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'Thinking The Unthinkable.' - Or, 'Against Nature.'

Exhibition dates: 18 February - 16 April 2005
Preview: Thursday 17 February 6:00 - 8:00pm

'Thinking the Unthinkable' reveals the imaginative transformations artists have worked upon the natural world. The seven contemporary artists and two historical predecessors bring together high Victorian fantasy with contemporary anxieties about man's power to re-order the natural world. At a time when modern science is profoundly altering man's relationship to the rest of organic life, these magic realists ask us to suspend disbelief in the unbelievable. Each blends fantasy and reality to create new types of flora and fauna. The artists' flights of imagination celebrate the power of the imagination, as well as the diversity of nature.
 
The phrase 'thinking the unthinkable' was coined in 1962 by American nuclear strategist Herman Kahn. For Kahn, it describes the imaginative powers needed to envision the consequences of our ability to reshape nature, or to destroy it in its entirety. The subtitle 'Against Nature' is drawn from JK Huysmans' 1884 symbolist novel. The artists here contest the argument put forward by its' protagonist Des Essentes that, "nature has had her day; there is not a single one of her inventions that human ingenuity cannot manufacture... She has exhausted the admiration of all true artists... and the time has come for artifice to take her place".

 
Sir John Tenniel
Lewis Carroll's uncanny transformations and logical inversions are so familiar they are most often viewed as charming Victorian whimsy. Yet his fantasy creatures, which introduce the exhibition, might easily be seen as part of an imaginative tradition linking Ovid's 'Metamorphosis' to Kafka's. In Alice's world, nothing can be taken for granted:
" 'All right,' said the Gnat.  'Half way up that bush, you'll see a Rocking-horse-fly, if you look.  It's made entirely of wood, and gets about by swinging itself from branch to branch. Look on the branch above your head, and you'll find a Snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy. Crawling at your feet, you may observe a Bread-and-butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head a lump of sugar....' "
 
Sir John Tenniel (engraved by Zalziel Brothers)
'Alice in the Garden of Live Flowers', from 'Alice Through the Looking Glass', 1872, courtesy V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Frances and Elsie Wright
The Wright sisters were merely children when five photographs of them accompanied by 'fairies' became world-famous. The 'Cottingley Fairies' were so adeptly staged and manipulated that a number of individuals, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were prepared to believe in the photographs as evidence of their existence. Several of the contemporary artists here similarly employ an elaborate artifice to create fantastical scenarios, describing their work as 'fairy stories' for our time.

Frances and Elsie Wright
'Cottingley Fairies', 1917-20. Courtesy National Museum of Photography Film & Television.
Essays by Alistair Robinson & Marie Irving.  
Tessa Farmer's sculptures of 'hells' angels' and 'fairies' can only be viewed using a magnifying glass. These hyper-real skeletons, seen riding insects, are terrifying visions of a part of the natural world inaccessible to ordinary human perception. Farmer's 'fairies' are presented as a species we never knew existed.
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'Swarm' (detail), 2004, mixed media
Daniel Brown's mesmerising digital animation recreates the endless patterns of growth that exist in the natural world, using the unlikely medium of binary code. Brown's gentle, contemplative animation reveals an endless cycle of growth and renewal. Brown performs a magical transformation, creating teeming life from inanimate code.
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Stills from 'Flowers' series, 2005
David Harrison's nocturnal oil paintings reveal nature flourishing, and "birds flying like jewel-coloured fairy folk amongst the debris" and dereliction, which man has wrought on the environment. 
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'Blackpool Night-Owl', 2004, oil on board
Karen Melvin's constructed still lives, like the Wright sisters' insert figures made of photographic paper into blissful, sun-drenched landscapes. Melvin's magical, witty narratives are " 'playgrounds full of associations".
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'Fairy Godmother', 2004, inkjet print
Nicholas Pace's photo-realist paintings made after natural history dioramas in Victorian museums' reveal the complexity and absurdity of our imaginary relationships to other species. 
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'Monument', 2004, oil on canvas
Kelly Richardson's animated video 'Ferman Drive' is a minute long tracking shot of the environment where she grew up: a street from archetypal North American white-picket-fence suburbia. Richardson's own house, however, defies the laws of nature spectacularly, rotating fully through 360' as we drive past.
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Stills from 'Ferman Drive', 2005, single-channel video
Laura Youngson Coll shows an uncanny, baroque environment of miniature wax sculptures seemingly from our past and future. Coll combines skeletons of unknown species with bizarre, unclassifiable flowers and plants.
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'Doppelganger' (detail of pair) 2004, sculpey, wire, wax, acrylic paint.