Andy Holden has a reputation for expanding the seemingly inconsequential and personal into dizzyingly diverse meditations on life, the universe and everything within. In past works, the British artist has enlarged a chip off an Egyptian pyramid (which he pocketed on a childhood trip) into a giant hand-knitted bolder, as well as putting together an animated film-cum-lecture conflating the capers of Tom and Jerry and Roadrunner with quantum physics to explore how the non-Newtonian physical laws of the cartoon world are a metaphor for our precarious modern existence.
Now Holden joins forces with his eminent ornithologist father and innovative commissioner Artangel to take over a 19th-century former library building near Elephant and Castle in South London with what is his most ambitious series of works to date. “Andy Holden/Peter Holden: Natural Selection” combines film, sculpture, music, animation, archive material and natural specimens to examine both the natural art of birds’ nest-building as well as the human (and quintessentially English) practice of birds’ egg collecting (until 5 November). Along the way, unusual and often uncomfortable aspects of both human and avian behavior are brought to light.
Situated in the dank basement where, appropriately, Victorian father and son collectors Richard and Henry Cuming once housed their joint collection of natural history specimens, is the show’s pièce de résistance. The work, How the Artist was Led to the Study of Nature (2017), comprises a spectacular profusion of bird eggs in all sizes and colors. According to a wall chart, these are the eggs of pretty much every wild British nesting bird ranging from the common rook, robin, magpie, seagull and sparrow through to the very rarest specimens from the golden eagle and peregrine falcon.
Beauty and horror
There’s both a beauty and a horror in this mass display of stilled avian lives. Matters turn yet darker on the discovery that this is no scientifically assembled set of specimens, but a meticulous recreation of a stash of 7,130 eggs that were discovered in the bedroom of notorious British collector Richard Pearson in 2006. Taking wild birds’ eggs is a criminal offence and Pearson was jailed for 23 weeks.
His collection surpassed that of any public institution but was nonetheless destroyed in its entirety to discourage future egg-thieves. Now it has been resurrected in an installation that presents the eggs exactly as they were found, not in scientific display cases but hidden in cake tins, polystyrene cartons and margarine boxes.
There’s another layer of obsessiveness in the fact that every specimen in Holden’s work is a lovingly hand-painted porcelain facsimile, created by a devoted and less destructive egg enthusiast commissioned by the artist. Changing attitudes to our beleaguered natural environment are brilliantly encapsulated in this laboriously recreated hoard.
At the same time, the work also offers up an insight into a little-examined slice of English cultural history. In an adjoining room a three-screen film—narrated by the artist in the bizarre form of a talking animated rook—traces the decline of egg collecting from a popular hobby of eccentric English aristocrats and a widely encouraged educational pursuit for schoolchildren to its current degraded criminal status.
Buried in its subterranean chamber, Holden’s disturbing and provocative egg display transcends its specifically English origins to act as a compelling monument to our human urge to acquire and accumulate that—whether expressed in a hoard of eggs or art—hovers between malady and therapy.