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Nature Morte

Robin Mackay


Still Life, or Nature Morte (Dead Nature)? A minor linguistic disagreement perhaps indicates a cultural difference regarding this most venerable of artistic forms: Is the painted depiction of nature a mortification and an embalming, or a vehicle for some more profound vital process? Or is the ‘stilling’ of life a typically English euphemism for the crime referenced more directly in the French? Or was nature already dead, and by whose hand…?

In the context of the work shown here this disparity also emphasises the fact that all artistic discourses on nature invariably circumscribe it within culturally-coded parameters. Paul Chaney’s work thematises and disrupts this ‘framing’ of nature in several ways, some subtle, some more confrontational. Firstly, against a morass of work that claims blithely to be ‘rooted in the landscape’, or hopes to address the ‘ecological’ from within an uninterrogated romanticism, he does not shrink from the less ‘presentable’ details of natural life and death. To become close to nature, for Chaney, is at the very least to repudiate the notion that the natural world is something from which we can expect some profound and comforting meaning, something unreservedly worthy of our admiration. How to maintain a pious ‘respect’ for a nature which in general demands unremitting senseless death, and whose finer details include necrophiliac duck gangbangs?

Secondly, and in an apparent effort to ameliorate all this unpleasantness, Chaney lavishes exorbitant privileges upon certain unlikely specimens, carrying out his own selective framing of nature in works whose surface combination of the reverential and the parodic conceals a deep problematisation of man’s relation to nature. His shrines for windowsill insect casualties, roadkill graveyards, assiduously compiled reports of bee mortality, and recordings of mysterious shrew deaths, at first glance seem designed to defy nature’s senseless waste through small acts of solidarity. However, the more profound effect of this posthumous respect is to make of the privileged specimens an analogy for the ‘unnatural’ selective privileging of the human animal: The unwarranted and exorbitant meaning invested in human death echoed in the pharoanic pomp of an insect funeral.

Implicitly subtending any programme of empathy with the denizens of nature is a fantasy of individualisation. As well as informing Chaney’s animal rites, this realisation also seems to explain the artist’s experiments with anthropomorphism, the individualisation and facialisation of the nonhuman – making ‘units’ of the anonymous masses, giving the forgotten marked graves, encasing the innumerable in numbered sarcophagi. But of course, this extension of individual attention to the nonhuman only serves to remind us that, since prolific death and suffering are the rule rather than the exception in nature, since the planet feasts on an endlessly-renewed carpet of ‘Chaney readymades’, every such ‘empathic’ act is an incalculable cruelty, a drastic selection and an unjustifiable favoritism, a ludicrous betrayal.

Ultimately, every demonstrative framing of nature is a helpless repetition of the primordial disconnection of the human from its realm, which is nothing other than the human ability to conceive of nature. Whereas the immanence of nature is incapable of cruelty since unconscious, it is the determinations of thought that, seeking to make sense of its innocent holocaust, concoct the fantasies that inevitably generate cruelty and the accompanying neuroses. In insisting on Nature ‘meaning’ something, we reveal it as a monstrous absurdity insurmountable in principle. No matter how many bees you bury, someone will always get left out.

At this point the practice reverses out into a variety of hysterical operations of mapping, reporting, narrating – negotiating the unlimited terabytes of data that must be processed in order to afford every single moribund vole the same level of emotional investment as Bambi’s mother. In these futile dispatches Chaney suggests a more profound and disturbing delirium, hints of a parallel culture in which we would wander the halls of art galleries admiring busts of great rats and finely-painted family portraits of stag beetles, returning home to the monotony of Bee TV, CSI: Hedgerow, and Coleoptera Crimewatch: A macabre twenty-four hour news feed from Mother Nature: POSTHUMOUS RECONSTRUCTION OF THE FINAL MOMENTS … BLUETIT FOUND IN VICINITY OF MCSHAKE CONTAINER … NO EVIDENCE OF A STRUGGLE … DEAD BUMBLEBEE TO STAR IN POSTHUMOUS ROAD MOVIE … LAST SUPPER TO BE RE-ENACTED BY BEETLES … SHREW MYSTERIES LATEST … In so far as it is conceived of, nature is crime.

All this constitutes the ironic edge to Chaney’s professed monism, reflecting the constitutive ‘cognitive dissonance’ that makes possible – Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin notwithstanding – our continued conceit of being the unmoving centre of the universe, this in turn enabling us to paint the grand panorama of ‘nature’ gushing around us in all its beauty. At the cutting edge of his practice, Chaney battles with unaestheticised nature as few of us do. It is because of rather than despite this that his work challenges the credo according to which just a little love and goodwill (a few more landscape paintings, perhaps?) could enable humans to temper their depradations in favour of a more gentle and wholesome stewardship of nature. For his dramatisation and documentation of ‘non-human endeavour’ and his commemorations of non-human death suggest a darker ecology shorn of neo-romantic sentiment. They force a return from bucolic fantasy to the question of living within a universe, and on a planet, whose natural order holds no special place for us or for our endless semantic reframing of nature.

Sam Bradbury’s recombinant fetishes are of another element: Their gothic mélange of junk-shop find and ethnological artefact marks them as failed magical objects: Late entrants into the realm of the symbolic, destined in a secular age inevitably to fall short of their desired potency, they spontaneously resign themselves to being museum objects, curiosities, filed, tagged and cased. But paradoxically, this very status reignites a vestige of superstitious charge, ensuring that they refuse to be merely what they are; unable to return to pure objecthood, they vacillate, figures of repulsion and fascination, mockeries of the sacred and the material alike, representatives of the vain hopes of pseudoscience and the fevered compulsions of ritual. No longer expected to secure access to the other world, they seem to stand for the evacuation of belief itself, a kind of mocking, inverse image of the crystals and dreamcatchers of new age pseudo-cults.

To collage dead animal body parts, however, remains a morbid blasphemy against the secular gods of taste, decency, and aesthetic purpose, arousing a real discomfort and thus testifying to the latent power of dead nature. The ambivalent response the work engenders indicates that, in this respect, our view of nature is even more antiseptic and ‘tasteful’ than those traditional still life paintings in which, if dead animals were depicted, it was usually as meat or game – not dead nature, but the stuff of life and culture. Returning to older and darker arts, the meticulous assemblage and decoration of Bradbury’s shamanistic anomalies refuses to dissimulate their reality. But to encounter death in the realm of the object like this only makes more poignant our contemporary inability to process this reality. Against its mere repression, Bradbury’s work seems to be meditating on the (im)possibility of a cultural remobilisation of the horror of dead nature.

Images top to bottom Paul Chaney: Falmouth Bee Report (2005-detail), Duck Fuck (2005), Delayed Entropy (2007-foreground) Sam Bradbury: Museum Objects (2007-8), Urbanomic installation view



Essay written for the exhibition of the same name at 'Urbanomic', the Old Lemonade Factory, Falmouth www.urbanomic.com