the reproductive instinct but the product of choice, of deliberation, of aesthetic intent. How could we not see design in these extraordinary creations, Holden asks, as if the bird must have had a prior image of the form it was making. Nests, he tells us, “are like scribbles over the lines of a colouring book.”
The nest leaves the service of the egg to become something in itself, a created object with all the weight that this term carries in the world of human art. And just as human art is privileged, marked out and separated from its surroundings by the discourse and machinery of the art world, so Holden wants us to see nests in the same way. It is no accident that his film concludes with a discussion of the bowerbird, a creature whose intricate woven structures are not in fact used to inhabit. This is a nest that is not even a nest, as no one lives there, a pure creation of form and colour. Even Darwin was perplexed by the bird, and could not include its builds within his evolutionary schema.
This is a double-edged operation. Holden is distancing nests from reproduction, encouraging us to perceive them in a new light as created objects, and at the same time he is asking us to defamiliarise them, to denaturalise them. After hearing one of the Holdens’ lectures, we can no longer see nests as a part of the natural landscape, but, like our human art, consider them as radically separate. In the elegant inversion of the video installation ‘The Opposite of Time’, Holden’s lifelike crow flies across not a natural landscape but a series of well-known British landscape paintings. If the bird looks real, the landscape does not, accentuating this heterogeneity that he has found in the very presence of the nest.
Image: How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, 2017 by Andy Holden. Details of the sculptural installation of porcelain eggs. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith, September 2017
Heterogeneity is a key theme in Holden’s work. Strange blobby sculptures are placed next to everyday human figures, vast wooden boulders are built in natural environments otherwise unmarked by human intervention, and unexplained spherical shapes are inserted into the scenery of found paintings. All of these interventions embody an out-of-placeness, as Holden carefully puts what shouldn’t be there into what’s there. Rather than reading these tropes as yet another representation of the fact that what we take to be nature is inherently artificial, they form part of another story, a story of theft, loss and, perhaps, restitution.
When Holden visited the great pyramid of Cheops as a child, he did not just look, he took. He slipped a tiny fragment of rock from the pyramid’s steps into his pocket: a trivial, harmless act, perhaps, but one that was to become a defining feature of his life. Plagued by guilt, he would not only document his returning of the rock some fifteen years later, but make a knitted model of the fragment 10,000 times the size of the original, which was displayed at Tate Britain. This vast object was proportional not to the size of the original stone but to the magnitude of the boy’s guilt.
It was an act, however, that could never be fully undone. The little rock came to embody all his sins, indexing what he describes as his own out-of-placeness in the world. Denial has never been Holden’s style, and so, rather than trying to repress the original act, he decided to take it further. If the rock was the embodiment of his guilt, this was not a guilt to be ignored or negated but one to be radicalised: the boulders and spheres that he would now insert in the British countryside brought the rock back into the picture. These bizarre protrusions became, for Holden, indexes of guilt, yes, but also of his own subjectivity, of his place, his out-of-place sinful place.
And this brings us back to the question of the nest, since doesn’t the singular construction of one’s place in the landscape echo the very practice of the birds that Holden so passionately studies? And what, after all, had been so traumatising about the theft at Cheops? Discovering his son’s crime, Peter Holden had used Kantian logic to scold him: don’t you realise, he had said, that if everyone took a little piece of the pyramid, there would be nothing left. The act of purloining that tiny rock, if multiplied, would produce an extinction, a void in both nature and culture. The terrible subtraction that this evoked would be inverted in the acts of addition that Holden perpetrated with the wooden boulders and rocks that he would later place in ‘nature’.
An egg here is just like a rock. As the once aristocratic practice of egg collecting became more and more widespread in the 19th century, it posed dangers to the very existence of the birds whose eggs were being taken. If everyone took an egg - or clutch of eggs - then there would be no more birds, just as there would be no more pyramid if everyone took a rock. Although other factors were no doubt also at work in the eventual criminalisation of the collecting of wild bird eggs, it was the Kantian argument that prevailed, cancelling out even the protests that the eggs were necessary to record the natural history of species.
Holden’s crime at Cheops had become the motor of his new interest in egg collecting, elaborating the question of what it means to remove an object from the world and the vicissitudes of guilt and sin. As Holden shows, it wasn’t just egg collecting that became subject to law here; the whole field of ornithology started to write out the practice. It was agreed that the more information there was about wild bird eggs, the more fuel this would be to the criminal acts of purloining. Hence the ornithological manuals from the mid- to late 20th century onwards began to delete references to eggs and egg collecting. Just as Freud had argued in his last great work Moses and Monotheism that a crime - the murder of Moses - had been erased from the history of the Jewish people, so here history was being rewritten and a crime erased.
Image: Andy Holden shows visitors a hand-painted porcelain egg, part of his sculptural installation 'How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature' (2017). Photograph: Liam White, 12 October 2017
But what of the passion of the collector? Why would people quite literally risk not only conviction but their lives in this now dangerous practice of egg collecting? Holden’s video installation The Opposite of Time charts many of the most famous cases here, with multiple convictions testifying to the relentless and unstoppable drive to collect. Did the eggs embody some question of human reproduction that, for the collector, could never be answered and hence required an endless quest? The fact that the collectors are always men might suggest that the motif of reproduction plays a part, as if the relation of women to the egg allowed different elaborations.
Holden draws our attention here to the fact that for so many collectors, what matters is less what we could call the egginess of the egg than its classification, its documentation, its inscription in a symbolic system. When the home of retired police officer Michael Upson was searched and 649 eggs discovered, they were accompanied by carefully drafted index cards detailing the place and date of their appurtenance. The dates were all prior to 1954, when wild egg collecting became illegal, and so at one level these notes could be explained away as alibis. But the fact that a true record of the details of their theft, with dates from 1991 to 2001, was then found hidden in Upson’s water tank shows that a record was still essential to him. Documentation was even better hidden than the eggs themselves.
This might suggest that it is not the eggs that matter as much as creating a correspondence between the eggs and a written system, as if classifying were more important than the object classified. Like trainspotting, it is not just the trains, but the mapping of trains with a system of descriptions and terms that classify the trains. To go back to the question of the chicken and the egg, it would be as if an answer were really sought at a symbolic level rather than seeing the question as itself a metaphor for that which is unanswerable in human life. And perhaps this also illuminates why egg collectors don’t also collect, or steal, figurative eggs, whether it be a Fabergé or a work by Enrico David or Gavin Turk. An egg is an egg for the collectors that Holden studies.
Yet egg collectors can also, Holden claims, shed light on the practice of art collecting. An object is taken from its rightful place and documented, classified and stored somewhere else, rarely on public display. Unlike the very visible collections of the bowerbird that Holden spotlights in the film he has made with his father, the art object will probably spend most of its life in a box, sequestered yet allowing a strange kind of enjoyment for the collector. The ownership, the sense of possessing this rare and valuable object is privileged over sharing or disseminating. If an egg is supposed to hatch, and an art work is supposed to be shared and seen, the collector’s act usually allows neither. It would follow from Holden’s logic that there may be good reasons why art collecting should be made illegal.
The recreation of the hidden egg collection of Richard Pearson – that had been destroyed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 2007 – transforms this secret enjoyment of possession into a public one. Holden has overseen the crafting of each of the lost eggs in porcelain. For their inaugural presentation in London, Holden has displayed them in the basement of a building that had once housed a museum. The collector’s concealment becomes an object of public participation, inverting the usual logic of egg ownership. We are led into the dark space of what could be the lair of a murderer, a serial criminal who was unable to apply a brake to their passion. And just as those killers who preserve the bodies – or body parts – of their victims so often described their acts in terms that echo the vocabulary of lovers, so Holden sees in this unchecked collecting a form of love.
For Holden, this is a love that puts the object of love in danger. Just as love can negate and destroy its object, so collecting performs the same operation, not only literally in the sense that collecting reduces the chances of the bird species surviving, but also in its reduction to a system of classification. In one recipe for love, the object is taken and possessed, its liberties removed. The lover - male - tells the beloved what to do, controlling and exerting pressure to such an extent that the life can be literally squeezed out of the beloved. Speech is forever imposed on them, ordering, proscribing, commanding…
This is a doing without an undoing. In Freud’s case of the Rat Man, he describes the patient’s compulsion. Seeing a stone on the pavement, he imagined that someone might trip over it and so discarded it into the road. But then the terrible thought forced itself into his mind that perhaps his beloved’s carriage might run over it and cause an accident. And so he moved it back from the road to the pavement, until the torturous image of someone tripping over it would set the cycle in motion once again. It went from the pavement to the road to the pavement to the road, and so on.
For Freud, this mechanism of ‘undoing’ revolved around an illicit thought, as if to try to annul the murderous wishes directed to those we love. The return of the stone - and its subsequent relocations - testify to the struggle between love and hate, the homicidal thought negated and then reasserted. With egg collecting, we get the doing without the undoing: there is no return of the eggs. With Holden’s art, we get both: the removal of the stone and its return, the purloining of eggs and their reinsertion into ornithology: an art based on theft, perhaps, but more fundamentally on a giving back, a return, a restitution.
Image: How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, 2017 by Andy Holden. Detail of a sculptural installation of porcelain eggs. Photograph: Liam White, October 2017