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Bloom: Edward Chell

by Emma Brooker, Editor
Horniman Museum & Gardens, London, 2015
96 pp., illus., col. NP
ISBN: 987-1-903338-05-06.

Reviewed by Jane Hutchinson
Transtechnology Research. Plymouth University. UK


Edward Chell's work Bloom occupied a space between the Horniman Museum's [1] natural history and anthropology galleries, from July to December 2015. Bloom is represented very well by this fine quality hardback book. The comprehensively referenced text comprises an introduction and three essays, including one by the artist, interspersed with photographs of half of the 40 acrylic and gesso panels that form the main body of the work. These full-page reproductions include the shadow each panel casts upon the gallery wall, in this way attending to their three-dimensionality and substance, and referencing the plant silhouettes, the 'shadows in reverse', of the cyanotype process the work reflects. The book also includes photographs of items chosen by the artist from the Horniman's collection and elsewhere, and of Bloom in situ in the museum's 'new contemporary art space'. In addition, there are reproductions of some of Anna Atkins' exquisite cyanotypes, plus historical engravings and photographs. These are complemented by contemporary photographs to illustrate the contributor's concerns, for example, ecologist Hugh Warwick's own image of a protestor destroying a GM crop.

The diverse disciplinary backgrounds of the contributors to this book are an appropriate reflection of the diversity of the museum's collection. Chell found inspiration in the museum's re-discovery of its folio of Anna Atkins' Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, produced between 1843 and 1853. These "visually captivating [...] white silhouette[s] in a mesmerising pool of blue" (p. 20) were created during the early experimental days of photography when the status of the photographic image was fervently discussed. How can such rare and precious items languish unrecognised for so long? How many other treasures are forgotten through being tucked away in collections and archives? Just as the archive orders the world and keeps things safe it seems also to provide opportunities to allow things to become lost.

Photographs of the entire Bloom installation in the Horniman's Natural History Gallery show how the intimacy of Atkins' album is emphasised by the proximity of the 40 acrylic panels on the adjacent wall. Curiously, it seems that in order to look closely at the album, which is positioned low down in a corner of a large display case, the visitor would be at risk of tripping over the stretched wire in front of Chell's work. I find myself puzzling about the use of this notional barrier. Is it there to distinguish the artist from the observer of his work? It does imply fragility to the paintings, although surely they are sufficiently robust to bear the close inspection they invite. Or perhaps the wire is simply an indication to the museum visitor that here is something that should be looked at?

Tim Corum is currently the Horniman's Director of Curatorial and Public Engagement. His concise introduction provides a brief summary of each contributor's essay and sheds some light upon the curatorial decisions for the staging of this work. Chell's paintings of plants in the museum's botanical gardens and collection of preserved specimens are clearly very carefully observed, even scientifically scrutinised. The resulting and eye-catching "shiny seductive objects" (p. 56) contrast with the delicate intimacy of the 'sun pictures' in the adjacent glass cabinet. (How else might the visitor be persuaded to look at a book whose pages they cannot turn and the complex processes of whose making they might not understand?) Bloom is presented as an outcome of art rubbing shoulders with science in the fertile medium of museums such as the Horniman (p. 7) following the intention of the creators of cabinets of curiosity who were untroubled by such divisions. Corum explains that Bloom, (as does this book), reveals the interplay between people and nature, science and art inherent in museum collections. But a persistent determination to distinguish art from science is apparent in the museum's naming of an area in their galleries as a 'contemporary art space'.

Anna Ricciardi's Pools of Blue, provides an appreciative and instructive introduction to Anna Atkins' life and work. It explains Atkins' privileged position and draws attention to this as necessary for her to have been able to create the albums. It also presents the reader with the uncomfortable facts of the reasons for her privilege, that of her slave owning family. As Ricciardi says, there are 'awkward narratives' here (p. 47). So we are confronted by a tension, wanting to admire these 'precious' objects, but discomforted by associations. The meaning impressed upon the objects changes, just as does our appreciation of the suffocated and pinned butterflies, the stuffed animals and 'stolen' relics of their natural history and anthropological collections.

Edward Chell's essay is a reflective commentary upon his work. It is good to hear the artist's voice, to have him speak for himself rather than a curator's or 'expert commentator's' interpretation of the artist's rationale. Chell provides further information about Anna Atkins' life as "an intense, well informed and passionate botanist" (p. 46). He explains how he expected to create a work to complement a child friendly, interactive, touring exhibition, Plantastic. He describes an "uncanny correspondence" between his development of this commission, his own interests, and the museum's rediscovery of four early Anna Atkins folios (p. 45). In his contextualising of Atkins' work, and as a means of linking the poison of slavery with the blue of her cyanotypes, he presents a curious collection of facts, including that some car manufacturers have cobalt blue as a paint option: perhaps alluding here to the poisoning of the environment, the theme of the final essay. He goes on to discuss the "objective correlatives" (p. 50) that emerged as the work evolved, providing many examples accompanied by photographs of artefacts and objects that inspired the work, or became apparent as influences during its making.

Hugh Warwick is an ecologist and very skilful writer, whose well-informed and sensible essay "Plant Migrations" subtly references the Horniman's own botanic collection. In his essay he discusses the unintended consequences of plant and civilisation interaction. By way of an unhappy example, a full-page image is of poisonous Oxford Ragwort growing in the middle of a railway track, an environment similar to that of its origin in Sicily, from where it was collected some 350 years ago for the Oxford Botanical Gardens. Warwick's essay invites the reader to consider the tensions between a nostalgic desire "... to preserve our island in floral aspic" (p. 75) and the necessary desire to manipulate the bio-environment to meet commercial needs. He explains how plants are mostly benign and passive opportunists, rather than self-directing protagonists with ill intent, as they are often portrayed in media stories of invasive species and malevolent foreigners.

There is an inherent tension in these commemorative publications. They are required to be many things at once; a reflection upon the work, yet published at the time of its exhibition, therefore the essays written in advance. So this book presents, as do others in this genre, a particular challenge to the reader who has not experienced the work it references. This book succeeds. It is a successful outcome of a productive collaborative exchange. It reflects well upon the now internationally significant Horniman museum's determination to continue its founder's ambition to inform, educate and enrich the lives of the local community. In this case, by fostering new connections between objects and people, Bloom, was for few months, one amongst many precious and provocative items in the cabinet of curiosities that is the Horniman museum. This publication is an appropriate commemoration of it.


[1] The Horniman Museum and Gardens. Forest Hill. South East London.

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