18 June - 3 September, 2016

Nature’s Ape was a season at Syson Gallery as part of The Grand Tour Season 2, which took its cue from Giambattista della Porta’s ‘Natural Magick’; a 16th Century account on the relationship between art, the artist and nature. This project invoked the role of magician as both artist and nature’s assistant. It concentrated upon artists’ interpretations of the natural world against a background and awareness of contemporary scientific knowledge and technological development and innovation. Many of the works featured focused upon an artist’s interpretation of darkness or light – either aping nature in some way; taking on board philosophical connotations; responding to architectural space or studying phenomena through scientific means.

Nature’s Ape was part of the The Grand Tour Season 2. A formative cultural experience of the18th century traveller made modern day. Working alongside four of the UK’s most distinguished cultural institutions – Nottingham Contemporary, Chatsworth, Derby Museums and The Harley Gallery Welbeck – Syson Gallery were delighted to join forces as partner fringe venue creating a series of cultural journey’s relating to the contemporary artist as magician for today’s Grand Tourist.


Berndnaut Smilde (b.1978, Groningen, Netherlands) lives and works in Amsterdam. He has exhibited across The Netherlands and also in Toronto, Taipei, Istanbul, Dublin, Paris, London and San Francisco. In 2013, he opened his first large scale solo exhibition in the US at Land of Tomorrow in Louisville, Kentucky, and guest curated a show at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. His Nimbus series was recognised by TIME Magazine as one of the ‘Top Ten Inventions of 2012’. He was a resident artist at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin in 2008. Smilde received his BA in 2001 from the Minerva Academy and his MA in 2005 from the Frank Mohr Institute, both in The Netherlands. Smilde had a solo exhibition in Nottingham in 2005 at the artist-led MOOT gallery.


For Nature’s Ape, Smilde draws on his experience with experiments in breaking light using mineral oil, daylight and carefully constructed prisms. Using his daily surroundings and spaces as motives, Smilde is interested in the temporal nature of construction and deconstruction. His works question: inside and outside, temporality, size, the function of materials and architectural elements. During a working period at BMoCA in Boulder, Colorado, the artist teamed up with scientist Steve Tomczyk from NCAR (National Center of atmospheric Research) to build a prototype prism that would allow him to break light at a large scale in order to impose a natural appearance onto its surrounding as a temporary hack in the landscape. The photograph featured in Nature’s Ape illustrates the test on a barn in Boulder from a distance of 130 meters on May 30, 2015.

Last year Smilde continued to work on the idea of refracting the light of a lighthouse in order to project a rainbow onto the landscape. He received permission to use the lighthouse of Scheveningen and opened the curtains on the city side of the lighthouse for a short moment to compose ‘Breaking Light#2’. The lighting rhythm that the lighthouse produces belongs to Scheveningen as an historic and temporal icon. By making use of a prism he temporarily changed the function of a lighthouse of just being a beacon. The documentation for this work is featured in the stairwell upstairs at the gallery.



Jeremy Millar (b.1970) is an artist living in Whitstable, and tutor in art criticism at the Royal College of Art, London. Recent solo exhibitions include M/W, Muzeum Stzuki, Lodz; XDO XOL, Whitstable Biennale; Chandelier, London; The Oblate, Southampton City Art Gallery (2013); Resemblances, Sympathies, and Other Acts, CCA, Glasgow. Recent group exhibitions include Curiosity: Art and the Pleasure of Knowing (curated by Brian Dillon), Turner Contemporary, Margate, then touring to Norwich and Amsterdam; The World is Almost Six Thousand Years Old (curated by Tom Morton), The Collection, Lincoln Collection, ICA, London, (1994). Millar is also a widely respected curator and writer.


For this exhibition, the artist presents a video work entitled, ‘The Writing of Stones’, 2011. This video projection loop acts as a form of spell or incantation, which mesmerises the viewer. Citing the creation myth, what is seen projected is a kaleidoscope created from close-up images of minerals and crystals filmed at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford. On top of these hypnotic images a series of string instruments play a slow, rather drone-like score in plain-chant, with a lone male voice recorded in the college chapel at King's, Cambridge. The vocal music in The Writing of Stones, was composed by Toby Young, a choral scholar at King's College Cambridge, while the instrumental music was written and performed by Sophie Sirota.



Mimei Thompson (b. 1972, Tokyo) studied at Glasgow School of Art, Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. She was selected for Jerwood Contemporary Painters and the Marmite Painting Prize. Three of her works were bought for the Arts Council England Collection in 2013. She has had solo shows at Art First Projects, London in 2013, Trade Gallery, Nottingham, 2014, and this year will have a solo show at Queens Park Railway Club, Glasgow. Recent group shows include exhibitions in Brussels, Los Angeles, London and Glasgow. She lives and works in London.


Syson Gallery is delighted to present a series of Thompson’s Cave Paintings – for which the artist is well known. These archetypal elements are always grounded in a distinctive technique, both process-based and representational. The works are constructed in thin translucent layers over a smooth white ground.

“I am generally interested in the unconscious mind, dream imagery and symbols, the way the everyday becomes fantastic”, Thompson says. “The caves, for me, are about going into a place, with the possibility of coming out changed, or about the unconscious mind.”




Paul Harraway (b. 1971, Hull) lives and works in Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Born and raised in Hull, he studied Graphic Design at Nottingham Trent University and worked as a designer at The University of Nottingham Medical School, followed by several years of secondary school teaching. Harraway uses drawing and digital media to create intricate, small-scale monochrome drawings and paintings.


Recent works, such as Tapiola and The Big Field in view of the Cig, as featured here, explore animism and autobiographical memory through the creation of rural and industrial landscapes, focusing on specific sites as pockets of wilderness and intrigue. Nature’s Ape is the artist’s first contemporary art exhibition.




John Newling (b. 1952, Birmingham) has an acclaimed international reputation creating projects and installing works in the UK and many other countries. Nottingham-based, John Newling is a pioneer of public art with a social purpose. His works explore the natural world and the social and economic systems of society – such as money or religion. He belongs to a generation of artists whose work evolved from Conceptual Art, Land Art and Arte Povera – art movements occurring during the 1960s that placed emphasis on the concept, process and site of the work, alongside material and aesthetic properties. His first survey exhibition, Ecologies of Value took place at Nottingham Contemporary 2013 and his work is held in many national collections including Arts Council Collection, The Garman Ryan Collection, New Art Gallery Walsall and the Henry Moore Collection, Leeds. Newling’s first solo exhibition at Syson Gallery, Last Islands, recently ended in May 2016.


Nine Twists of Nature, is from a series of early drawings by the artist made in the 1970s. Part of a series of eight striking pencil drawings, this piece featured in Nature’s Ape makes a direct scientific link to circular forms reminiscent of DNA and the double helix structure – geometric forms reflect the cylindrical rhythms of nature.