Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 19, 2006
In Search of Perfect Harmony
Exhibition Schedule: Tate Britain, London, February 4–May 7, 2006
Jamie Shovlin. Arnie/Elsie the Sparrowhawk. From The Twitcher. 2004–6. Courtesy the artist and Riflemaker.

With In Search of Perfect Harmony, a recent exhibition in the Art Now cycle at Tate Britain, British artist Jamie Shovlin cements his recent work’s affinity to what Hal Foster has described as the “archival impulse” prevalent in contemporary artistic production. The three works that comprised Shovlin’s exhibition all take root in the kind of idiosyncratic probing into a history, philosophy, or experience that Foster sees as the foundation of the “archival impulse.” While Foster’s descriptive moniker for this kind of work reminds us that such gestures have already become common practice in contemporary art, Shovlin’s approach distinguishes itself by examining aspects of the everyday world that might strike some as far too trivial or banal to warrant such attention. For Shovlin, these objects represent fascinating examples of the way information is currently perceived and organized.

In the exhibition’s central work, The Twitcher (2003–6), Shovlin examines, through a constellation of interrelated elements, his mother Valerie’s interest in bird watching in her back garden. Valerie has become so attuned to the inhabitants of her garden that she is able to identify each species of bird and characterize their behavior. She has even given some of the more frequently spotted birds their own personal names. Shovlin illustrates each variety of bird with drawings that seem torn from the pages of an ornithology guide and which are meant to represent the “standard” specimen of each species. The birds are identified with their proper Latin names, their colloquial ones, and Valerie’s personal names for those she has so bequeathed. Accompanying these captioned illustrations are segments of descriptive text Shovlin has appropriated from an ornithology manual, along with note cards, written in his mother’s hand, detailing the birds’ appearance, song, and behavior. The illustrations surround a birds-eye view map of the garden where the common locations of each species are identified. A soundtrack of Valerie’s musings about the birds fills the room, while a slideshow of the garden throughout the year is projected on one side of a small concrete slab on the floor in the middle of the room. On the opposite side of the slab, Shovlin projects an amateur film depicting a sparrow hawk attacking its prey. Arranged in such close proximity, these disparate narrative and scientific elements begin to collide, rendering their differences null and void. Classificatory systems are, Shovlin reminds us, largely subjective; our knowledge of nature is colored by our personal experience of it.

The exhibition’s second component, entitled The Origin of the Species (2005), continues this deliberate focus on and destabilization of scientific knowledge. Here, Shovlin has mounted in two large frames every page of the third chapter of two library copies of Darwin’s seminal The Origin of the Species. Despite what seems to be an emphasis on display, Shovlin has rendered most of the text illegible, leaving visible only those sections annotated by previous readers. In a sense, Shovlin has performed a kind of “natural selection” on these texts, showing us only the most “useful” passages and rendering the rest insignificant and invisible. As a result, the text becomes legible solely as it has been interpreted: we can only read the parts that an earlier reader deemed “significant.” Of course, these “significant” parts vary from copy to copy, further emphasizing the subjectivity of knowledge and scientific fact. Like Valerie’s birds, the text becomes an object of personal interpretation, placing its status as an object of “scientific” knowledge in doubt.

The final work, In Search of Perfect Harmony (2003–6), from which the installation takes its title, continues the thread. The centerpiece of the work is a framed color wheel made up of Crayola crayons. A text in the center explains its arrangement: complementary colors are said to “complete” one another such that when overlaid they produce a perfect, neutral grey. Thus individual crayons are grouped with three others equidistant around the color wheel to form a tetrarch, each of which can be applied in 24 different ways to produce a total of 720 possible color applications, at least one of which should create a harmonious grey. Shovlin then tests the system by displaying thirty frottage pieces of completed jigsaw puzzles, placing the results in thirty black archival boxes, displayed open and revealing their contents, to emphasize their scientific authority. Shovlin places these boxes on shelves lining two opposite walls. Each is labeled with the name of the puzzle from which the rubbing is made, the tetrad and combination numbers, and the names of the colors used. Few of the combinations yield anything near grey. The choice of jigsaw support for the frottages seems at first a bit arbitrary and out of place, but a tiny photograph near the exit of the exhibition reveals the connection: it depicts Shovlin’s mother at a table doing a jigsaw puzzle. The rubbings are thus as much evidence of a scientific experiment as they are a record of another one of Valerie’s hobbies. The titles of the puzzles inscribed on the archival cases suggest scenes of ideal landscapes, and the puzzles themselves represent a certain harmony as all of the pieces fit perfectly into one another. Shovlin’s investigation into a scientific claim about color theory becomes not just practical, but also personal, relating as it does to the constructed harmonies depicted in his mother’s puzzles.

In Search of Perfect Harmony is installed in a small gallery painted dark green to simultaneously domesticate the space and undermine its aesthetic authority as a typical “white cube.” As a result, the gallery evokes other types of exhibition spaces, most notably those of the natural history museum, which traditionally plays the social role of displaying epistemologies, and is, therefore, endowed with a systematic authority. In presenting information that is actually very personal and subjective under the mantle of official science, Shovlin’s work questions the institutional authority of the museum in its broadest parameters. At the same time, Shovlin’s “archival impulse” leads him beyond the realm of the meta discourse of science and fact to the concerns of marginal narratives and experience. By tying all his inquiries into the nature and order of scientific classification to the personal world occupied by his mother, Shovlin encourages us to question the distinctions between the universal and the individual, linking the minutia of our lives to larger systems of knowledge. Shovlin’s work provides a beautifully rendered portrait of his mother and of her experience of the world. Yet, in also interrogating systems of information, In Search of Perfect Harmony makes quietly audible more general truths relating to the subjectivity of knowledge.

Lauren A. Wright
PhD candidate, The London Consortium

Jamie Shovlin. Arnie/Elsie the Sparrowhawk. From The Twitcher. 2004. Courtesy the artist and Riflemaker.

Please send comments about this review to