The work of Fred Langford Edwards is a sustained and multilayered consideration of what one might call the 'discourse of knowledge'. Research has often taken him into fields at some distance to that of fine art, making striking and novel use of collections of artifacts accumulated in the name of particular branches of science, medicine, anthropology and the wider culture at large.
His position articulates the postmodern revival of interest there has been into the nature of the museum collection as locus of cultural contest. It provides new perspectives on the nature of culture by aligning diverse fields of study so as to, in a profound way, shed light on how we come to 'know what we know' of the world and our place in it.
The past thirty years has seen a considerable growth in the theory of culture. The museum of natural history has not escaped the attentions of this growing line of enquiry. In very broad terms this has seen the museum evolve from simply providing hegemonic narrative to becoming a place in which preconceived ideas can be questioned. Although an emergent set of theories about culture have rounded out and added much depth to recent art, it has also served to complicate and confuse its reception. Much of this theory took the museum collection to be a vehicle for the articulation of cultural power relations. Artists addressing this twenty years ago may have been considered radical. Not so these days. Whilst he has a very well developed grasp of these issues, there are two or three other, somewhat deeper, concerns, which mark him out as an artist of very considerable ability.
Firstly, Edwards is not interested in the museum in order to critique it in the manner inspired by 1980s post-structuralism, as it might be done through the theoretical contributions of Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Foucault. Rather, his aim is to develop its epistemological foundations into something new. To develop a new line of thought away from the tired contemporary one that sees the museum as repository of power relations to one that asks of the museum what its future might be. His works seek to adjust the fixed co-ordinates of the museum with knowledge that is just out of reach on the horizon. The value of this for the museum lies in the way it forces a consideration of the future. The idea of the museum as ‘a place of the future' bears thinking about.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the melding of art and science inherent in his work. Although there are a few artists comfortable on both sides of the divide, most invariably cleave to one or the other domain. Edwards is one of a tiny number with a sufficiently comprehensive grasp of both to be in the almost unique position where this adds tremendous value to what he has to say. His contribution is not merely an illustration of the natural sciences. It is beyond the simplistic division of subjects. It is a philosophic comment on our awareness of ourselves in the natural world and the implications of this for our future.
This artist presents, with each increasingly sophisticated project, a window on the incredible diversity of the natural world and our long and convoluted history of coming to terms with it. This will only grow in significance as emerging ecological imperatives force a reassessment of our place in the world. Whilst scientists will be at the forefront of these developments to come, Edwards's work demonstrates clearly the vital and much needed contribution that artists can make in this.
Anders Pleass October 2009
Exhibitions Co-ordinator, Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno