Andy Holden, The Opposite of Time, 2017, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 30 minutes. Installation view.

Andy Holden, The Opposite of Time, 2017, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 30 minutes. Installation view.

Andy Holden and Peter Holden

Andy Holden, The Opposite of Time, 2017, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 30 minutes. Installation view.

The father-son birders Andy and Peter Holden are obviously of the same phenotype. “Natural Selection,” their most recent show, was set in the former Newington Library in south London, where their interest in ornithology informed works whose central concern was precisely the frayed edge between art and nature. The male bowerbird, for instance, creates a nest not for habitation, but purely for aesthetic display. These structures are a kind of folly, decorative at most (and an annoyance to Darwinians at the least). Andy Holden’s Untitled (Bower) (all works 2017) is a re-creation of one of these nests, larger than life. Looking through its womb-like tunnel out the other end of the space, the viewer could see a video. As one walked around the nest, marveling at its mathematical precision, its balance, its credible artifice, it became clear that the video was flanked by two more. The Holdens’ three-channel work A Natural History of Nest Building contains chapters titled “Nest Types,” “Nest Sites,” and “Nest Materials.” The central video is composed of both found and newly filmed footage of nests from around the world, while in each of the other two, the Holdens deliver a half-scientific, half-speculative lecture and performance. Though father and son are separated by the central screen, they appear to be standing in the same space—as evidenced by the John Constable paintings in the background—often passing props across screens. Their own relationship, in which each is fiercely independent and reluctantly reliant on the other, mimics their telling of the stories of birds and their young ones. The effect is one of unexpected emotion. The three videos are interwoven just as the twigs in a nest are: with enough distance and equal tension.

One of the duo’s central questions is whether the nest transcends its inherent functionality and is an intentional work of art. Andy Holden describes the blackbird’s nest—a spiral of mud, straw, and grass held together by a centrifugal force—as “an image of cosmic confidence in an arboreal world.” Every species makes a different nest, and each nest contains its own twigged idiosyncrasies. What can we decipher about the nature of art from the ability of a bird to make choices? Peter Holden argues that if a bird can repair a nest, it must have had an idea of the nest’s overarching design to begin with. Art is not simply the prerogative of the human.

The boundary between nature and artifice was blurred even further in the basement of the former library, which once housed the Cuming Museum, an institution devoted to local history that started as a father and son’s collection of natural and ethnographic materials. In The Opposite of Time, a diptych of monitors sits in front of a projection of an animated crow flying across paintings by J. M. W. Turner, David Hockney, and others. The work uses archival footage to tell the story of the underground British Oological Society, an association of bird’s-egg collectors. In the neighboring room was How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature: plastic boxes and tin containers of birds’ eggs. Only upon close inspection did it become clear that these eggs are porcelain replicas (fabricated by Peter Holden and Eileen Rowland). But until coming to that conclusion, one might have experienced an ethical dilemma—between the beauty of the egg and the threat to avian species caused by collection, which has been illegal in Britain since 1954.

It is only through an exhibit such as this—through a convincing imitation—that wild birds’ eggs can really be seen, admired, and protected. Just as the nest, with its wires and scraps from every age, becomes an archive of a material history of an area at a particular time, the artists have become conservationists, preserving both endangered eggs and nests as well as the obsolete discipline of oology itself. “Natural Selection” reminded us that nature and art are not, in fact, opposing forces, just as a nest’s strength and fragility are extensions of each other.

Himali Singh Soin