The Challenger's Report
I'm walking down a narrow, well-lit street in Vauxhall. The famous gasworks, next to the Oval Cricket Ground, looms up on my left. Ahead is a small blaze of light streaming onto the pavement where I can see a cluster of smokers outside the Gasworks Gallery.
Inside it's noisy and crowded - or animated and stimulating, if you prefer. Black is worn like a uniform and everyone seems to be between 25 and 45, except for a perky toddler and a babe in arms with their brave parents. No one seems to be looking at the exhibits. Instead they're talking about them which is what I think the artist intends. Irene Kopelman is an Argentinian artist who wants us to explore the relationship between science and art.
At this point if you want something colourful and punchy to grace your walls, read no more.
The image here is Radiolarians, one of a series of large-scale paintings of microfossils brought back from the Antarctic plate following Robert Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910. It depicts a spherical skeleton made of silicon, with elaborate patterns of perforations through which pseudopods extend. The remains sink to form ooze on the ocean bed and prehistoric radiolarian fossilize to become chert or flint. (This I had to look up and I hope I've got it right). One of the other exhibits is a small case of microfossils themslves from the Natural History Museum in London.
The Challenger's Report is Kopelman's first UK solo exhibition. She looks at how our relationship to landscape and the natural world is culturally conditioned and subject to change. She's inspired by explorers such as Ernest Shackleton which laid the foundation of modern oceanography. Her work is based on empirical research, archives and collections. The exhibition is acompanied by events and workshops not only at Gasworks but also at the Natural History Museum.
I found myself reading about looking rather than looking. 'Surveying mountains with your eyes', she says, 'is a way of drawing' in that you scan, select, find a wafer-thin line where a narrow snowless border stands out against the sky, and watch where snow on rocks folds, converges, diverges, piles up and disappears. 'The variations of light blue and blue, one behind the other, is like a monochromatic rainbow...The peaks, cut out, wedged between other peaks, wait to become a form'.
The exhibition centres on how acts of looking are mediated by culture, invention or cicumstance. She reminds us that we carry inside our heads a treasury of multiple layers of ways of looking at nature, including our unique personal history plus our own society's taken-for-granted assumptions about things as varied as the taxonomies we use to interpret the natural world, colour categories and art history.