Edwin Ashton

Edwina Ashton’s new film launched at her Out with the Hammers exhibition at the Exeter Phoenix during Animated Exeter

Edwin Ashton

Edwina Ashton’s latest animated film …in a rose columned garden, commissioned by the Exeter Phoenix Gallery and Animated Exeter, is inspired by the 19th century naturalist and theologian Philip Gosse and his meticulous study of marine life in Devon’s rock pools. It’s being shown in the Exeter Phoenix Gallery along with her other art work in the exhibition Edwina Ashton: Out with the Hammers.

Gosse, a resident of Torquay and religious fanatic – a Plymouth Brethren pastor who refused to recognise the ‘St’ in his St Marychurch address – was most famous  (or infamous) during his lifetime for his book Omphalos: an Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. It set out to reconcile the Bible story with his age’s geological suppositions.

It was as a marine scientist that Gosse excelled. He invented the first salt-water aquarium and designed the first public aquarium, which opened in London in 1858.

Gosse is an ideal candidate for Edwina, who often explores the allure and peculiarity of eccentricity and idiosyncrasy with a mocking eye to British politeness. And then there are all the creepy-crawlies.

Speaking to Time Out in 2006, Edwina was asked, why bugs? She said: “I’ve always been interested in them and, as an artist, I went on an entomological expedition to Sumatra with scientists from Oxford; it had a big impact on me. Insects aren’t cute, but they can stand in for humans. I tried making a dog costume but it didn’t work. Dogs, cats and rabbits are too familiar, so the films become like ads or something on children’s TV; but you don’t recognise my insects as a particular species.”

In …in a rose columned forest, Edwina ambiguous biro drawings are layered them with photographic material and a narrative is made in response to Gosse’s beautiful illustrations and natural history writing, and to his son Edmund’s critical and (some would say) unreliable autobiography Father and Son.

Edwina’s practice encompasses drawing, sculpture, video and performance. And in the exhibition, Edwina Ashton: Out with the Hammers, it conjures a darkly humorous world of stilted conversation and genteel misunderstanding, in which her oversized, misshapen insects and half-realised creatures (attempt to) interact with the human world. Her eccentric, anthropomorphic concoctions of character and narrative serve to ridicule the rules that govern social interaction in a manner that is delicate and demented in equal measure. Hand-in-hand with her sense of absurdity and humour is an underlying exploration of isolation, unrequited attentions, compulsion and anxiety.

An anxiety which is also felt by the artist perhaps? Time Out asked: “Do you feel excludes from normal society?”

“In a way, though, I’m happy being an artist. I’m not a complete weirdo, but I indulge in daydreams in which I come out on top. The insects try to make the world work for them and they are quite happy; they don’t realise they have lost the plot! I’m driven by embarrassment, which is a forceful emotion. I’m embarrassed about everything – being human – and that’s why the bugs appear. They are embarrassing,” said Edwina.

Edwina isn’t confined to insects, in another animated film Mr Panz at Lake Leman, 2010, a particular and reserved gentleman elephant, resides alone in a crumbling Swiss lakeside hotel, wistfully reflecting on his childhood tutor, continental travels and passion for natural history.

Before going to Goldsmiths, Edwina studied philosophy, and maybe that’s another reason Gosse appealed as subject matter – his attempt to reconcile his science with religion, the ultra Victorian who was out of step with his society – Omphalos was two years before Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published, and was treated with derision.

Edwina Ashton’s exhibition Edwina Ashton: Out with the Hammers is at the Exeter Phoenix Gallery as part of Animated Exeter from Friday, February 11 to Wednesday, March 30, with a private view on Thursday, February 10 from 6-7.30pm.

Edwina Ashton will discuss the exhibition and her practice on Saturday, February 19 at 2.30pm. It’s free but booking is essential.

Check out Edwina’s studio secrets

Watch Mr Panz at Lake Leman, notes on m, (notes on mammals and habitats) online

(image: Still from …in a rose columned forest)