For those unfamiliar with it, the main exhibition space of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery sits elevated above several slender concrete columns. Like an architectural award-winning tree house, it is nestled picturesquely within University College Cork’s intensely verdant campus. Angular projections extend toward the treetops, their glass walls bridging the divide between outdoors and indoors. The building links the natural with the manmade and the organic with the constructed; habitats of man and of animals are brought into close proximity. It is thus an entirely appropriate setting for the current exhibition.
Entitled Fieldworks, the show is a collaborative effort between the Glucksman and the university’s own Department of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science. Featuring work spread across a wide range of mediums from an international roster of artists, it seeks to examine the world of animal habitats, heightening the visitor’s understanding of these diverse environments which they themselves exist alongside. Such a theme may appear pedestrian and one-dimensional to some, perhaps due in part to a literalness so often jettisoned in favour of the more abstract within the domain of contemporary art. However, there is merit to be found in this accessibility, which serves to disassemble the silo within which contemporary art so often contains and limits itself. By forging a link between the cultural and the natural, Fieldworks brings art, almost quite literally, beyond the gallery walls of the Glucksman and into the great outdoors.
Dublin born artist Sonia Shiel’s installation piece Mise en Abyme speaks to the viewer of the fragility of animal habitats. Her wooden work appears not entirely stable. It is frail and contorted. Covered in sawdust, it is the least healthy looking of specimens. Surrounded by discarded manmade rubbish, we are immediately and symbolically implicated in facilitating its current state of ill health. Animal forms dot the structure and appear stopped in their tracks whilst trying to escape. This motif of negative human interaction and intervention is further examined, albeit from a different angle by Belgian Wesley Meuris. His hulking Cage for Saimiri boliviensis is perhaps the least natural sort of habitat imaginable. Its confines are composed of awkward angles and it is illuminated from within by harsh spotlights. It is clear that such human-imposed habitats are not at all natural. Meuris’ installation is accompanied by a number of orthogonal pencil drawings of various animal enclosures. Filled with watercolour, they would be pretty if not accompanied by the underlying message of cruelty and entrapment.
These pieces may hit hard, but their seriousness is tempered by a playfulness to be found in other works. Ruth Van Beek’s series entitled Hibernators sees the appropriation of animal photographs which are carefully folded or combined with other images so as to create entirely new species, perhaps missing a head here or a limb there. Meanwhile, Vanessa Safavi’s taxidermied budgies lie in repose, dotted around the floor adding a colourful though completely macabre twist. Even Safavi’s work demonstrates the delicacy of the natural world when presented in the face of the manmade. Fieldworks, thus, ought to be appreciated for the educational insight it offers insofar as it presses the visitor to engage with questions regarding a more sustainable and ethical coexistence between the human and the animal.
FIeldworks runs in Gallery 1 and 2 in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery from 1 August – 2 November 2014
(Photo via Glucksman Gallery twitter)