The representation of an object in art allows the artist to exercise an element of control over their subject matter. Nature is the most traditional focal point, preceding the religious and deific imagery that has dominated western art since the Renaissance.
This spread handpicks examples of contemporary artists who draw from the natural world to create. In an attempt to locate the work within a cultural landscape, experiments have been made to catalogue, record and archive these discoveries. The following pages are a presentation and display, and a categorisation of methodology and practice.
At its core, the natural world represents an unattainable perfection that mankind is continuously striving to achieve through themes of birth, growth, life and death; of mortality and the Tree of Life. By appropriating nature in art, the artist demonstrates an attempt to dominate - perhaps to even invert, redirect or undermine - the symbolism inherent in a natural body. Within art, nature is so ubiquitous and diffuse that it is a constant source of further investigation. Its organic form reflects an innate cognisance back to humans and this is shared between every earthly body.
The "inward eye" that Wordsworth writes of is the recognition of the common consciousness that connects all organic forms. Can we categorise the cultural and social implications? It is a task of fundamental human nature to try to uncover and decode this. It is in our nature.
Daffodil, genus Narcissus.
Largest common height: 41cm.
Bulb-forming flowering plant native to northern Europe. Cultivated there and in North America. The stem of the daffodil bears one yellow blossom with a bell-shaped corona that is frilled at its edges.
The "inward eye" that William Wordsworth writes of, an evocation of the flower's enclosed stamen, is the catalyst that transports the poet towards the "bliss of solitude". The daffodil has taken the heart and literary mind of several poets beyond this great Romanticist. Adrian Henri, a Mersey Beat poet, spun a modern take on "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by combining the poem with text from a Dutch car advert. He saw 10,000 of "The New Fast Automatic Daffodils" at a glance, in three bright modern colours and equipped with a host of useful accessories. For two great men of letters, the diarist Adrian Mole and his literary counterpart, Barry Kent, the daffodil is the focus of pensive isolation. On a trip to the Lake District following in Wordsworth's steps, Mole finds himself uninspired from a lack of the allusive flower. "It's July, lad" is the only, unhelpful response from an ancient country yokel. But a moment on his settee brings pause for a Rubaiyat-inspired stanza. As an erstwhile Eliza to his Henry Higgins, Barry Kent, the skinhead poet, dispenses with Mole's adolescent yearning and derives his inspiration directly from the source of such redolent Romantic reclusion:
In a vase
In a room
In my House
Fruit (Lat. fructus)
The seed-bearing section of a plant, often edible, colourful and fragrant. Organic, and is produced from a floral ovary after fertilisation.
The still life has been a staple of portrait painting since its antecedents in ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek times. Revived under Giotto's tutelage, it remained essential to the education of painterly technique, though is generally recognised as inferior in the hierarchy of subject matter. Dutch and Flemish artists of the late 16th and 17th centuries developed the technique of still life painting to include more classically influenced refinements and this led to a renaissance in the way that the art form became highly regarded. Coenraat Roepel, a Dutch artist working in the late 17th and early 18th century, further enhanced the reputation of still life painting - particularly fruit-based still life - with a realistic touch that inferred a sense of gleam and polish. These dewy effects heightened the sense that still life painting is essentially a comment on the transience of life. This was a theme relatively untouched until recently, when artist Ori Gersht gave it a crash course in post-modernism, recreating still life arrangements of classical paintings and blowing them up, capturing the conclusion of the Flemish vanitas genre on high-definition video. Swiss artist Nicholas Party devolves this trend. His fruit-based contributions to contemporary art are comprised of rocks painted to look like lemons, melons, oranges and coconuts, but these are solid, heavy, dry objects that will last as long as the Earth itself. Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, it may all be meaningless and utterly empty, but use it as an opportunity. Tempus fugit, Party realises that we must all make a mark on the world.
Cat (O.E. catt, from West Germanic kattuz. Lat. felis silestris cattus)
A carnivorous quadruped mammal of the Felidae family, usually furred and with tails.
Cats have been kept as domestic creatures since the Ancient Egyptian era (approximately 2000 BC) and are the most popular domestic pet in the world, available everywhere.
With their relationship to humans lasting as long as civilisation itself, cultural depictions of cats are ubiquitous and pervasive, both historically and contemporaneously. Their depiction in art is routine. Opinion over the cultural significance of the domestic cat is divided, with equal parts claiming good luck and bad. That they remain the most prevalent domesticated animal in the world demonstrates just how ingrained they are within the human psyche. In colloquial terms, to be termed "catty" is derogatory but to have your skills likened to a cat is a compliment. The evolution of the domestic cat's relationship to humans is equally mixed. Europeans have historically tended to see cats as both charms of blessing and portends of evil. Outside of Europe, particularly in the far east and North Africa, cats are shown to be very loyal and diligent companions. The Inventors of Tradition is a project by artist Lucy McKenzie and designer Beca Lipscombe. Working together under the collaborative name Atelier, they produced their first capsule collection; a series of high-quality bespoke garments engineered for creative workers. Their designs recall an aesthetic and tailoring practice that celebrates traditional Scottish textile manufacture and design. Since its initial display, the collection has been praised as highlighting the very proud nature of Scottish identity. However, to view tradition in purely nostalgic terms is dangerous territory and in the creation of these garments, McKenzie and Lipscombe present an alternative retrospective look at how these images of the Scottish self have been tainted by external influence and short-term economic successes that have, instead, set the boundaries on the development of a national identity. In The Inventors of Tradition book each outfit is gracefully modelled in etchings of fully dressed anthropomorphic cats. Like the animal with the distorted cultural significance, national identity can be just as warped.
Onion, genus Allium, species Allium cepa
Largest common size: 20 cm (diameter)
Root bulb vegetable, grown, harvested and cultivated internationally. The onion is one of the most popular vegetables in the world. Commonly available in three colours: yellow, red and white, the onion has been a part of common culture since the Bronze Age, c.5000 BC.
A crisis hit India at the tail end of the first decade of the 21st century and into its second. The government had to tread very carefully to avoid repeating the mistakes of its predecessors. By the end of 2010, the price of onions had doubled to £1.14 per kilogram, more than twice the daily income for almost half of the population, and fears that the price could rise further still were realised in the coming weeks. A late monsoon rain across three Indian states had led to crop shortages. Onions are the staple of the largely vegetarian Indian diet, being integral to practically every dish as well as salads. Previously, when a similar spike affected the price level, the existing government was discredited through its handling of the matter. A rise in the price of onions in 1998 led to the resignation of New Delhi's chief minister after he publicly suggested that poorer people should "give up onions". To guard against such measures, the US government passed The Onion Futures Act in 1958, a law preventing speculative trading on the vegetable in order to avoid potential market manipulation. A world away from political culinary Kämpfen, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans' Onion, from the same period, presents his own version of how democracy can be interpolated within the economy. Since mechanisation, and with increasing speed since the advent of desktop digital production, a cultural side effect has been the growing industry for reproduction. Music, movies, advertising, text, even art - or at least a replication - becomes available at the click of a button. Moral implications aside, this parity of access becomes the great leveller. With harvesters and agriculturalists known to breed a genus from the bulbs of its strongest yield, it is an equivalence not yet afforded to the natural world.
From Old English ege, c.1200.
The human eye is an organ that reacts to differences in light. A sensory organ, the eye permits vision.
"Lulu slept naked because she liked to feel the sheets caressing her body… Lulu was sleeping on her back, she had thrust the great toe of her left foot into a tear in the sheet: it wasn't a tear, it was only the hem coming apart." These lines from the opening of Jean-Paul Sartre's Intimacy are an example of the writer's craft as depicted by the character's actions. This form of artistic panopticism is a self-reflexive act in which the creator is able to gather a greater degree of control and thereby demonstrate a greater control over himself. Readers are party to Lulu's most intimate inner thoughts and outer actions, but Sartre cannot force her beyond the physical space that she inhabits. Anne Collier's photographs depict existing objects that contain within them photographic imagery: of books, calendars, magazines, music albums or advertisements. Often this reproduced photography focusses on sexualised images of women. The image of the eye repeats itself. Re-photographing existing photographs is an intentional act to interrogate what it means to take pictures. Her subjects are other photographs. For Collier, the act of viewing is heightened in the extreme attention she concentrates on other images. And for the viewer, the act of viewing becomes a self-reflexive act of realising that we are viewing. The privileged position of audience is negated once they realise that their gaze judges and objectifies. Collier's eye pictures are categories of organisation in and of themselves, they are forms of medical charts used to recognise drugs that the subject has. This form of subliminal objectification and even judgment is something unique to human nature. The curiosity of "the others" among us and a desire to uncover their hidden nature. But then, human nature is a curious thing.
Apple (O.E. aeppel, species Lat. Malus domestica)
Largest common size: 5 inches (diameter)
The apple is one of the most widely cultivated and consumed fruits in the world. Blossoming from deciduous trees, the ancestry of the apple is found in the mountainous regions between Central Asia and China. It has been grown naturally in Europe for thousands of years and there are more than 7,500 variations internationally.
The identity of the "forbidden fruit" that Adam and Eve consume, resulting in their banishment from the Garden of Eden is never revealed. The fruit is believed to have been depicted as an apple by Renaissance painters, influenced by the Greek mythology, in particular the 11th Labor of Hercules, in which he was tested to steal a golden apple from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Hesperides. It was in Norse mythology that the apple tree was believed sacred and was considered the symbol of beauty and rebirth. They grow easily and are able to be stored for many months. Given their nutritional value and acknowledged health benefits, the contemporary cultural reception of apples is positive. Even when seen from the ancient Greek perspective, with the apple symbolising knowledge and immortality, there is an innate perfection within the fruit that makes it an object of temptation and desire. So much so that the Latin word for apple, "malum" closely resembles the word for evil, "malum". Still, a woman pictured with an apple is not a woman the western world has been conditioned to trust. The apples in Christopher Williams' photographic print are gorgeous; perfectly ripe, red, round, and full. The leaves that surround them are twisted to appear as nettles, warning any potential pickers to stay away. They are the depiction of the most perfect natural form, tempting to both man and woman alike. One has a heart-shaped bruise. A remnant, perhaps, of damage from an early admirer.