Human Nature at York Art Gallery

Gabriella Rutzler reviews the most recent exhibition on show at the York Art Gallery, Human Nature, as part of the York Mediale 2020.

Limina - Image: G.Rutzler

Dormant and troublingly empty, for months the York Art Gallery has been under the blanket of museum closures that followed the COVID-19 outbreak. With its exhibition calendars stilted until August and depleting funding putting its livelihood at risk since March, it seems fitting then that life is re-injected into some of its spaces with the opening of Human Nature, a tripartite series of multi-media art installations exploring notions of what it means to be living.

This exhibition is running as part of the York Mediale, a new and exciting arts festival that boasts an impressive line-up of world renowned artists, musicians and comedians since its inception in 2018. With gigs being a thing of the seemingly distant past and exhibitions and performances having to follow strict practical guidelines, this year’s Mediale has been shrunk from 20 projects into a handful of events that embrace the technologically versatile capacities of contemporary digital media, with some events being solely shown online.

The York Art Gallery functions as a major cornerstone of the festival this year with its Human Nature exhibition, featuring the works of Rachel Goodyear, Kelly Richardson and Marshmallow Laser Feast across three rooms. In this order, the artists have worked with the gallery’s spaces along with low lighting, forms of projection, sound, video art and more traditional artistic mediums to consider, rather broadly, the theme of the body in relation to its environment. What makes this short, yet effective exhibition brilliant is the otherwise unexpected coalescence of three very different artists, with different individual practices, in one place. The virtual serves as the intermediary between the rooms, the viewer being asked to think about the reciprocity between the screen and the self as a living, breathing, feeling body.

Rachel Goodyear is a fine-artist from Manchester, well known for her detailed figurative pencil drawings that interact with Surrealist tropes to explore a fluctuating binary between lightness and darkness in the human psyche. In the opening room of the exhibition which Goodyear has named Limina, we are confronted by a trio of suspended screens facing each other with the animation of a young, partially clothed woman walking in blackness towards the viewer, who can choose to navigate the screens on their periphery or internally, being surrounded. In the middle of the screens, the viewer is confronted as voyeur and witness to the strange unfolding of fungi forms that begin to sprout. In another work in the space, a neoclassical sculpture has been utilised as a canvas for further projection of textures and moving drawings of birds, wolves and beetles, which are cleverly isolated onto sheets of paper, scrunched up or loosely scattered around the base of the sculpture. The artist’s familiar use of hand-drawn images takes on new significance in animation, their evident sketchiness as moving images gives them an intangible, dream-like quality. The confrontation with the immediacy of drawing as a conduit through which the mind and body are explored becomes more ephemeral in its animation and projection, images appear as spectres. Goodyear herself mentions that she considers her images to be ‘fragments,’ occupying a liminal space between the real and imagined.

Embers and Giants - Image: C. Graham

Transitioning into the next space and in front of a large screen showing Canadian artist Kelly Richardson’s short video installation Embers and Giants. The fixed view of a large, old tree in a forest is accompanied by the sounds of the environment it is contained in, gradually changing with the darkening scene as the day shifts to dusk. An eruption of small lights descends upon the tree, in what appears to be the rarely captured dance of fireflies or even the floating embers from a forest fire. Yet, it gradually becomes clear as more time is spent watching small flitting movements in the video and listening to the deep whirring sound that dominates the audio, that there is nothing natural about this happening. Instead we are watching a man-made occurrence of tiny drones, replicating a scene from nature. In this poignant piece by Richardson, technology serves to emphasise how we acknowledge the natural world, conceiving a time in the future when nature is enhanced to demonstrate its value to us. Touched upon here, is the expectation of environmental performance, that the inherent beauty of nature acted out for humans is what holds it in our esteem, instead of an understanding of its ecological and moral reality of being human. In the same way that the choreography of lights around the tree is only temporary, Richardson reminds us that time is of the essence in preventing further climatological and ecological crises in our world.

The Tides Within Us - Image: C. Graham

From reviewing the draw of the body outwards towards nature, the viewer is then drawn inwards, to reflect upon the body as the vessel of an internal environment in the final part of the exhibition designed by Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF). In talking to Creative Director of the Mediale Tom Higham during the press release, it was clear that the Mediale team were very excited about this work by the group, who describe themselves as an ‘immersive art collective.’ The piece entitled The Tides Within Us, certainly evidences such a claim to an experiential perception of art and science, and encompasses a room orientated by alternate human-sized screens. In collaboration with Fraunhofer Mevis, a German institute for medical software and the world-leading collectors of advanced datasets of oxygen flow in the blood, the collective have designed a series of interlinking visual and auditory translations of these datasets. The surging and depleting bass audio mirrors the ebbing and flowing of the organic shapes along their courses in the visuals. There is a layering in the experience of the moving images, some views showing what appears to be a microscopic view of an internal ecosystem, with only tiny minutiae shifting against static ground. Other screens shift constantly from one abstract path to another with the undulation of the surging blood. 

Having briefly seen two of the MLF collective at work finishing the specifics of the installation, laptop and headphones in tow, focus and hyper-sensitivity to the spatial economics of the immersive piece is required, something a bustling press op wasn’t ideal for (we politely made ourselves scarce). It was important to this exhibition, I think, that the work was not transmitted through a VR headset or a guiding technology for the individual, as some of MLF’s other works have been. In filling a shared space there is a heightened awareness of the biology, rhythm, heartbeat, bodily warmth and, of course, air that we all share in the gallery. This piece seems very relevant in this way, to an increased need for greater understanding of how our bodies work in recent times and a newfound anxiety towards other bodies.

This exhibition of contemporary works, alongside the Aesthetica arts prize also being shown at the Gallery, serve as welcome reminders of the continuous force of contemporary art to make itself known and York Art Gallery’s unique tendency to give a platform to this.

Human Nature runs until 24th January 2021 at the York Art Gallery as part of the 2020 York Mediale.

Special thanks goes to Lee Clark from the Yorkshire Museums Trust for providing the opportunity to see this exhibition and to Tom Higham for talking to Unknown about the Mediale.

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