Andy Holden / Peter Holden

Natural Selection

Former Newington Library, London SE17
NOW 10 September 2017 - 26 November 2017
Visitor information
Astonishing ★★★★★ The Observer
Full of surprises ★★★★ the Guardian
Deeply emotional ★★★★ Time Out London

Father and son Andy Holden and Peter Holden take us on an ornithological journey: from the building of nests to the collecting of eggs.

The exhibition is situated in the former Cuming Museum – a museum founded by a father and son – which was originally home to a collection of natural history and archaeological curiosities.

Natural Selection showcases several multi-screen films, a selection of archival material, and Andy Holden’s own collection of found nests. The exhibition will span two floors and capture the multi-sensory oeuvre of birds. ‘A Natural History of Nest Building’, situated on the ground floor, exposes the unscrupulous cuckoo; the artistry of the bowerbird; and the nest as an object in its own right. While, in the basement, ‘A Social History of Egg Collecting’ sheds light on this practice in a changing legal landscape, and the resultant criminal operations after 1954, through a video work 'The Opposite of Time' and an installation titled ‘How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature’.

The project was originally due to run until 5 November but has been extended until 26 November by popular demand.


Image: Andy Holden showing a visitor a sculptural installation of porcelain eggs: Holden's work How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature (2017). Photograph: Liam White

Super Normal Stimulus

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Super Normal Stimulus

'Silent Spring' by Andy Holden and Geoffrey Leeson is a collection of wooden sonograms, each depicting a different birdsong, turned in the wood of the tree that that bird typically nests in.

Image: Turned wood: Andy Holden & Geoffrey Leeson, Silent Spring (2017) in front of colour photographs by Peter Holden: Natural Selection (1982 / 2017), in turn, hung upon wallpaper: Andy Holden & Peter Holden, Super Normal Stimulus (2017). Photograph: Liam White, October 2017

Writing: Helen Macdonald

on the forbidden wonder of birds’ nests and eggs
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One day when, quite by surprise, I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back.

Helen MacDonald: the forbidden wonder of birds’ nests and eggs

When I was small, I decided I wanted to be a naturalist. And so I slowly amassed a nature collection, and arranged it across my bedroom sills and shelves as a visible display of all the small expertises I’d gathered from the pages of books. There were galls, feathers, seeds, pine cones, loose single wings of small tortoiseshell or peacock butterflies picked from spiders’ webs, the severed wings of dead birds, spread and pinned on to cardboard to dry, the skulls of small creatures, pellets – tawny owl, barn owl, kestrel – and old bird nests. One was a chaffinch nest I could balance in the palm of a hand, a thing of horsehair and moss, pale scabs of lichen and moulted pigeon feathers; another a song thrush nest woven of straw and soft twigs with a flaking inner cup moulded from clay. But those nests never felt as if they fitted with the rest of my beloved collection. It wasn’t that they conjured the passing of time, of birds flown, of life in death. Those intuitions are something you learn to feel much later in life. It was partly because they made me feel an emotion I couldn’t name, and mostly because I felt I shouldn’t possess them at all. Nests were all about eggs, and eggs were something I knew I shouldn’t ever collect. Even when I came across a white half-shell picked free of twigs by a pigeon and dropped on a lawn, a moral imperative stilled my hand. I could never bring myself to take it home...

Read more on the Guardian.

Video: Trailer

1 minute
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Video: Trailer for Andy Holden & Peter Holden, Natural Selection

After walking nearly all night, we reached the spot in the midst of a snow storm. And having tied a cord to his life preserver, my accomplice swam off, leaving the other end in the charge of a man on the shore. On the island, he tied the rope to a stone and climbed up the ruins, slipping about in six inches of snow.

A Natural History of Nest Building

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A Natural History of Nest Building

All birds are oviparous which means they reproduce by laying eggs; the nest is traditionally perceived as protecting the eggs and the young.

In this vitrine you can see Andy Holden's own collection of nests that are discussed and examined in the film A Natural History of Nest Building: from some of the most simple nests such as the wood pigeon's who use a dropping method, to the more complex such as the weaver bird's, who use a variation of knotting techniques.

We also see more untraditional sites such as the swallow’s nest, located on an upturned trowel.


Image: A collection of found and recreated birds nests: Andy Holden & Peter Holden, A Natural History of Nest Building (2017). Photograph: Marcus J. Leith

How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature

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How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature

This sculptural installation depicts prominent ‘egger’, Richard Pearson’s illegal collection of wild birds eggs, which was uncovered by RSPB officers in a raid in 2006.
 
Inside his Cleethorpe home officers discovered 7130 eggs, including those belonging to some of the UK’s rarest nesting species such as golden eagle, avocet, black-tailed godwit, little tern, osprey, black-necked grebe, stone-curlew, chough, peregrine and red-throated diver, collected over a 15 year period.
 
Among the egg collecting equipment was an egg blowing kit, rubber dingy, padded containers, egg boxes, maps, a camera, and books.
 
Richard Pearson was fined and sentenced to 23 weeks in prison by a district judge sitting at Skegness Magistrates’ Court. The egg collection was destroyed by the RSPB.

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

Writing: Darian Leader

On Eggs and Nests
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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.

Darian Leader: On Eggs and Nests

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.

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The Opposite of Time

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The Opposite of Time

In a room lined with shelves previously used to store objects of the Cumings’ collection, the three-screen video The Opposite of Time (2017) features an animated crow, voiced by Andy, narrating a social history of nest collecting. As the crow flies across a backdrop of landscape paintings by the likes of Turner and Hockney, he explains how egg collecting has transformed within Britain, from an aristocratic pursuit and encouraged hobby, into an illegal activity. – Nisha Desai, Culturised, 1 October 2017.

Image: Three screen video featuring an animated crow leading a social history of nest collecting: Andy Holden, The Opposite of Time (2017). Photograph: Marcus J. Leith

A Natural History of Nest Building

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A Natural History of Nest Building

The pair relate fascinating stories, from the cuckoo’s parasitic tactics to birds that lay eggs straight on to cliff edges. Holden junior is particularly interested in how nest-building relates to art-making. Do birds create their intricate constructions because instinct tells them to drop moss on twigs, or do they have a vision of their home in mind, suggesting a higher consciousness? – Skye Sherwin, the Guardian, 11 September 2017.
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Image: Film work A Natural History of Nest Building (2017) by Andy Holden & Peter Holden seen through a recreation of a bowerbird’s bower Untitled (Bower) (2017) by Andy Holden. Photograph: Liam White, October 2017

Guided tour with Chelsea Pettitt

14:00 Sunday 29 October 2017
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Guided tour with Chelsea Pettitt

SOON Sunday 29 October 2017
Talk

14:00 — 14:45


Tour of the Natural Selection exhibition led by Chelsea Pettitt, Head of Partnerships at Wysing Arts Centre. During this guided walkthrough Pettit will give a general introduction to the exhibition and respond to some of its key themes.

Location

Former Newington Library
155 Walworth Road
Elephant & Castle
London
SE17 1RS
United Kingdom

The tour will be ticketed using Eventbrite, visitors attending should make themselves known at the reception desk, located at the entrance. 

Access information

  • The exhibition is located on the ground floor and the basement of the former Newington Library. Please note that this historic building has not been modernised, and step-free access to the basement level is not available.

  • Wheelchair access to the ground floor installation is available via a ramp located at the entrance at 155 Walworth Road.

  • Detailed access information.


Tickets

The Grubby Mitts concert

with special guests Mira Calix and Bob Stanley (St Etienne) DJ
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The Grubby Mitts concert

SOON Sunday 05 November 2017
Performance

with special guests Mira Calix and Bob Stanley (St Etienne) DJ

19:30 — 23:00


In a rare London show to mark the end of Andy Holden’s Natural Selection exhibition, the Grubby Mitts will explore one of the exhibition’s central themes — collecting — through a selection of compositions combining spoken word, objects, and music. Central to the show will be a theatrical 'unboxing' of Holden’s late grandmother's collection of ceramic cats to a live soundtrack, this extended piece will weave a narrative through which the various cats are introduced. The programme will also feature a new composition built from transcriptions of birdsong played on tuned-percussion and a host of older Grubby Mitts songs reinterpreted by a new and expanded line up.

Location

2 Regent's Park Road
London
NW1 7AY
United Kingdom

Access information

Cecil Sharp House, home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML) aims to be equally accessible to all who visit and perform there. For any queries please contact info@efdss.org.

Tickets

Image: A selection from Andy Holden's late grandmother's collection of ceramic cats. Photograph: Andy Holden

Press

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The show circles back in the end to the bowerbird, making its nest for fun, or love, a free invention in which no eggs will ever be laid. This bird, the Holdens agree, has a singular sensibility. For the father, this is a triumph of natural selection; for the son, it’s the essence of creativity. The bird has a concept of beauty that precedes and governs his creation. It is by definition an artist. – Laura Cumming, The Observer

Selected Press

For everything in this marvellous Artangel exhibition – a show of marvels in itself – turns upon the astonishing connections between ornithology and art, or more precisely between birds and their visions, whether their nests and even their eggs can be seen as expressive creations rather than just evolutionary imperatives. – Laura Cumming, The Observer, 10 September 2017.
It is especially appropriate that this glorious and multi-layered testament to father and son teamwork is housed in the former home of the Cuming Museum, whose collection of archaeology, anthropology and natural history was put together by Richard Cuming and his son Henry Syer Cuming in the 19th century. – Louisa Buck, The Art Newspaper, 11 September 2017
This is Andy’s typical modus operandi: starting small with something from his own life, then exploding it outward into a twisty nest of ideas. Sophistication is balanced by self-exposure, embarrassment even. – Skye Sherwin, Guardian, 11 September 2017
Andy and Peter, as father and son, have a respect and understanding for their differing takes. Here we see not a battle of opposing ideologies, but two different ways of seeing. And what binds both Andy and Peter is a mutual awe and enthusiasm. It is, remarkably heartening. – Aled Jones, Rake's Digress, 27 September 2017
If framed this way - the artist, the eggs, the nests - then what has to follow is a necessary understanding that this generation of ‘art’ literally produces the next generation of ‘artists’. To ignore this numbs all but the shallowest interaction, and leaves this heartbreaking hollow. The eggs and the shelves of this library are both uncanny in their emptiness. – Mike Saunders, Map Magazine, 26 September 2017

About the Artists

Andy Holden & Peter Holden
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Andy Holden

Andy Holden (b.1982) artist, musician and cartoon was born and now lives and works in Bedford, UK. Holden has worked collaboratively with his father Peter Holden, an orthologist, to produce lectures on birds and the recent Artangel project Natural Selection. He regularly performs and releases records with his band The Grubby Mitts and co-ran the record label Lost Toys Records.

His most recent solo exhibitions include ‘Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape (II)’, Glasgow International (2016); ‘Towards a Unified Theory of MI!MS’, Zabludowicz Collection, London (2013), Spike Island (2014); ‘Chewy Cosmos Thingly Time’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (2011); and ‘Art Now: Andy Holden’, Tate Britain (2010). 

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Peter Holden

Peter Holden intended to become a professional ornithologist from the age of eight and joined the staff of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1969. Father of Andy Holden, Peter and Andy worked collaboratively to produce Natural Selection for Artangel in 2017, which was a comprehensive look at nests and egg collecting.

As one of the UK’s leading ornithologists and conversationalists, Holden worked for the RSPB for 45 years and built the Young Ornithologist Club into the largest wildlife club in the world. He was regularly featured as ‘the bird man’ on Blue Peter and wrote several books including the RSPB Handbook of British Birds, the RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildife and Birds: their Hidden World.

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Images: (left) Andy Holden, aged one year old, Photograph: Peter Holden. This photograph was used in an advert for British Birds magazine, 1983; (top) Andy Holden with nest in front of a green screen during the production of Natural Selection, 2017. Photographs: Jazbo Gross; (bottom) Peter Holden in Andy Holden's old studio, 2017. Photograph: Andy Holden

 

Credits

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Who made this possible?

Credits

Commissioned by Artangel, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Leeds Art Gallery and Towner Art Gallery, with the support of the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Spike Island and Bristol Green Capital 2015, the Henry Moore Foundation and Artangel’s Guardian Angels.

Natural Selection is part of The Artangel Collection, an initiative to bring outstanding film and video works commissioned and produced by Artangel to galleries and museums across the UK. The Artangel Collection has been developed in partnership with Tate and is generously funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Foyle Foundation.

Artangel is generously supported using public funding by Arts Council England, and by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial Angels and The Company of Angels.

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