by Jonathan Turner
Cinema is filled with examples of the chaos that ensues when some sort of creature is genetically engineered, scientifically altered or simply thrust into a man-made time-warp. Such classic films as Frankenstein, The Fly, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Godzilla, The Day of the Triffids, King Kong and Jurassic Park provide us with strict cautionary tales telling us that if you tamper with Mother Nature, it isn’t too long before the screaming starts. It doesn’t matter if it is supposed to be extinct: the dinosaur always bites back. But wittingly or not, scientists, explorers and missionaries have been altering nature for centuries – wiping out species, clashing with cultures, introducing hybrids. Using her studio as a surreal laboratory, Caroline Rothwell performs similar experiments focusing on the modification of plants and animals, each time in her own imaginative, subversive and unexpected way.
Over the past few years Rothwell has been exploring an imaginary jungle of hybrids and uncanny life-forms. She creates bizarre sub-species of flora and fauna made from vinyl, nylon, nickel, bronze and toxic molten metals. Ranging from the miniature to the monumental, Rothwell’s sculptures, drawings and anthropomorphic installations are new pioneers in the evolutionary chain. In her unique world, the tropical meets the temperate, the extinct collides with the futuristic, the hunted becomes the heroic, and the ordinary is seen as comic.
Born in Hull, studying in London and New York, and having lived in both New Zealand and Australia, Rothwell is particularly keen on one aspect of the post-colonial world, namely the biological invasion that the early European settlers made on the landscape as they migrated into unchartered territories, both real and romantic. The extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine, the last specimen of which is believed to have died in captivity in 1936, is a case which fascinates Rothwell. Exterminated as a pest by bounty hunters, scientists are now attempting to “recreate” the species through genetic manipulation and advances in DNA technology, using a mouse as a host. Basing her research on colonial drawings, museum displays and faulty scientific studies, Rothwell has beaten them to it. She has re-imagined the Tasmanian Tiger as a cross between a cuddly soft toy and a nightmarish beast. (”I am not trying to recreate the specimen, I am just providing a different take on it”).
A trio of Rothwell’s tigerish creatures cast in bronze, ranging from a puppy-like example chewing its own tail to a fully grown adult, has recently been imported from the former colonies back ‘home’ to Mother England. They now stand guard at The Economist Plaza in St James. The effect is perturbing.
“My improbable creatures say more about human psychology than animal biology,” says Rothwell. “My source materials range wide, across such ideas as the representations of ‘otherness’ as portrayed in Victorian natural history museums, mass-produced plastic toys, books on weeds and the unintended consequences of contact when European voyagers arrived in new lands. I spend a lot of time researching 18th Century encyclopedia, and the ‘wrongness’ of some of the illustrations. In each consecutive edition, you can tell that the drawing of an exotic animal comes from the same starting image, often entirely based on someone else’s description. As it changes over time, it’s like a game of Chinese whispers.”
These ideas result in mutant, poetic forms, creating a kind of ‘nature jamming’ that belies categorization. Her sculpture Puff and Hind (2009), for example, shows a white deer, its antlers twisted into a shape combined with DNA strands. Clinging to its hind legs is an enlarged, black amoebic form, upsetting the equilibrium of one of nature’s proud beasts. Cast in powder-coated metal, the black form is a smaller, heavier replica of Rothwell’s earlier inflatable installation made from a balloon of stitched nylon and an electric fan, the shape inspired by the cloud produced by an explosion.
Rothwell’s menagerie is a celebration of the macabre. Steed (2009) is a prancing black stallion. The back of the horse’s neck has been sliced, and droplets of blood form a stylized lasso emerging from its mane. Meanwhile, Prey (2009) depicts a torrent of diving wildlife – birds, fish, a caterpillar, plants – represented in their normal sequence in the food-chain. The overall form of this sculpture, painted dark burgundy in colour, mimics the filigree centre-pieces found in colonial dining rooms. Previously in her exhibition entitled The Law of Unintended Consequences (2007), Rothwell tackled the Victorian habit of turning unfamiliar beasts into symbols of dominion, revealing a fetish for collecting, miniaturizing and sweetening foreign fauna into decorative knick-knacks.
Slamina (’animals’ backwards) at Maddox Arts can be seen as a continuation of Rothwell’s recent Exotopos show at GrantPirrie Gallery in Sydney,in which Rothwell suggested a state beyond our usual conception, a place ho exo topos (outside or beyond region). In London, she also incorporates the human animal into the mix. Rothwell’s skeletal figures are influenced by early European anatomical drawings in which man is favorably compared to animals. Made from nickel-plated Britannia metal (which shines an almost impossibly bright silver), they are incongruous, spectral beings, depicting a poppy flower, a horse skull or a massive mouth grafted on to the body of a man.
“These are contemporary totems born from 21st century conundrums, industrial materials and an imperfect casting process,” says the artist. “Sometimes the surface is fractured, there are bulbous sections, missing lumps, other elements are thin and delicate. The rib-cages, for instance, are very flat with little sense of volume. It is about rupturing the illusion.”
Poppyhead, Horseman and their colleagues also resemble the silver votive figures found in many Catholic churches, left as thanks by the devout for answered prayers or for the cure of physical ailments. These symbolic and anatomical figurines, too, contain dents and fractures in their shiny surfaces.
Material and process are inherent to Rothwell’s practice. Her sculptures can simultaneously appear to be as light as a feather or as heavy as steel. Solids seem fluid. Her unique production method, whereby molten metal is poured into a casing of stitched fabric, creates an ‘over-stuffed’, voluminous object, complete with skin-like creases. Traces of the weaving in the fabric can still be seen on the surfaces, while nickel-plating and powder-coating lend an industrial sheen.
The sinewy forms of plants are rendered in black PVC in Rothwell’s Lexicon series. Her sheets of tangled botany are suspended from the ceiling and draped onto the floor. Rothwell turns a slick and synthetic material, into hand-cut “landscape drawings”, in which silhouettes of leaves and fronds emerge from a lacework of cuts. Concentric openings suggest the topographical contours of a map. The sharp outlines echo Rothwell’s black ink drawings, hinting at the murky world of Rorschach tests and shadow puppets. Fragile and fetishist, the sliced PVC exposes the irregularities of trial and error. Scalpel nicks and wavering lines disclose the imperfections of human manufacture.
In Rothwell’s disconcerting Wonderland, aberration is the norm. In one of her most recent drawings, also reproduced as a cut-out from PVC, she depicts the mythic apple-tree under which Newton devised his theories of physics. The tree, which can also be seen as the tree of knowledge from the garden of Eden (and hence the root of the original sin), is suspended from the heavens by what appears to be the regulated grid of a bar-code. In the topsy turvy, natural world of Caroline Rothwell, in a place where the hemispheres happily invert, gravity is blithely reversed.