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Creating Human Nature

By Kate Farrell

York Mediale Curatorial Producer, Kate Farrell, explores the process behind creating Human Nature, the centrepiece exhibition for YM2020.

 

The Project Origin

Human Nature began as a conversation between York Mediale and York Museums Trust in 2019 with the aim of co-commissioning a landmark exhibition for York Mediale 2020; it’s working title was Triptych and the joint mission was to curate an ambitious, engaging collection of International New Media Art in York, with the Madsen Galleries at York Art Gallery providing the backdrop.

Centring around 3 artists and building upon the success of Strata in 2018 – the last collaboration between the organisations – we wanted to commission new work from at least 2 of the artists. Curatorially there were many discussions to come about what this presentation of work should and could say that other new media exhibitions hadn’t; little did we know just how much this exhibition and its themes would resonate at the time of its opening.

The Concept

Initially, we explored a chronological approach, researching Artists that represented the past, present and future of new media practice, but as discussions began to pick up pace with Marshmallow Laser Feast, a leading immersive art collective who were starting to develop The Tides Within Us it soon became apparent that the themes they were examining around the journey of oxygen from the lungs to the heart echoing ecosystems in nature-could form the basis of the curatorial narrative across the show.

When conversations started with Marshmallow Laser Feast they had just emerged from an extended, sell-out run of their iconic virtual reality experience We Live in an Ocean of Air at The Saatchi Gallery, a project that illuminated the fundamental connection between animal and plant – ideas we were keen to continue exploring with them.

As these thoughts progressed we were in the process of talking to Rachel Goodyear, Manchester-based fine artist who was continuing her exploration into animation based work following her solo exhibition Catching Sight at the New Art Gallery Walsall in 2017. Recurring motifs such as wolves, insects and fungi punctuate her drawings and the female figure is a recurring vision that once again chimed with the ideas we were researching especially in connection to YAG’s collection, and the historical connection to the work of William Etty – an English artist best known for his paintings depicting the human body; in fact the first significant British artist to paint the nude figure extensively within his work.

Luckily, early on in the process Rachel was able to access the gallery’s stores and stumbled across the unnamed sculpture which forms the centrepiece of her new work, Scrying. 

The Journey

As we worked with MLF and Rachel Goodyear to commission their new installations – focusing on the exploration of breath, and a glimpse into the human psyche respectively – the themes started to echo life in 2020 as we stepped into months of lockdown and the pandemic that has defined this year. Our meetings with the artists in February and March were to be our last in person for over 7 months and the process of creating new work together in this time of social distance was one none of us could have predicted.

The coming months were full of uncertainty but we continued our planning with an air of caution and purpose in equal measure. With an urgency to finalise the triptych of artists after some delay, we connected with Canadian artist Kelly Richardson, whose large scale installations offer hyper-real, imaginative glimpses into the future and whose work Embers and the Giants looks directly at the impact of the human body on the environment. This was a work that would anchor and solidify all that we wanted to communicate through this exhibition, tying up the visual conversation around the health and climate emergencies that surround us. Writer and Curator George Vasey wrote a beautiful piece for us on Kelly’s work which you can read here.

As uncertain as the picture was globally and locally we persevered with the vision in the hope we could bring these artists together not just metaphorically but physically in time for the festival opening as planned in October 2020; providing the human and cultural connection that has been so sorely missed this year.

Human Nature

After a long and socially distanced installation period, with artists staggered over 4 weeks, and an ever-changing assessment of risk none of us had dealt with before, Human Nature opened on 21st October 2020; the centrepiece of York Mediale 2020 and a cultural experience we hope offered a space for quiet contemplation and a reflection on our bodies and environment at the end of last year.

This process has been a journey of self-discovery for all involved and will continue to live and grow beyond its life at the gallery (currently closed of course; we hope it will be safely enjoyed by many more before it closes on 9th May). The work produced and ideas planted will take on new life as we move into the future and beyond this global health crisis. There are already ambitious plans for Marshmallow Laser Feast’s The Tides Within Us as it develops into a stunning outdoor experience for Coventry City of Culture 2021, offering further exploration of our connection to the natural world, as boundaries are pushed and life beyond our senses is explored.