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Inside Human Nature

Cara Lee explores York Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Human Nature, which leaves old perceptions of 'normal' behind.

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Image Credit: Charlotte Graham

Visiting an art gallery seems a very normal thing to do and yet 'normality' is a feeling I’ve become completely unaccustomed to over the last seven months.  However, the York Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Human Nature, is anything but the norm for York.

York Mediale is a new biennial multimedia art festival. This year, digital exhibitions are being held at the York Minster, in and around the streets of Layerthorpe, and the central display – Human Nature – is residing in the York Art Gallery. Such an international festival wouldn’t seem out-of-place in other cities (London, for instance) but for York, with every street seeped in history, its significance is even more profound.

Human Nature boasts a triptych of installations from leading digital artists and collectives.  Rachel Goodyear recreates the unconscious and the human mind, whilst Kelly Richardson explores the impact of humanity on nature.  Marshmallow Laser Feast focuses on the ecosystem of the human body, drawing attention to the links between technology, science and art.

Goodyear’s Liminia gracefully introduces the exhibition with a series of animation-based works.  Life is projected into the animations onto a trio of  large screens, and the eye is completely immersed into Goodyear’s delicate drawings.  Accompanying them is a marble sculpture; the figure alternates between a solid structure of pure marble, and almost tentative animations in amongst torn-out pages of sketchbooks.

Kelly Richardson’s Embers and the Giants is a portal to a hushed forest, where the outside world becomes an unknown.  Enclosed in a dark room, looking at nothing except this exceptionally realistic forest, is calming yet quietly disconcerting.  As the six and a half minute long video crescendos to thousands of fireflies covering the dense vegetation, we become aware that it is thousands of minute drones, working together to create a beautifully humming, almost tangibly alive piece.

Embers and the Giants await a time “when humans will need to amplify the spectacle of nature in order to convince the public of its worth”.  In a period where technology has consumed most parts of life, and the threat of irreversible global warming is ever-present, the fact that technology can create a nature equally as stunning as the real thing is bewildering.

Marshmallow Laser Feast’s The Tides Within Us, as the final installation, succinctly encapsulates the exhibition.  In amongst getting in the way of various photographers and curators, seeing two of the people behind Marshmallow Laser Feast finalising their set up before the exhibition welcomed the public on the following day, illustrated how high-spec this exhibition is.

The Tides Within Us is a journey of nine screens, depicting the movement of oxygen through the body.  Whilst the eye focuses on one, the fluidity of the neighbouring screen allows the cyclicality of the body’s ecosystem to be foregrounded.

Whilst Human Nature is exciting and unique, it’s also incredibly pertinent for this moment, given how the body is particularly central to everything now.  Tom Higham, the creative director of York Mediale, told me, “we were really keen to make a show that, despite being quite technical, is very human and quite meditative”, highlighting that although the exhibition was organised before the pandemic, it has been amplified because of it.  “There are pieces about breath, mental health, the earth, and ecosystems… it wasn’t designed for the pandemic originally, but the pandemic has kind of made it more relevant.”

The original plans have been downscaled, but Higham wanted to make something unique, memorable and reflective of this period.  “So much digital art is quite cold and inhuman… we’ve had to lose a lot of projects, but the projects we’ve pushed forward with I think hopefully say something about what we’re experiencing now.”

Although exhibitions of digital art are increasingly common, such a showcase in York offers a completely new way of seeing and thinking about technology.  With life being lived on Zoom, the thought of the traditionally tangible nature of art also succumbing to the virtual realm can be daunting, but the exhibition serves as a reminder that art can be a mirror or a meditation to real life.

Nouse would like to extend their thanks to the York Museums Trust and York Art Gallery for allowing a preview of Human Nature.

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