So, Emily, how did the BEAST exhibition come about?
Our relationship with other animals is a topic that has fascinated me for a long time, and I started to examine it in more depth when studying for my MA at Goldsmiths College. It’s the subject of my own art practice and a lot of my sculpture relates to it. It seemed like a good subject for a show at the OBS Gallery in 2020 as the topic has been brought to all of our attentions with an awareness of how climate change is affecting the planet, and thousands of species are disappearing.
When you curate an art show like this, what are the challenges involved?
Making an exhibition where the works relate to each other and have elements in common but are not too similar or disparate is the challenge! Fortunately, it’s a large space with a high ceiling, so the works can have enough space around them so they don’t feel intruded upon by any other work. There is space to look and think about ideas as the works are almost in conversation with each other.
What do you think are the special elements to this show?
The scale of some of the works makes us really feel the presence of the beasts – Laura Ford’s largest bear weighs 250 kilos! The variety of different perspectives and media means there’s something that everyone can enjoy and engage with.
The balance of humour and seriousness – the humour draws us in and can enable us to think more deeply about some of the subject matter.
The skill of the artists is phenomenal – whether that’s painting, drawing, film making or sculpture – there are some really stunning pieces.
Can you tell us what you think the audience will enjoy about seeing it?
I think they will be surprised at the questions the works raise and how thought-provoking the relationships between the different pieces are.
The gallery stewards are all very knowledgeable and happy to discuss the works and the artists’ ideas.
Will any schools be getting involved with the show – seeing it or creating work centred around it?
Lots of schools are coming, both primary and secondary, many are coming several times with different groups of students.
We have a Gallery Educator who helps students discuss the themes, ideas and artworks in the exhibition and gives them an insight into the artist’s thoughts and intentions. She works with a wide range of different ages.
Students will be making their own artwork inspired by what they have seen and heard – we are hoping to create a space on the gallery website to showcase students’ responses.
How important do you think it is to collaborate with young students on art projects like this?
I think it’s essential! We are very lucky to have the gallery at Tonbridge School, and it’s important that it’s open to everyone.
Seeing artists’ work ‘in the flesh’ is such a different experience to looking at it online. I hope it inspires lots of students to create their own pieces.
We are looking into ways that students can curate their own shows in the future… watch this space!
A SNAPSHOT of the Artists’ work on display at BEAST…
Laura Ford is a sculptor who has exhibited internationally, so I’m thrilled that her large scale bronze 3 Bears are part of the show. We are also showing her bronze Bedtime Boy, who is part elephant and part boy, standing alone in his pyjamas and dressing gown, and her Pipe Smoking Cats, who stand rather nonchalantly up on the mezzanine surveying the show. Ford’s work explores the anthropomorphic – our desire to attribute human feelings and behaviour to animals, as well as the beast within us all.
Nicky Coutt’s work investigates human attempts to communicate with other species, and we are showing a series of her large charcoal drawings called Man Stupid. They depict Koko the Gorilla, who was taught sign language, in a video address speaking at a Paris Summit on Climate Change. ‘Man Stupid’ was one of the phrases she said, alongside ‘Nature See You’ and ‘Koko Cry’. They invite us to challenge our own assumptions about how much animals can understand and how different their ways of communicating are to ours. We are also showing her intriguing film All Rise, which was made after spending a year with Speech and Drama students. All of the animal sounds are made by humans and all of the music is made by animals! It forms a sound track to the show.
Mark Fairnington’s paintings are based on his studies of taxidermied animals in the storage areas of museums, such as the Natural History Museum and Horniman Museum in London. They look incredibly realistic but are actually based on a number of different photographs collaged together, making us question what is true and what is not. Although the creature’s teeth and fur are real, their eyes are in fact glass, once again blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. I am also thrilled that we are able to show one of his life-size paintings of a prize bull – it’s over three metres by two metres, so has an incredible presence in the gallery.
Edwina Ashton – we are showing four of her wonderful films. In these pieces humans dressed as strange hybrid creatures perform domestic tasks. For example, a bug does the ironing and a weevil waters his plant. They are made of makeshift costumes where the materials are clearly derived from everyday objects, such as a quilted sleeping bag, which adds to the sense of the absurd. The films explore human emotions such as embarrassment and failure, but are also very funny as well as poignant.
Kay Walsh – this film-maker’s piece All His Rights explores the way red deer are managed on the Holnicote Estate in Exmoor. It is the culmination of a year spent with a deer stalker and includes footage not only of the beautiful landscape and deer, but of people talking about their relationship with the animals and how best to preserve them. The title refers to the number of points on a fully grown deer’s antlers. There is a fierce trade in antlers that have been found once discarded, and they are collected and sold by a large number of locals.
BEAST is open to the general public from 12noon-4pm every weekend until February 23 and open to booked groups during the week. This Sunday, February 2, there is a free drop-in workshop for children to make their own beast, no booking required, just come along. And on Monday, February 3, at 7.30pm the painter Mark Fairnington will be talking about his work in the exhibition and the gallery from 6.45pm. The talk takes place in the Cawthorne Lecture Theatre and is free but needs to be booked via the box office at emftheatre.com
For more details, see: oldbigschoolgallery.co.uk/current-exhibition