How can I move thee? For Specimens 2 and 4

I first encountered Mark Fairnington’s Mantidae series at the Dead or Alive show in Leeds after emerging from a long engagement with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Madden 2001). I was therefore susceptible to the paintings’ “almost gothic” fascination (ref Leeds). Pinned in pigment to each canvas was a portrait of an isolated and oversized Mantis. Each insect portrait is based on observations of original specimens once extracted from their ecological habitats to exemplify places in a taxonomical system. Fragile, desiccated remains had been combined and then individualised by their status as scientific samples and as subjects for painting; then individualised again by their employment in the narratives of the viewer. In my mind, man sized Mantidae morphed with memories of three dimensional écorchés, the ‘life’ subjects once used by artists and medical students unable to draw directly from dissected corpses. Specimen 2 has one perfectly poignant intact wisp of antenna. A damaged limb rests on the stake through its middle; two more are bent in prayer. Its coy, waxy defensiveness called to mind André-Pierre Pinson’s 18th century Anatomy of a Seated Woman. In Specimen 4’s knock-kneed splay I read the ambivalence I perceived in images of flayed cadavers holding up their skins in anatomy books.

Mantidae formed part of the Fabulous Beasts show at the Natural History Museum in London (2004). Now Fairnington’s circular eye paintings have been shortlisted for installation on a Natural History Museum ceiling as part of the Darwin’s Canopy project. Each of these paintings is a close up of the eye of an animal specimen presenting a direct gaze to the observer. The re-observed and re-constructed objects of the taxonomical gaze look back at us as we look at them.

These, again are works that engage with the social and symbolic relations of science and sentiment; works which subtly interrogate ways in which classification and display systems in the sciences produce cultural meaning. Fairnington’s carefully depicted encounter with research subject/object in/dignity is resonant with themes about the unstable boundaries between life and death, fact and fiction, the past in the present, the animal and the human.

Although some insist that science is a fundamentally inventive process (Haraway 1992, Tiles 1984), a claim to be scientific is a claim to objectivity and a guarantor of the production of factual knowledge. Inevitably, this is a claim about power that utilises a set of assumptions about the subject, science, knowledge, the research process, theory and expertise. Fairnington’s painting highlights the fact that all scientific and artistic practice involves embodied observation, interpretation and (commodified) testimony. The suprarealist effect achieved in his oil painting draws attention to the painstaking construction of the canvases while creating an illusion of transparent access to the truth of the subject. His works are based on acute observation enhanced by photomicography and fibre optic illumination. They are observations of observations and representations of representations.

The insect subjects that went into the making of Mantidae died a long time ago. Look closely at Fairnington’s depictions of fake eyes fringed with poignant lashes and you will see more reflections of the dead. These paintings are a view from the natural history museum’s storage depot at the turn of the twenty first century, where elderly specimens sightlessly gaze at neighbouring examples. The fabric of the museum is breaking through as these works subtly register the active affectivity of the past within the present.

The prevalence of theory on the gaze and the ‘other’ (Jay 1994, Said 1978, Mulvey 1989) attests to the fact that we never tire of looking and relish finding ‘them’ cute and/or threatening. Fairnington vivifies the gazes of the specimens portrayed without crude anthropomorphism. His paintings are also a kindly reminder that there is no such thing as innocent knowledge. The quest for knowledge, even on the basis of good intentions, is in itself absolutely no guarantor against horror. Spectacular natural history television documentaries have allowed us to observe animal subjects in the most intimate detail and in great safety. The gazes in these paintings, particularly from the predators, provide food for thought about the dangers inherent in collecting specimens and in becoming one of the collected.

Given our tendency to attribute subjectivity to any humanoid form, these specimen gazes inevitably take on new lives through the viewer’s appropriation. As Victor Frankenstein and Charles Darwin both discovered, once released into the world, products of research processes are not easily controlled. Victor Frankenstein regarded his creature, the product of his research, as horrifying and monstrous at the moment he realised it would acquire its own subjectivity. While he pieced his anatomical mechanism together, he regarded the pieces of his project as objects of beauty. The horror came when epistemology shifted to ontology and it was clear that the creature would have its own embodied subjectivity. Its dull yellow eye opened and the creature gained the power to look back at its creator: “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created,” Frankenstein abandoned his creation (Shelley 1963 p61). Fairnington is a braver father and one who is clearly engaged with the ethics and responsibilities of generative processes.

Mary Madden, 2009

Haraway, D (1992) Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science Verso: London
Madden, M (2001) The Monstrosity of Homelessness: Investigations of Street Homelessness in Manchester and London 1987-1994, unpublished PhD thesis University of Manchester: Department of Sociology
Martin, Jay (1994) Downcast Eyes: The denigration of vision in twentieth century French thought Berkley: University of California Press
Mulvey, Laura (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures Basingstoke: Macmillan
Said, Edward W (1978) Orientalism London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Tiles, M (1984) Bachelard: Science and Objectivity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.