UnNatural History – A major new exhibition exploring natural history and climate change curated by Invisible Dust

Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry

28 May – 22 August 2021

Normal opening Times:

Monday – Saturday: 10.00am – 4.00pm
Sunday: 12.00pm – 4.00pm

Gallery website

Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sissel Tolaas / Doug Aitken / Angela Brazil / Gerard Byrne / David Claerbout / Mat Collishaw / Dorothy Cross / Frances Disley / Dubmorphology / John Gerrard / Alex Hartley / Andy Holden / Gözde İlkin / Tania Kovats / Michael Landy / Tony Matelli / Wangechi Mutu / Marianne North / Calvin Pang with David Robinson / Raqs Media Collective / Lisa Reihana / Sonya Schönberger / Yinka Shonibare CBE / Sarah Sze / Francis Upritchard / Danh Võ

We’re delighted to announce UnNatural History in partnership with The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum This major new exhibition of international naturalists and artists curated by Invisible Dust will explore the role of the artist as an intrinsic part of the science of natural history, enabling our modern understanding of ecology, climate change, extinction and the threats to biodiversity.  The exhibition will form part of the launch programme for Coventry UK City of Culture 2021.

UnNatural History features 26 international artists working in Aotearoa New Zealand, Austria, Belgium, Germany, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Singapore, Turkey, UK and USA. It includes four newly commissioned works responding to the Herbert’s Natural Science Collection by Gözde İlkin Frances Disley, Dubmorphology, Tania Kovats

The observational skills and techniques of artists, including their speculations, have enabled us to learn about plants and animals in drawings, long before the advancements of technologies such as microscopes and photography. Featuring drawings, paintings, sculpture, installation, lens-based, digital media and new technologies, UnNatural History will connect these valuable collections to the past, present, and future of our relationship to nature through depictions, scientific representations and imagined realities created by artists. 

Raqs Media Collective’s life-sized sculpture However Incongruous is a contemporary reinterpretation of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, 1515. Dürer’s woodcut exemplifies the importance of observing nature to Renaissance artists, whose depictions of flora and fauna enabled new scientific understanding. In this case the image was also speculative; having never seen a rhino in real life and misperceiving descriptions of the animal, Dürer depicts it with a horn on its back. In Raqs Media Collective’s work, the rhinoceros is reimagined as an out-of-place carousel animal.

Sonya Schönberger’s Company Art shows beautiful seventeenth and eighteenth century botanical drawings commissioned by Scottish physician Francis Buchanan Hamilton, now in the collection of the Linnean Society of London. Her video explores the importance of these drawings to Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who created the modern classification we still use today to name plants. Yinka Shonibare’s Butterfly Kid (boy) IV, a winged figure with a globe head, references our fascination with butterflies in natural history collections, as well as global warming and its effects on nature.

A theme of adventurous and pioneering women artists exploring botany runs through the exhibition. Celebrated nineteenth century artist Marianne North (1830-1890), whose work is on permanent display at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, travelled the world highlighting the destruction of plant species. Her mantle is taken up by Frances Disley, who has been commissioned to give a contemporary context to our relationship with plants. Her sculptures and video works, created in collaboration, explore the medicinal properties of plants. Included with Disley’s work are watercolours by the children’s author and amateur botanist Angela Brazil (1868-1947) from the Herbert Collection. 

Sarah Sze and Gözde İlkin have investigated the histories and resonances of geology.  For her newly commissioned work, The Mouth of the Ground, İlkin places rocks and minerals from the Herbert’s collection into and alongside handmade stuffed sculptures. Made with found fabrics and painted and embroidered by the artist, the sculptures are inspired by the environmental importance of minerals and rocks in ritual and folklore and their medicinal properties. Sarah Sze’s Magenta Stone features actual rocks as well as the artist’s sculptural and printed depictions of rocks, playing on the process of observation and ideas of real and constructed nature.

The exhibition also explores the future of our relationship with nature. Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas’ installation Resurrecting the Sublime investigates the possibility of reconstructing the smell of an extinct flower, using synthetic biology and genetic engineering to produce an imagined approximation of the scent of a Hawaiian hibiscus, whose habitat was destroyed by cattle ranching. Mat Collishaw’s The Machine Zone features an animatronic bird replicating the behavioural experiments of psychologist B.F. Skinner. Doug Aitken’s migration (empire) is a surreal video of migratory animals relocated to American motel rooms.

Commissioned artists Dubmorphology have conceived the multimedia installation, Colony, the observation lab of time-travelling researchers from the future comprehending an imminent environmental disaster. They travel back to our current age and beyond to investigate the impacts of human behaviour through the colonies of ants and bees. Tania Kovats’ taxidermied roadkill animals invite us to consider our cultural attitudes and responses to the death of animals and humans. She also investigates the notion of a personal natural history collection, featuring items from her own collection that have taken on a new resonance with the passing of time, particularly under the shadow of Covid-19. 

UnNatural History will highlight the importance of natural history collections to understand our relationship with nature and the climate crisis and encourage audiences to explore these ideas and act on what they discover. Evidence shows that coming into contact with nature is what enables us to want to protect it, yet many people in cities across the UK, do not easily have the opportunity to see wild animals or unspoilt landscapes. Natural history collections are important for communities to connect with the natural world. 

This exhibition opens at a time where, due to Covid-19, we are reevaluating our connection to nature and extinction caused by climate change, bringing more public awareness of our attitudes and our role as custodians to protect it.

“UnNatural History is a large scale and ambitious show which plays a significant part in our programme for UK City of Culture 2021. The exhibition features a diverse range of contemporary and historic works from across the globe, each showcasing how art can help us to better understand nature and inspire people to take climate action. We’re incredibly excited to reopen the Herbert following the pandemic with two major, thought-provoking exhibitions – 2 Tone: Lives and Legacies which examines the musical phenomenon which started in Coventry and UnNatural History exploring the role of art and natural history collections in understanding our environment.” Francis Nielsen, Cultural & Creative Director of Culture Coventry, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

The exhibition is publicly funded by Coventry City Council, the Wellcome Trust and National Lottery Funded by Arts Council England.

The original exhibition concept was developed by Invisible Dust with Deborah Smith, Director of the Art Council Collection. The exhibition is curated by Alice Sharp, Invisible Dust Artistic Director and Adelaide Bannerman and Rachel Taylor, Invisible Dust Associate Curators.

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