A Review of Mark Shand's Adventures and his Cabinet of Curiosities at Hauser & Wirth, London
‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ is a fitting name for the charity exhibition and auction, which welcomed the bright young things of London’s contemporary art world to the gallery Hauser & Wirth last week. Perhaps exhibiting a room of penises could be considered a subversive choice when it comes to raising money for Asian elephants, but that's exactly what curators Ayesha Shand and Davina Harbord did.
29 photographs and 101 original sculptures were commission from emerging artists. Inspired efforts include Petroc Sesti’s ‘L’Oiseau D’or’, a marvellous golden phallus inspired by Brancusi, or Rafaela de Ascanio’s brilliantly inspired ‘Birth of Penus’ - everyone always appreciates a good pun. Venus-Aphrodite, of course, was born from the sperm of the genitals from her castrated father, Uranus (don’t laugh).
Placed alongside stunning photography of everyday life in rural India, and the daily routines of the elephants, the phallic iconography retains its meaning and potency without venturing toward cultural appropriation. The unique and alternative ways in which artists of the moment like Milla Eastwood, Jack Penny, Tim Noble, Scarlett Bowman, Emilie Pugh, Luke Edward-Hall, Duncan Campbell, Philip Colbert, Alba Hodsoll, Romana Londi, and others have re-interpreted these symbols has drawn needed attention to the Elephant Family's cause.
A travel writer, conservationist, and adventurer, Mark Shand was the brother of the Duchess of Cornwall who dedicated much of his life to the protection of elephants. His inspiring legacy continues in the form of the charity Elephant Family (www.elephant-family.org).
Upon arrival, I was surprised by what was on display, and questioned the connection with Asian elephants or Mark Shand until I realised that the penises were imbued with meaning. In India - a second home to Shand - where he travelled frequently and extensively (meeting his beloved elephant and companion, Tara), he found the phallic fertility symbol - is an unrivalled mark of respect. The devices are known as ‘apadravya’ in the Kama Sutra; the casts used in this show based on the ‘Nirghata’, ‘Manthana’, ‘Upasriptaka’, ‘Varhagata’, and ‘Chitakavilasa’.
During his travels up and down the country, as well as further afield in Indonesia, Shand was presented with numerous incarnations of this good luck icon or fertility symbol. His love for India was a perrenial narrative throughout his life, which Ayesha, and the artists involved, have carefully communicated throughout the exhibition and auction. Ayesha inherited his ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and many of his treasured Indian icons were on display in the exhibition, thus providing a delicate contrast between the original and the reimagined.
Some highlights included All For Love Flowers’ a subtle work rendering of the phallus symbol as a vase, housing the Phaelonopsis Orchid flower, a symbol of fertility thanks to their ancient Greek name meaning ‘testicles’. Tancredi di Carcaci’s ‘The Pearly Prince Albert’ was inspired by the bejewelled lavishness of Roman Catholic reliquaries, referencing the peculiar British tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens. Emilie Pugh’s ‘Fascinum’ harks back to the ancient Roman tradition of Phallic symbols (think Priapus - the marvellously well-endowed god of fertility). Other interpretations came in the work of Rebecca Campbell, herself an avid traveller of the Indian subcontinent, who presented her ‘Private Member’ on a sumptuous red silk cushion within a box that is rather a tongue-in-cheek reference, perhaps, to Shand’s days spent as a notorious member of fashionable London society.
Ruth Ganesh, a trustee of the Elephant Family charity, and a creative conservationist who worked with Shand for 10 years, created a beautiful group of icons that David Attenborough would have been proud of, entitled ‘Darwin’s Little Pricks’. Inspired by the phallic nature of Lava cacti (indigenous to the Galapagos Islands), this work drew attention to the Darwinian observation that ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’ A fitting tribute in an event dedicated to saving a species that has endured such times of hardship.
Whilst some works were thoughtfully crafted to immerse them within the ancient tradition of phallic iconography in art, others were more playful and modern, throwing tradition out of the window - Henry Brudenell-Bruce’s ‘Tangle Teezaaah’, for example, plays on the idea of a phallic hairbrush. Teaser, indeed. Dali would have loved it. And Louisa Siem’s ‘TOOL SHED - Screw Drive’, appropriated the humble screwdriver into something a little more… well... multi-functional. In any form, transformation was central to this exhibition, and Joseph P. Turnbull’s ‘I Never Had A Sweet Tooth But I Do Now’ reimagined the penises in the form of favourite childhood sweets.
Each work was playful and unique. As curated by Davina Harbord and Ayesha Shand, the exhibition was a thoughtful tribute to the exceptional and adventurous life of Mark Shand. Undoubtedly, you'll be feeling the effects on social media for many weeks to come.
Written by Georgia Messervy, a Contributor to Arteviste