\ Visualizing Evolution: Darwin's Canopy: Art inspired by evolution

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Darwin's Canopy: Art inspired by evolution

The Natural History Museum of London has announced the 10 finalists on the short list for a permanent display called Darwin's Canopy, which will be unveiled on Feb 12th, 2009, Darwin's 200th birthday. You can see a slide-show of the proposals at the New Scientist, here.

I found the majority of the ideas a bit strange and abstract for my taste (can I say "artsy-fartsy"?), but here are three that I really like.

The first is by Tania Kovats, which features the classic branching tree as a representation of natural selection causing speciation.
It appears from the sketch as though it will take up the entirety of the hall's ceiling, and thus have a good impact on those museum visitors who take the time to look up. And the tree is an iconic enough image that I think most viewers would know what it is intended to represent.

This next installation, proposed by Alison Turnbull, is really the only in in my opinion which properly conveys Darwin's idea about natural selection, though I wonder how visible it would be if they used actual moths on ceilings that look rather high, at least in the photographs I've seen of the hall.
'This work, Biston betularia aka The Peppered Moth, was prompted by the numerous and precise references to colour in Darwin's account of the voyage of the Beagle.'
Lastly, I like this idea by Rachel Witeread, a sculptor who has the idea of having a series of panels with the imprinted footprints of humans and animals.
This one is nice because the human element is included in a naturally fair way, as just another set of footprints among those of the other animals.

Personally, I hope they go with the moths. Some of the other ideas are just too artistically abstract. For example, Richard Wentworth's proposal involves mounting lots of small round mirrors of different sizes to the ceiling:
'The ceiling is dedicated in equal measure to Darwin’s peripheral vision, his capacity for negotiating distractions and his ability to make his own luck.'
Mirrors? This one bothers me, because I find it impossible to imagine the average visitor of the museum looking up, seeing lots of little round mirrors, and instantly being reminded of Darwin's peripheral vision and capacity for negotiating distraction. I also happen to have an extremely strong aversion to snooty-sounding artist statements. Sorry, Richard Wentworth.

Another, and I have to say rather creepy, idea is by Christine Borland and is a sculptural piece of a large tree based on Darwin's original tree of life sketch, but with the addition of human limbs with coin slots, (coin slots?):
'The public are invited to insert coins into the branches of the tree and its human limbs, in the tradition of wishing trees.'
This makes me wish I'd had the chance to propose an idea. These two works just won't help the viewer to understand that they represent evolution, and they don't reflect Darwin's ideas in any concrete way.

The moths, in contrast, bring instantly to mind the idea of slow genetic change over many generations. "Look! See how they go from light to dark? They evolved a darker color to adapt to their changing environment." But anyway, now that you know how I feel, check out the 10 finalists for yourself. And if you're lucky enough to live close, go check out the exhibition. It will be on display until September 14th.

Finally, my thoughts on Artist's Statements, as summed up in a classic Calvin and Hobbes comic:


Harrison said...

Sometimes art bothers me.

I can appreciate some modern art. It seems like every month there's a new art museum opening up in Astoria (only to go out of business a week later).

But sometimes I fail to see the art in it. It's a broken chair... someone should fix it. I don't see how that represents the working family of Oregon.

Maybe I'm closed minded but sometimes I feel like too many artists just take something that seems weird and call it art.

Mirrors? Please, no.

Heidi Richter said...

Fastest Commenter in the West! Wow!

But yes. I don't think it's closed minded to expect a piece of art to speak for itself. It's visual art... if it doesn't get its intended idea across without a long-winded written explanation, I tend to see that as a failure of the piece.

Then again, I'm probably just a biased scientific illustrator. : )