He wasn’t the first person to peer inquisitively over my shoulder that day, but he certainly had the most questions.
“Are you an actor?” was his first.
“No,” I reassured him earnestly, “I really am an entomologist”. As if to prove the point, I stared even more intently into the microscope. I continued to manipulate the fly specimen carefully under the light and then pored over the identification key. Almost subconsciously, as if to further support my claim, I muttered to myself, probably something like: “Hind femur…terminal anterodorsal bristle…present.”
“And you do this all the time?” he followed up.
“Yes,” I claimed, “but this is the first time I’ve been on public display.” I could tell by his penetrating look that he wasn’t completely convinced. He tried another tack.
“This is a really nice shed.”
Looking about carefully at the joinery, he stated this with the extreme authority of someone who knows their stuff, someone who is, perhaps, an internationally acknowledged expert on temporary wooden structures, possibly a garden building twitcher, a doyen of sheds. “Did you build it?” I had to admit that I had not built it.
“Really nice.” he repeated, cocking his head slightly as he appraised the roof joists. “Really well built. Was this your idea?”
Again, I had to rebuff his admiration and acknowledge that, no, it was not my idea. I declined to join him in further shed appreciation, merely nodding and coughing and gripping the microscope even more firmly.
But he persisted. “I’d really like a shed like this.” I didn’t like the way the conversation was going. There are too many anecdotes about odd men in sheds, and here was I, carrying out the relatively eccentric activity of studying insects, in a shed, being quizzed by someone who was probably only marginally less peculiar than me. I was beginning to think that maybe he was someone too sad even to have his own shed, but who coveted those of his neighbours. “It’s clever the way the skylights are arranged; that’s a neat design feature.”
By now I was dreading an extended conversation on tenon and mortise joints, door furniture, all-weather paint treatments and the benefits of shiplap over featheredge. But luckily some other visitors arrived and he had to move out of the way to let them see what I was up to.
And just what was I up to? Well, I must admit, I still have an anxious feeling that I’m not entirely sure what I was up to. Ostensibly I was collecting and cataloguing the insects from a tiny derelict garden next to Camberwell’s South London Gallery. That much is fairly straightforward. But this was not part of some academic enquiry into garden insect biodiversity, nor was it an ecological study or an environmental impact assessment. No, I was making art. I was being part of art. In fact I was part of an art installation. It was all very odd — very, very odd.
The “Secret Garden Biological Field Unit” was designed by American artist Mark Dion. It was an octagonal wooden building about 3 metres in diameter and 4 high. It had windows and skylights, mains power, heating, lighting, furniture and with its varnished marine ply, aluminium flashings and weatherproof fitted windows it was, as my inquisitive visitor had so keenly observed, really well built.
It was provided with a binocular microscope, insect cabinet, entomological pins, glass vials, alcohol, card, plastizote mounting strips, ethyl-acetate, tweezers, scalpels, fine brushes, hand lenses, petri dishes, and all the other basic laboratory paraphernalia a field entomologist might require. And it was my place to sit there, for ten days during August and September 2005, to catch insects in the “garden” (now mostly bramble, bindweed, nettles and other rank weeds), mount them, identify them and display them for all to see.
It was not an onerous or arduous task. Admittedly it wasn’t the most enticing site I’d ever studied, but I am well used to visiting derelict brownfield sites, with disused buildings and overgrown gardens and finding the most unusual things.
There were some of the ‘usual’ oddities. Kalcapion semivittatum is a tiny weevil which feeds on annual mercury. Once regarded as exceptionally rare, it is now well established in London and the south-east and appears to be spreading. Agrilus sinuatus is a beautiful reddish pink jewel beetle. Once given red data book status it has since proved to be more widespread since the characteristic sinuous burrows its larvae make through dead hawthorn bark have been recognized. The distinctive D-shaped exit holes peppered a sad-looking branch of the straggling hawthorn bush in the garden. And although I don’t usually rate buddleja very highly as a nectar source it did bring in the huge hornet-mimicking hoverfly, Volucella zonaria. Again, once very scarce, as a rare migrant to Britain, it has increased in the last 50 years and is now firmly established breeding in the UK and is fairly common in London. And finally, the much media-hyped harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, turned up in various colour forms. I duly labelled the specimens and added short notes with a bit of commentary to some of the more interesting species. I tried to make the cabinet display as aesthetically pleasing as I could.
I was not alone in my ‘art’. I was joined at times by Lucy Smith, a botanical illustrator from Kew Gardens who was painting precise and delicate water colours of some of the ‘secret’ garden’s plants, and Victoria Papworth, botany curator from the Natural History Museum, who was constructing a herbarium collection of pressed plant specimens. Sometimes our visits coincided so we were able to chat over Radio 4 and exchange ideas about this unusual project. Even if we did not meet up on the same day, I could tell if one of my confederates had earlier passed through by the rearranged paper and brushes and by the extra sheets pinned up on notice-boards or piled into the plant press.
When we weren’t there, visitors could peek in through the windows to see our equipment scattered across the desks — some new flowers in a vase next to the latest painting, a glass-topped drawer full of carefully labelled specimens, and the odd identification guide supposedly left casually open on the tabletop. It reminded me, somewhat, of Charles Darwin’s study at Down House. There, various glass jars, notebooks, pens, ink, and lenses are now arranged on the desk, just as if the old man had, moments ago, interrupted his studies and decided to take a short walk in the garden, but would be back any minute.
However, it was not this tableau that was the art, neither was it the labelled display of my insect specimens, nor ironically the delicate water-colour flower paintings, nor even the very well built shed itself. It was the whole setting of garden, laboratory and the ‘naturalists’ working within. It was the whole installation and the interaction of visitors with the resident scientists.
As I sat there collecting, curating and identifying the 128 species that I eventually found, I contemplated the strangeness of my unusual situation. Should I be ‘performing’ to the visitors that quizzed me? Should I be ‘in character’ wearing a Panama hat or a pith helmet? Was the perceived triviality of collecting insects being mocked? And perhaps more fundamentally, how had what I normally regard as the ‘science’ of entomology been turned around into art?
I had long conversations with the many visitors to the gallery: teachers, schoolchildren, students, artists, art critics, the curators of the gallery, and even the originating artist, Dion, himself. We discussed the basics of insect taxonomy and ecology. I was able to enthuse about nature all around us, even in art galleries. I tried to infect my audience with the awe of the multitudinous microcosm that is the study of insects. We mused on the mutual significance (or was it insignificance?) of artistic interpretation and scientific understanding. We philosophized about beauty, and creation (but thankfully not creationism). We even considered the parlous state of funding, for both arts and science, in the UK. And although I enjoyed my time on display, I must admit that I am still slightly baffled by the whole scheme.
However, I have come away the wiser, because I have decided on one basic tenet of the human condition— the distinction between art and science is now clear to me. It does not matter how big or small the project; how significant the potential outcome to influence our future lives, or how practical or ephemeral the subject of our attention. Science and art share a sacred truth, a truth based on who and where, not on why and what for. It’s simple — science is what scientists do in laboratories, art is what artists do in art galleries.
And so it continued, for the ten days of what I now look back on fondly as my sabbatical, when I was co-opted, briefly, into the art world. And I never knew who would walk through the door next. It turned out to be an art critic for one of the nationals. She peered over my shoulder, then looked around.
“This is a nice shed, are you the artist?” Oh no, here we go again.
This piece was originally published in Antenna, newsletter and bulletin of the Royal Entomological Society, 2007. I’m reprinting it today after discovering that Mark Dion is back in town with a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.