This exhibition was not at all easy to find. In between a display of toys from a multitude of cultures and eras and a wide array of surgical instruments on the lower gallery of the Pitt Rivers museum, Sue Johnson’s raw-edged and precisely drawn watercolours of plants and animals, the latest addition to Rivers’ unconventional collection, strike the viewer as artefact rather than art.
The ethos of the museum rather fits this lack of prominence given to a modern art exhibition. Not forefronting any particular era or culture, Pitt Rivers collected objects from all over the world and they are organised here not by date or location but according to purpose – to the cultural need or question they appear to be answering. There is therefore no real division between the objects drawn from Johnson’ s imagination and the shrunken heads, clothes, toys and weapons displayed all around them. Indeed, Johnson was inspired by a catalogue of Rivers’s findings. She was inspired to create strange hybrid objects, drawn as though for scientific record, neither with a natural nor an artificial bent. She said her aim was to ‘blur the boundaries between the natural and cultural worlds’, to examine the ‘curious’ way nature informs our lives.
The perception that we are somehow emancipated from environmental forces through modern technology has been brutally questioned by recent environmental crises. In this context, Johnson’s work seems fresh and relevant in its aims. A piece called Prickly Shield Fern shows a fern created from a series of shields. A visual pun, this also points to the strange way that Latin names tend to be used to label the natural world in relation to specifically human or even cultural concepts, although these concepts themselves originally derive, in some way, from nature.
Johnson’s work has always tended towards the surreal, from works inspired by Lewis Carroll to Joseph-Cornell-style collages contained in boxes. However her preoccupation does seem to be with ‘objects’, their juxtaposition and their purpose. Objects are physically examined less and less in anthropological studies, perhaps giving collections like the Pitt Rivers a diminishing academic value in the face of more rigorously curated ‘chronological’ museums. Yet Rivers believed passionately in the importance of objects, saying they reveal ‘the workings of the mind’. Johnson, in her project of the ‘artist-naturalist’ seems to call for a reinvestigation into our relationship with the world and how we shape it for our own means into objects. She has grouped her recent work under the title the ‘Alternate Encyclopedia’, a project to examine ‘a world under the surface of things’. The project of both Pitt Rivers and Sue Johnson, though a century apart, is to offer a material history of our interaction with nature and an alternative perspective to the development of humanity.
The Curious Nature of Objects is extended until 19 June 2011