Michael John Whelan at Boetzelaer|Nispen


Artist: Michael John Whelan

Exhibition title: Darwin’s Finches

Venue: Boetzelaer|Nispen, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Date: May 7 – June 11, 2016

Photography: all images copyright and courtesy of the artist and Boetzelaer|Nispen

Boetzelaer|Nispen is proud to present Darwin’s Finches, Michael John Whelan’s third solo show with the gallery. Whelan’s recent practice can be characterised as addressing humanity’s physical effects and inherent mutability, questioning specifically the mechanics of science and preservation methodology. In Darwin’s Finches, Whelan shows new video, photography and sound works predominately originating from his recent research project at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. The vault, with a constant temperature of -18 °C and built 120 meters inside the sandstone mountain Platåberget on Spitsbergen Island, acts as a fail-safe for the worlds biodiversity, holding thousands of seeds, some of them created by centuries of artificial selection. The contents of the vaults were first accessed for extraction when the gene bank in Syria fell into the hands of the Islamic State, endangering the biodiversity of the region. Svalbard Global Seed Vault guards both natural and human endeavor and serves to protect biodiversity as well as food security. Whelan questions humanities need and self imposed task of preserving the natural world, touching upon familiar themes of science versus nature, and perhaps of order versus chaos.

For his photographic series Carapace (2016), Whelan photographed the ice-encrusted walls on an empty vault, drawing attention to both the absence of the intended function as storage – only one of the three vaults is currently in use – and the potentiality for the future. Chamber (2016) is a minimal sound-piece played throughout the gallery. It was recorded in the seed vault by leaving the recording device alone is the space without any human activity present. This resulted in an almost silent sound recording. The only evidence is a slight resonating from the coolant system which runs constantly to maintain the preservative temperature of the vault. This vacuous soundscape is presented alongside three sheets of paper, indicating the actual inventory of the vaults. The empty sheets are suggestive of the future possibilities for both the vault and the world in which it was built.

In Divergence of Character (2016), a durational video projection of a mound of fresh ice is projected at large scale, highlighting an otherwise overlooked happening outside the seed vault on Platåberget. The ice is formed when water from the cooling system exits near the entrance to the vault. Upon exposure to the elements it freezes immediately, creating abstracted ice forms. The photographic series In the black dark for good (2016) shows portraits of the stones and dirt around the entrance to the vault, covered in layers of ice. Each photograph presents a stone in various stages of envelopment, two of the stones have been completely covered and are almost invisible shadows below the ice. The ice is the unintended result from a technical process necessary to maintain the preservatory act. It highlights roles that exist at the median between interference and preservation.

Presented alongside the works from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a series of works which take their point of departure from the Natural History Museum of Berlin. Images of preserved biological specimens from the collection of the museum are displayed alongside an infinitely looped video of a lungfish, Means of knowing (2016), an animal Darwin termed a living fossil. They explore the environments that are created by scientists to preserve and display natural phenomena to the public and touch upon wider issues of natural control and preservation.

Michael John Whelan (1977, Ireland, lives and works in Berlin) received a MFA from Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. He has had solo exhibitions at Vitrine Project Space, London; Grey Noise, Dubai; Kunstverein Bochum, Bochum and Boetzelaer|Nispen, Amsterdam, among others. He participated in numerous group shows and screenings including at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland; TULCA Festival of Visual Arts, Ireland; Abraham building, Neuss with Julia Stoschek Collection & KAI 10 | Arthena Foundation, Dusseldorf; Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Museum Bochum; Kiasma, Helsinki and Dortmund Kunstverein. His work is included in the MLP Collection, the collection of the University of Arts, London, the Institute of Art, Design and Technology Dun Laoghaire Collection.



Michael John Whelan, Chamber, 2016 (detail)

Michael John Whelan, Chamber, 2016 (audio excerpt)




Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good, 2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good, 2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good, 2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good, 2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good, 2016





Michael John Whelan, Carapace (1), 2016


Michael John Whelan, Divergence of Character,  2016


Michael John Whelan, Divergence of Character,  2016 (still from video)

Michael John Whelan, Divergence of Character,  2016 (video excerpt)


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good,  2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good,  2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good,  2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good,  2016


Michael John Whelan, In the black dark for good,  2016