Why Has This Old South London Library Been Filled With Hundreds Of Eggs?

Natural Selection, former Newington Library ★★★☆☆

Why Has This Old South London Library Been Filled With Hundreds Of Eggs? Natural Selection, former Newington Library 3
This giant bower bird nest feels strangely inviting. Photo by Marcus J. Leith

We're in the basement of an old library in Elephant & Castle, and we're surrounded by eggs of all shapes, colours and sizes. What is going on?

No, we haven't been stealing eggs in our sleep and hoarding them. This is an art installation, the brainchild of Andy Holden. If you're wondering how an artist becomes obsessed with birds, then you're not alone, but it turns out Andy's father is noted ornithologist Peter Holden. Holden junior had a lot of exposure to birds and their nests as a child and this passion has continued into adulthood.

Now he's passing it onto us, with themes of egg collecting, nest building and the lives of birds.

Eggs, lots of eggs. All from British birds, with a handy key nearby to identify them. Photo by Marcus J. Leith

This project is a father and son show, the two birds of a feather appearing on screen together, as they investigate the nesting habits of British birds. Stories from the two recount past encounters with feathered beings, including a baby Andy with an upside-down book on birds in his hands.

Before you start thinking that this is simply a BBC documentary/artist's life story, there's also art as part of the installation. A giant bowerbird nest scaled up to human size actually looks inviting, this time for humans rather than female bowerbirds. We want to clamber inside, but we're rightfully not allowed (pretty sure it couldn't take our weight).

The aim here is to look at nest building from a human perspective — do we think they're attractive, do they feel homely and is it that dissimilar to how we decorate our own homes to look attractive to others? Or even is the design of bird's nests a sign they possess a consciousness beyond their genetic instincts?... yeah, we're not convinced by the latter either.

A view from outside the exhibition of the Victorian library. Photo by Marcus J. Leith

Adding to the atmosphere is the setting of an old Victorian library; wandering the corridors of flaking paint and holes where bookshelves used to be, gives the exhibition a weary, lived in feel — almost as if nature is creeping into the fabric of the building. And we'll be honest; it's worth the visit just to see this venue that we have walked past many times, but never been inside.

A collection of found and recreated birds nest. Photo by Marcus J. Leith

It's a shame that the documentary aspects are rather dry; Holden is no David Attenborough, and while the stories of the artist's life are very personal, they often feel too personal for visitors to connect with. The result being a quirky exhibition in an intriguing venue, but a hard one to engage with. A real curate's egg.

Andy Holden / Peter Holden: Natural Selection is an Artangel commission and is on at the former Newington Library, 155 Walworth Road, SE17 1RS until 5 November. Entrance is free and the show is open Wednesday-Sunday.

Last Updated 17 September 2017