A beautiful ammonite spiral, the arc of a giant seedpod, a softly lit room with spotlights highlighting all manner of incredible artefacts. Each item beguiling, glistening in the light and laced with all manner of geographic and historic provenance for the visitor’s delight. So many small marvels, yet why did this rendering of “The Natural World” by Oliver Hoare leave me feeling so queasy?
The first clue was the plinthes. I felt my skin bristle at the sight of a lone magnificent seedpod elevated on a plinth – ostracised from its environment, to be coveted and fawned over. Objectified and presented for our viewing delight. A marvel to behold, a perfect or ideal specimen perhaps? It all felt too close to the bone. Reminiscent of the female nude, elevated and exalted, yet with no voice or agency of her own. A long history of sub-ordination and inequality that trails right into the present day.
Our willingness to conceive of nature as ‘other’, as something that can be posessed and colonised goes to the heart of the Western world’s relationship with nature. A relationship that has brought the world to its current state of ecological crisis. So do we really want to coo over a softly lit exhibition that perpetuates the notion of nature as ‘other’?
As I looked around the room at each item labelled and ticketted, like butterflies pinned down in a case, I felt my heart sink. The visual language of scientific discovery and the traditions of Wunderkammer, cabinets of curiosities collected by wealthy men throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a time of colonisation and exploitation, echoed about the room. Today we question and grapple with the actions of our forbears. We think differently about colonisation and have learnt more about the world around us. Why then this hammy faux re-enactment of such traditions? This is no site of scientific discovery today, this is pseudo-science.
If we truly interrogate where our sense of marvel originates from, we might discover a darker truth. Today our looking at these things is tinged by the knowledge that so many natural environments are under threat. That sense of marvel, that frisson of rarity, comes from the very destruction we, in the Western world, have caused. So no, I won’t be cooing over a room of appropriated nature.
Exhibit A and B below, for your own assessment.
‘The Natural World’ by Oilver Hoare Ltd is an exhibition on display as part of the London Design Festival in 2021.