BIOMASS Exhibition essay

Mel Gooding

Many artists in the past half-century have been fascinated by the evocative and thought-provoking potency of the array. An ordered arrangement and presentation (whatever its governing principle) of a collection of objects may acquire possibilities of meaning that go beyond it being merely an agglomeration of examples of a particular class of things. As in Sophie Morrish’s installation here, the materials thus arrayed may be natural objects of similar or diverse kinds (Morrish’s random bones, collected on the shores and moors of North Uist, are both similar and diverse). Or they might be artefacts (ancient or modern fragments of a culture), or domestic items, or photographic images, or postcards, or simply miscellaneous bits and pieces. They may be displayed in cabinets, boxes or specimen cases, or arrayed on a wall; or form the subject of a photograph, a painting, a print, a collage, or the pages of a book. Their new disposition may disconcert, surprise, intrigue and delight: they are transformed by relocation and novelty of relation.

In museums and galleries, of course, the objects arrayed are presented most often as members of a class; precisely, that is, as a display of different specimens classified as being similar or having some feature in common. They may be insects or plants or shells etc. of given genera; shards and potsherds of a particular prehistoric or historical era; mineral fragments of a certain geological type; paintings of an historical period or a recognised genre. Such things, thus gathered together and scientifically or critically arranged according to conventional, scientific or academic classifications, are intended to demonstrate a theory of association (such as evolution!), an hypothesis of identity, or a significant commonality of type or style or medium.

Artist’s collections and arrays call into question the principles and theories behind such purposive taxonomies, whether traditional or theoretically current, as those of natural history, archaeology, anthropology, or art history. They mean to propose alternative ways of seeing and knowing, to challenge the cultural, historical or scientific assumptions that underpin museum and gallery displays not on the basis of new evidence or analysis but from the perspective of art, which is generated by the combination of thought, intuition and feeling we call the creative imagination. (Science of course originates in imagination, but the museum operates retrospectively: it is a repository of what has been found, not an arena of finding.)

Biomass (NU20072014)  Detail, 2015

Biomass (NU20072014) Detail, 2015

Morrish’s bone array, as does all her recent work, evinces an intense interest in the specific and the particular, in things-in-themselves rather than in general or functional anatomical principles or taxonomies of natural forms. The objects of her finding are presented as having some intrinsic beauty or poignant actuality, as having specific sensuous or evocative qualities, rather than as examples of general or theoretical interest. Brought together in an unsystematic configuration determined by a purely personal aesthetic impulse, they constitute a momentary universe of sculptural forms in a natural condition of perpetual potentiality. As in life, things could be differently arrayed: tomorrow they will be.  

Behind her presentation lies a modernist history. One aspect is the artistic re-discovery in the late twentieth century of the delights of the spectacular ‘cabinets of curiosity’, the wunderkammer (‘wonder rooms’), of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the origination of the modern museum), in which all manner of strange and fantastic things were brought randomly together simply to amaze. This renewed fascination was itself triggered by the interest of the Surrealists in the unexpected dreamlike juxtaposition of objects and events, in creative misnaming, and in the convulsive revelations of ‘objective chance’. Sophie Morrish walks coastline and moorland in rapt expectation of surprise, wonder, horror, and the marvelous.

Contemplating her beautiful array we may find ourselves thinking of instrumental scientific displays with new eyes, looking for what distinguishes the individual objects within them rather than what they have in common, and responding to the unique strangeness of specific things as well as reflecting on typologies, underlying similarities and general principles of classification. Any array of similar objects will tend, of course, to bring out the diversities of things as well as their fundamental sameness. A sea-bleached bone is a relic of a wild life; named, a hundred different bones presents us with a newly imagined taxonomy of the teeming life about us.

Mel Gooding, January 2015

Time lapse film by René Jansen of the making of 'Biomass (NU20072014), an installation by Sophie Morrish for Atlas Arts, Broad Reach project at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Centre, North Uist. 2015


Artist Talk by Sophie Morrish
Thursday 12 February, Café, 7pm
Wednesday 4 March, Gallery Two/Cafe
Assistant Curator, Gayle Meikle, will discuss Biomass (NU20072014) in relation to the Cabinet of Curiosities a mechanism of display that began in Renaissance Europe.
Things We Collect
Saturday 14 March
An afternoon dedicated to the art of collecting; including a show and tell area where we invite all collectors great and small to come along and share their wares.
1.00 - 4.00pm
Closing event
Saturday 21 March
All events are free and open to all, exhibition runs until 21 March 2015