Sidney Cooper Gallery
South East England

So what are animals for? The rejection of the assumption that all ecosystems remain subservient to our own requirements is at the heart of this exhibition at the Sidney Cooper Gallery, supported by Canterbury Christ Church University’s Ecology Research Group and Geography and Life Sciences departments. An examination of the crossroads between the natural world and the man-made, Red List combines museology and the language of natural history with art.

On entering the gallery we are eased into the museum experience by Richard Barnes’s highly intriguing photographs; scenes of dioramas and stage sets, with the curtains pulled back to reveal the secrets and inner workings of the world’s museums.

Ben Rowley’s video “Old Bird” sets the scene for ornithological observation. One can view the film through oblong viewing slits in a partition which sets it apart from the main gallery space, as if in a hide. The heaving breaths of the bewhiskered bird ask us to empathise as it closes its eyes and braces itself against the wind.

Neeta Madahar’s photographs in the “Sustenance” series illustrate the intervention of humans in the lives of wild creatures; however, a greater presence may be required for the viewer to fully enter the narrative; two photographs alone gives the feeling of a story only hinted at, and leaves one looking for more.

The language of the collector, begun by Barnes, is thoroughly exploited by Paul Hazelton and Steve Melton, whose works dominate this exhibition. In the centre of the room, Paul Hazleton offers us a baby rhinoceros specimen in an antique display case. We are told that this white Rhino species has disappeared from the wild, with only 7 left remaining in captivity. However, the rhinoceros within is not what we expect; Hazleton has skinned a plush rhino toy, reshaped the cotton-like filling into the shape of the animal, and re-used the skin to make a rhinoceros beetle in the act of rolling a ‘dung-ball’ made of cotton filling. Those longing for evidence of Hazleton’s work in dust will find some relief in the re-shaping of the filling. There is the allusion to the rhinoceros beetle’s descent from the scarab family making it an apt emblem of rebirth; its convenient nomenclature is as likely to be its reason for inclusion.

Hazleton’s interest in re-creation continues with “Mother Moth”, one of two massive moths made from synthetic fur coat. Hazleton plays with the grotesque, furry nature of the monumental moth, feared by many, unlike the butterfly, and becomes a champion of the lesser-loved lepidoptera.

Tucked into a recess at the back of the gallery, what appears to be a sheet of bronze reveals itself to be made of paper, a drawing entitled “Icarus Moth”, encrusted with dirt, dust, pigment , graphite, ink and moth wings. The paper, as it fragments under this weight of materials, casts lacy patterns of shadows on the gallery wall. The fragile moth here seems to emerge from the even more fragile surface.

In Steve Melton’s “Mini Museum”, reptiles, arachnids and insects are individually suspended in resin, often apparently frozen mid-motion. Lit in a manner more reminiscent of jewellery than scientific specimens, they appear less like previously animated creatures than like finely crafted trinkets. Every iridescence of scale and wing is heightened by the material in which they are encased. After their beauty subsides, the reality of these once fast-scurrying beasties’ permanent immobilization at the hands of man sinks in.

Melton’s “Bee Museum” similarly sets the plight of these creatures clearly in view, presenting their bodies encased in clear spheres and stacked in a wooden display case, on the outside of which a honeycomb pattern is engraved.

Perhaps the most striking pieces are Melton’s five bronze fish, cast from life, so to speak. Unnecessarily caught and rejected by local fishermen, their deaths are shown to have been utterly in vain, frozen in their metal skins which have acquired their bluish patina solely from Thanet seawater. The gaping mouth of the cod becomes particularly pathetic, as it, and the others, hang from the gallery wall by blue synthetic rope. Extracting empathy from those previously disinclined may seem an unlikely achievement for a conga eel, but this piece accomplishes just that.

Arousing empathy without manipulation, Red List’s moralising is straightforward, but beguiling.