The eighteenth-century curate Gilbert White led an unassuming life in the village of Selborne, Hampshire, meticulously recording his observations of the wildlife in his garden and local surroundings. Despite his somewhat parochial view of nature, White is often remembered among the great pioneers of science, with whom he corresponded, and regarded as England’s first ecologist. His writings were published in 1789 as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, now purportedly the fourth most published book in the English language.
It is trivia such as this that sparks the imagination of artist Jamie Shovlin. The accuracy of the anecdote is perhaps of less consequence than the intrigue it sustains. Shovlin is a collector, an obsessive accumulator of material and information. The everyday world provides stimulus for making work about things that interest him. Inconsequential fact-finding feeds Shovlin’s creative thinking over a period of months and years, enabling him to form a complex web of associations that motivate his intricately constructed projects.
The perception of information is a principal premise for Shovlin’s practice. His carefully structured projects are the result of in-depth research, idiosyncratic methodologies and painstaking execution, presenting layers of information and imagery that situate objects, people and ideas into new contexts. By using conventional models of presentation – the museum collection, archive and literary compendia – Shovlin questions how information manifests itself as authoritative. He explores the way that individuals and organisations map, classify and pigeon-hole the world in order to understand it.
The installation, In Search of Perfect Harmony, takes nature as its theme and brings together drawings, collage, text, sound recording and projection. With its dark green walls, mahogany-framed exhibits and archival boxes, the display recalls the Wunderkammer or a cabinet of curiosities one might encounter in a local museum. Shovlin juxtaposes his mother’s subjective view of the wildlife in her suburban garden with the scientific rigour of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Interested by how museums are organised and often evolve from diverse, personal collections, Shovlin opposes an individual voice with an institutional point of view, contrasting localised knowledge with something much more global. Like Gilbert White, he reminds us that the origins of science were based on very personal observation.
The first part of Shovlin’s Art Now installation, The Twitcher 2004–6 re-presents material about his mother Valerie and her musings on the inhabitants of the garden she has created and nurtured since her children left home. A slide show of the garden progresses through the seasons while amateur footage of a ‘traumatic’ sparrow hawk attack is projected onto a paving slab. The garden is mapped by a museological chart and taxonomic drawings document the occupants’ scientific and more subjective habits. A fragmented soundtrack plays in the space and affectionate, anthropomorphic accounts of ‘Roger the Wood-Pigeon’ and ‘Dave the Collared Dove’ can be pieced together from a splintered monologue. Shovlin describes his mother’s relationship with her garden as ‘maternal’ and, as sound and image are reconnected by the viewer, the twitcher’s classification system is gradually revealed.
For Shovlin, Valerie’s garden is analogous to a stage-set of characters; tensions between fantasy and reality are played out when predators upset the reassuring structure imposed on her corner of the natural world. On an allegorical level such futile attempts to tame nature link back to Darwin’s theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’ as explored in The Origin of Species (1859) and reiterated in Shovlin’s text piece of the same title. Here an apparently comprehensive view of chapter III, ‘Struggle for Existence’, is wall-mounted using pages from multiple, second-hand editions exchanged with universities and anonymous ‘public’ readers. However, each page has been edited by Shovlin and any text not highlighted by previous readers is obliterated with thick black lines. The process Shovlin applies to the material relates to Darwin’s theories and by equating the survival of the fittest with the preservation of noteworthy text, Shovlin questions the nature of ‘valuable’ or ‘significant’ information. Indeed, Darwin’s publication was subject to continuous revisions during and after his life and as Shovlin comments ‘the different editions of the books, the edited versions of history reported within the books, the history of the books as both source of information and object, all collide in an effort to delineate – or highlight – the impossible task of establishing the definitive history’.
Shovlin reinforces the idea of subjectivity, selectivity and speculation in his final piece, In Search of Perfect Harmony 2003–6. In this work, archival boxes display frottages (wax rubbings using four overlaid colours) taken from jigsaws that Shovlin’s mother completed, almost subconsciously, whilst bird-watching. Shovlin has noted that the majority of Valerie’s jigsaws are Utopian in subject, illustrating idealised natural themes. But as the jigsaws are immediately collapsed when finished, it appears that the image is less important to her than the act of completion itself. Shovlin’s frottages provide a record of the jigsaws without representing the image, leaving their titles as the only means of accessing each ‘harmonious’ natural scene within the imagination. With reference to his own creative methods Shovlin alludes to the irony and futility of such ideal pursuits.
A flawed system, his Crayola colour wheel and an esoteric use of four-colour ‘tetrads’, is employed to test the theory that complementary colours complete each other when overlaid, producing a perfect, neutral grey. The production of only 30 frottages from a possible 720 colour combinations indicates the limitations of objective investigation. Thus bird-watching, Darwinism, jigsaw puzzles and colour theory are merged by Shovlin but a resolution is unattainable. Functioning at the discretion of the viewer, the installation reveals that ultimately ‘perfect harmony’ is illusory.