Mark Fairnington by Sally O'Reilly, catalogue published by Peter Zimmermann Gallery, 2005

Mark Fairnington

There is a walrus in the Horniman Museum, London, which is famous for all the wrong reasons. When the specimen was imported in the late-nineteenth century, the British biologists and taxidermists knew little about the animal and thought that its wrinkles were due to it having dried out during the long journey from Canada. So the walrus was stuffed to its full, smooth-skinned glory and the absurd ball of a mammal still forms the centrepiece of the Horniman mammal collection today.

Rather than a research tool for naturalists, the Horniman walrus has become a testament to the follies of nineteenth-century scientists. The era was one of immense scientific activity – collection, observation, categorisation, documentation – and pioneers such as Darwin certainly facilitated a more rigorously scientific approach. Gentlemen scholars of science, though, had more in common with the keepers of cabinets of curiosities than the white-coated laboratory-workers of today. The wider practice of ‘science’ was perhaps more aligned with its predecessor, natural philosophy, than our current and numerous -ologies. The wunderkammer was essentially a collection of curios, the contents of which were dictated more by chance, what the collector could get hold of, and personal taste or fanaticism. It is these personal flights of fancy that Mark Fairnington is more interested in. Rather than the inclusive, exhaustive approaches of the twentieth century, he is drawn to individual narratives. From Walter Rothschild’s zoo in Tring, where he kept four zebras to pull his carriage and giant tortoises to ride around on, to the more sober rooms of natural history museums around the world, with their varying degrees of cultural and ecological pillaging, the story behind a collection is often as vivid as many of its specimens.

Whereas today scientists consider the museum a place of interpretation and communication, in the nineteenth century it functioned more as a pedagogical platform. Issues of colonialism and cultural subjectivity were not integral to the considerations of a keeper or curator, and knowledge was deemed absolute and unconditional. Some institutions retain a vestige of this today through their authoritative modes of display and labelling, although there has been much work on the democratisation of museums through interactivity and exchange. The collections of eccentrics and fanatics are now seen as idiosyncratic portraits of the collectors, with more anthropological merit than biological. Fairnington’s work – paintings made from collections and expeditions around the world – is a meta-collection, if you like, garnered through a sifting of these already subjective sources. The artist’s criteria are superimposed onto the scientist’s at a point not where the intentions of science and art necessarily coincide, but where the processes of one obscure those of the other. Fairnington’s methodology is not one of pure observation and unmuddied translation – he distorts scale, extols surface over innards, rearranges species. He plays the gentleman god. An essential difference between the establishment of a natural history collection and Fairnington’s proliferating ark is that the paintings reproduce nature, rather than depleting it – he is magnifying and duplicating the natural world.

Fairnington takes numerous photographs of his subject – sometimes hundreds, as in the case of The Hummingbird Tree – as if this were the broad sweep of the net that captures all aspects of the specimen. These are then arranged and sorted into a series of comprehensive, detailed studies for the final painting; but what is most ‘unscientific’ is how the blurred regions of a photograph are precisely transcribed to the final painting. A single painting might incorporate a number of styles, from photorealism to the gestural, so that certain nooks, clefts, edges and extremities remain just beyond our optical grasp. Here the individual specimen is a metonym for the sketchiness of all human knowledge – made up of foggy haloes around points of clarity. Essentially, Fairnington is faithfully sustaining the notorious gap between documentation and reality, made all the greater in our age of Photoshop and instantaneous digital editing. The Uncertainty Principle states that the very act of observation throws a situation into ambiguity and, although a scientist’s assertions have a persisting authority, there are whole tranches of ‘knowledge’ that are built on the inevitability of doubt – think of the murky universes of quantum mechanics and black holes. Fairnington’s image of an owl butterfly isolated against a background blacker than any night (page xy) or a leaf half-devoured by an errant creature suggests that the partial view is more prevalent than we dare to acknowledge.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these ontological qualms, these paintings are beautiful, sexy and morbid. They relate to Dutch still-life painting: flesh held this side of putrefaction. These specimens are artificially preserved, doubly so; their cadavers are immutable thanks to the dual action of taxidermy and paint. Or perhaps these paintings are more aligned with the Soviet tradition of social-realist painting: monstrous suggestions of perfection that can rarely be attained, never mind sustained. Again the rhetoric of early science is raised, with its attendant connotations of scotching the truth to construct a presentable myth. There are even instances in current laboratory practice, Fairnington has discovered, when a certain airbrushing of the truth occurs. One microbiologist, for example, applies colours to black-and-white scans taken through an electron micrograph like make-up, for no other reason than to make them more appealing. And Fairnington’s own painting, Idolomantis diabolica, illustrates how a specimen’s name adds a subjective frisson that is impossible to ignore.

There are various other conventions for displaying nature that may vary between museums: insects pinned on a background of black velvet, for instance, or the armadillos placed between the reptiles and the mammals. And then there is the notion of the ‘type specimen’. An entomologist would seek the individual bug that best represents its species – the most average, the most typical. Fairnington’s paintings, however, enlarge and elevate. Despite their obvious relation to still-life paintings, it is difficult to overlook the inference of the portrait. The circular paintings of eyes, especially – of the goat, the polar bear and the sloth bear – are like the precious cameos of a lover. The eye, confirmed as the window of the soul through twentieth-century developments in retinal scan technology, is a way of capturing the essential information of an individual – if you discount the rarefied subtleties of behaviour and concentrate on anatomical ‘truths’, that is.

The subjects of Fairnington’s paintings, then, are made more singular through being painted. He is building a sort of ark – a raft of individual creatures and typologies of painting – which probes the possibility of realism. Despite his finely wrought brushwork and scrupulous pictorial research, there is a sense that he revels in the tendrils of ignorance that still permeate the natural and psychological worlds. Like the vitrines and bell jars that house these specimens, we are all kept in a perpetual bubble of partial truths and convenient lies. The natural world is like raw footage that the artist can script and reframe into a narrative of his own, using the syntax of the fantasist with as much veracity as that of the scientist.

Sally O’Reilly