An exquisite model of a Portuguese Man O’war jellyfish, made of hand-blown glass. A group of velvet-tipped mushrooms. A tray of misshapen lemons, cast in coloured wax. A bed of over-sized flowers crafted in papier-mâché and paint. An exploded human skull, suspended as its constituent parts fly outwards.
These objects, mostly dating from the Enlightenment to the early 20th century, are among those distributed across shelves and plinths at Whitechapel Gallery, as an archive of artefacts that have been used over the centuries to aid students of science and the natural world.
They are part of the extensive collection of objects amassed by collector and patron George Loudon, on show at the Whitechapel as part of the institution’s exhibition series dedicated to displaying pieces from collections that are otherwise rarely shared with the general public. After a series of succinctly powerful shows exploring the iSelf collection of contemporary art, it’s exciting to see the Whitechapel turning to a different sort of artefact and challenging conventional modes of display.
The objects on show are interspersed with interventions by contemporary artist Salvatore Arancio, who was invited by curator Candy Stobbs to respond to the collection. Arancio’s approach is inspired by the museological construct of the diorama, in which flora and fauna that have been killed and separated from their native ecosystems are stuffed, staged and choreographed to resemble living scenes.
Arancio takes this theatrical evocation of reality a step further, creating a sort of fantastical reality, drawing attention to the strangeness that is inherent in the everyday, and the wonder that can be evoked by studying apparently ordinary objects and animals.
A monolith crafted in iridescent ceramic leans against the wall of the gallery, teardrop-shaped with jagged edges. Titled The Fluorescent Host, Arancio’s specially-made work is an enlargement of the oldest item in the Loudon collection, an ancient axe-head dating from 6000BC. Here, Arancio explores the notion of an object’s existence through time. An item which would have seemed quite ordinary – albeit essential – to its maker, has since become an object of study, and of fascination, due to its beauty but also due to its sheer age. The old is constantly being remade as the new by subsequent generations through interpretation and admiration.
There is a slippage between the ordinary and the strange at play here, something understood particularly well by the Surrealists in the early 20th century, for whom an interest in magic and dreams sat alongside a fascination with science and technology in a close but often deliberately uneasy relationship. The exhibition’s title – Surreal Science – points to this legacy, and Arancio draws on the Surrealist predilection for juxtaposition in his arrangement of objects from the Loudon collection.
Centuries are traversed on Arancio’s shelves, bringing together animal and mineral, flora and fungi in the manner of the wunderkammer. The line between the artificial and the real is heavily blurred, exploring the boundary between the diagrammatical and the representational. An Anna Atkins cyanotype of a fern leaf is hung near a group of papier-mâché flowers, many times larger than life. Both have been used by students of botany, but they were made with very different aims and materials.
Arancio draws attention to the variety of ways in which students have learned about the natural world across the eras. These different modes of access, Surreal Sciencesuggests, are both indicative of and contributory to the ways in which societies and eras have thought about nature, scientific discovery, and human beings.
The exhibition also includes Reactions in Plants and Animals (2018), a new video piece by Arancio, with a commissioned soundtrack by experimental electronic musician Julian House. The video consists of found vintage educational film material, distorted with psychedelic shapes and colours. The ever-changing light and sounds of the work accompany the viewer’s experience of the Loudon collection, pointing to the subtle but always-present influence of exterior factors in our processes of looking and learning.
Surreal Science indicates that the line between illusion and reality is not only thin, but highly malleable. Our scientific and conceptual understanding of the natural world is shown not to be absolute, but constantly going through a process of flux, reflecting the preoccupations of each successive generation. This exhibition prompts us to reflect on the issues affecting our society and the environment today, and how these might be influencing our interpretations of the world around us, encouraging a deeper interrogation of current scientific ideas and modes of study, from the classroom to the artist’s studio and the laboratory.
Words by Anna Souter
Surreal science: Salvatore Arancio at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 6 January 2019