Ornithology does not get me hot under the collar. Or anywhere else. But even though this exhibition by the artist Andy Holden and his ornithologist father Peter says it’s about a history of birds’ nests and egg collecting, it’s actually something far more passionate, eccentric, nuanced and (honestly) interesting: a veiled meditation on obsessions, knowledge and the relationship between a father and son.
From a young age, Peter forced his love of all things ornithological on his son, but Andy only ever cared about art. It wasn’t until Andy moved home after university that he began to see the innate artistry in the bird world (no, seriously, it’s much better than I’m making it sound). Where he sees art, his father sees science; combined, the passion becomes a proxy for a relationship.
This collaborative exhibition is filled with piles of bark, a giant bowerbird nest and wooden sculptures. In one end of the room, a video finds both Holdens taking turns delivering a twee history of birds’ nests. It’s got a serious elbow patches/Open University vibe, a comforting, gentle, autumn day aura.
Downstairs in the grim bowels of this forgotten building, there are boxes filled with eggs and recreations of a hoard found in the flat of a man called Richard Pearson in 2006. Pearson is interviewed in a film in the next room, talking about his need to collect rare eggs, his prison sentences, his fading eyesight, his urge to find ‘a female’. It’s miserable, obsessive and very, very male.
Throughout the show, the urge and drive to collect is painted as a substitute for emotion. For father and son, a love of birds is the glue that binds them together, for the sad egg hunter, a need to collect eggs is replacement for love and purpose.
It’s something lots of people can relate to, only being able to talk to your dad about football or birds (oi oi), or diving headlong into your obsessions instead of confronting the real world. Behind the tweed carapace and elbow patch nostalgia, this is a deeply emotional exhibition, and it might just get you in a flap.