Mark Fairnington creates photo-real paintings of specimens from zoological collections, including the Natural History Museum’s own. Using high-definition electron microscopes Fairnington captures the minute details of a specimen photographically, before interpreting it in paint on huge canvasses.

Interview by Shelly Stein

Your work revolves on intense observation of the natural world. Where did your interest for animals begin?

I would say that my interest is in the idea of the specimen, rather than animals, something that is selected to represent part of the world. The specimen in collections, including the vast collections of specimens housed in the Natural History Museum in London, have been the central focus of my research for a number of years. I am a painter and my work reflects the history of collecting within the natural sciences. The work explores the image of the natural history specimen in collections, in storage and in displays.

The series “Mantidae” and “Membracidae” involved the making of large scale paintings of exotic insect specimens belonging to Natural History Museum Collections. How did the idea for this series come about and why did you choose these families of insects?

I was interested in the Mantidae because of the cultural history of the insect, specifically the fact that the Surrealists revered it. The mantis continues to live long after its head has been removed, so the Surrealists saw it as a living automaton. Membracidae was a sciart project funded by the Welcome Trust. I worked with the entomologist George McGavin and we travelled to the Las Cuevas Research Station in Belize, which lies within a protected forest in the Maya Mountains, to study treehoppers. Since the art of antiquity, mimesis and mimicry has been established as the basis for the western concern with illusion in art. Mimesis exists within the natural world where its primary function is to conceal, camouflage or deceive predators, thereby ensuring that the species stays alive and survives. The overall purpose of this collaboration was to study the use of mimesis by this one particular group of insects. The extremely strange shapes of treehoppers and their use of bizarre structural modifications to mimic thorns, seeds and even ants as a survival strategy, have fascinated biologists for more than a century. Adult treehoppers often have a large and sometimes weirdly-shaped pronotum which extends backwards and sideways to cover the abdomen and sometimes the whole bug. In tropical species, these unique pronotal extensions can assume incredible, branched or inflated forms.

How are the works created and how important is scientific correctness in your representations?

I photographed individual specimens under a microscope at different degrees of magnification. Each insect was moved around under the microscope and with each new photograph the point of focus shifted. These differences became an integral part of the painted image. This process is analogous to the field trip, in which fragments are collected, brought back and used to construct a believable complete image. In the display drawers of the collection the insects are mounted face down. In the paintings they face the viewer, resurrected, displaying the pin, which normally holds them to the board. It was the idea of the problematic of the specimen and traditional taxonomic practices that became the central focus of the series. The idea of scientific correctness is one of the things that the work asks questions about. At the centre of my research is the idea that observation is never neutral and that the cultural meaning of the images generated by scientific research is often determined by narratives that lie outside the field. These are complex narratives some of which emerge and are explored during the making of a painting. I’m interested in how description, its attention to detail, gained through studied and intense observation, becomes a platform for storytelling, speculation and even fantasy.

These paintings depict the specimens as individuals and not as they might appear in their most perfect state. There is a sense of ‘history of the specimen’, preserved for many years, with its broken limbs, moulding and fading. What were the criteria involved in the choosing of a suitable insect?

Once I was in the collection is was a very subjective process, there were no identified criteria, I wanted to find specimens that I felt would generate the most interesting images in the paintings.

What does it mean to paint a dead animal using the astonishing level of naturalism presented in your work?

Yes, these are paintings of dead animals but they are very particular dead animals and images of them inevitably engage with their context. The paintings present deeply compromised images whose meaning has to be continually negotiated between their present day reality and their complex history. A history in which the great physical endeavour and hardship endured on journeys to expand human knowledge was wedded to exploitation, greed and the desire for wealth and fame. Now used almost exclusively for scientific research the collections have become a critical part of our understanding of the limits of the world, its vulnerability and the need for conservation.

What was your experience of working with Natural History Museums?

I enjoy it a great deal and I like working with scientists, they are as committed, as obsessed and as eccentric as artists.

Some of your most recent work involves paintings portraying taxidermied birds of paradise; some pretend life-like postures as they sit on small perches, ready for display in a museum cabinet; others are posed for eternal drawer cabinet preservation. Could you tell us more about these two different formats?

My work has always looked at the different aspects of collecting, in research and public display. In the research collections specimens are presented without animation while in the displays they are given life. These are very different representations of our relationship with the natural world.

Why birds of paradise?

Through the course of this research I became fascinated by the stories that had grown up around the first Birds of Paradise specimens seen by Europeans in the early 16th century. These fantastically coloured bird skins decorated with long, delicate, lace-like plumes had been preserved and dried by native hunters, the feet and flesh of each bird had been removed during the preservation process and from this simple, practical act grew a legend that existed for several hundred years. The fact that the birds had no feet meant that they could never have stood on the ground, it seemed that they were incapable of decay and needed no bodily sustenance; they were weightless, creatures of the heavens. They must be birds from Paradise. The imagined life cycle of these birds, although based on the direct and studied observation of actual specimens, seems more to represent desire on the part of the observers. One focus of my research is the line that can be traced between observed fact and speculated fiction. Within the natural sciences these fictions, in which narratives have been woven around things that exist or are observed, are important representations of our changing relationships with the natural world. While they may be described as footnotes in the history of science their power as narratives persists.

The Raft, a beautiful painting from 2006, shows museum glass cases containing a multitude of Africa animals heads. The level of naturalism in the painting is once again mesmerising. Do you see these painting as a point of departure from your previous body of work? Or how is this different from it?

This is not a picture of a display case but is actually a storage depot where the Museum keeps all the taxidermy specimens that are not on show. It is called the ‘outstorage depot’. You go through a reception area, down a set of stairs and along corridors to arrive at a huge pair of red doors, you then pass through two separate entrance spaces – the doors you have just come through are closed before the next ones are opened – this is to prevent contamination. When the final doors open the sight is genuinely spectacular – a huge icy warehouse filled from floor to ceiling with stuffed animals and skeletons.

This is one of the most valuable and important collections in the world – irreplaceable, containing many extinct species. There is a rigorous logic to the collection – how the specimens are housed and displayed and why one thing is next to another. The ordering of the specimens, for example, is based on an outdated 19th century system of taxonomy. It is simply the physical difficulty of moving everything that prevents it from being updated.

What impressed me most though, was that however much one learns about the depot, this information can never alter ones initial experience – this is a vast room full of truly peculiar, disturbing, breathtaking and genuinely surreal images. I believe that these images resonate powerfully in the contemporary world.

From the beginning of my visits to the outstorage depot one image fixed itself in my imagination, the group of giraffe heads. The idea for the painting came at a single moment, almost two years after first seeing the specimens. It was as if that amount of time was needed for me to know the image enough to use it. Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa was a key reference point, depicting a story that encompasses survival, the destructive force of nature, human negligence and cruelty - all this on a simple wooden platform. In my painting the architecture of the space is abstracted and here I was thinking about the still lives of Sanchez Cotan, where the space, although believably real, represents itself as a system of thought, framing everything within it. As with previous works the visit involved take hundreds of photos from different positions. This allowed me to build a panoramic image containing little vignettes.

What role does ‘beauty’ play in your work?

Beauty is not something that I think about directly in my work as my engagement with the images is always on such a microscopic and extended level. In my paintings I construct fictional spaces in which sustained observation, known fact and imaginative speculation can exist together, drawing upon a series of referents and connecting to different locations of meaning. Through this nuanced process the image of the specimen becomes a way of exploring and articulating the complex relationships between human beings, the history of thinking about the natural world and our journeys through it.

Which artists have influenced your work, both formally and contextually?
This is impossible to answer really but the Isenheim Alterpiece by Matthias Grunewald is probably my favourite painting.

Mark Fairnington was interviewed by Antennae in Winter 2007