March of Mutability

Jon Buck, March for Mutability
Link to March for Mutability Gallery

For as long as I can remember I have been intensely fascinated by the amazing profusion of shapes, forms and colours that make up the natural world. Much of my work in this exhibition not only celebrates this profusion but its fragility. The more recent pieces have also been inspired by our current understanding of the biological principles that have led to the evolution of this diversity.

In the nineteenth century Darwin and Wallace rocked the foundations of belief in a supernatural creator with their theories of evolution by natural selection. Since then science has brought to light many further evolutionary mechanisms that govern how the Earth came to be inhabited by such a prolific and diverse web of life. The biologist Leigh Van Valen advanced a theory that since life on earth began all organisms have been caught in an everlasting arms race. Survival means that they must continually evolve and change to compete against ever-mutating opposing rival organisms. He famously entitled this thesis The Red Queen Hypothesis, referring to Lewis Carroll’s character in ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. The Queen, as part of a bizarre and counter-intuitive chess game, informs Alice that according to the rules: ‘…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’

Anthony Barnosky subsequently introduced a new player to this evolutionary game of chess and at the same time also coined the phrase March of Mutability, the title of this exhibition. He maintained that although the Red Queen Hypothesis adequately explains the ongoing pressure of biological evolution there are occasional huge catastrophic physical events that interrupt gradual change, causing mass extinctions and subsequent rapid transformations. He referred to this idea as The Court Jester Hypothesis.

The works in this exhibition are intended as archetypal representations of The Red Queen and The Court Jester. In addition I have further evolved the jester character to become what I call The Fool. The difference between the two in my mind it is that The Jester is a natural, unintentional phenomenon whereas The Fool is consciously aware of his effect but is out of control and refuses to acknowledge his behaviour. In these newest sculptures I propose that it is we humans who are The Fool becoming a new evolutionary force that is having an unpredictable and devastating effect upon the essential patterns of biodiversity and the whole web of life.

In more recent years our understanding of the evolutionary process has shown that it is not one solely of competition and conflict. In consequence, the drawings that accompany and complement my sculptures not only reflect and expand on these previous ideas but refer to processes in nature that are more benign. Evidently, Darwin’s original metaphor of the ‘Tree of Life’ with an ever-expanding canopy of branches emanating from a single trunk, is not a completely satisfactory analogy. It is now known that many of the branches not only divide and bifurcate but in many places have fused back together to form a connected lattice-work. This model can more accurately be described as a ‘Web of Life’.

In fact, some of the most significant moments in evolutionary history were the coming together of completely non-related organisms in symbiotic relationships. As a result, all complex life is a story of what biologist Lynn Margulis called the ‘Intimacy of Strangers’. We all exist in interdependent relationships with other organisms either on or within us. Surely in this light alone it is incumbent upon us to urgently search for a new secular sanctity for the whole network of life.

Jon Buck
July 2021