Exhibition : THE NATURE OF HISTORY Natural History Museum, London

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The Independent Culture
This cow is worrying me. It's following my every move, tracking me with beady-eyed intensity. Of course, it's only on a video screen - but it's still worrying. It's worrying despite the fact that I know it's being controlled by a surveillance camera. It hangs over my head in a darkened room of the Natural History Museum relaying my movements to two screens. On one is the cow, on the other a staring face which mutates in seconds from a young boy into an old woman. They are the centrepiece of The Nature of History, an installation by artist Simon Robertshaw, which claims to bridge the cultural gap between science and art.

The exhibition, proclaims its catalogue, is "the forerunner of a new breed of interdisciplinary work". "Until recently," it continues, "artists adopting such an adventurous, hybrid approach, might well have fallen foul of what, at times, has seemed an almost unbridgeable divide between the two cultures." But such rhetoric seems disingenuous. In reality this, albeit fascinating, exhibition is the latest manifestation of one of the traditional, abiding concerns of Western artists.

Robertshaw's given theme is evolution, and in the four parts of his installation he guides us through its various aspects. On a floor-based video screen he projects a highly magnified microscope slide of the bacteria that live and multiply in a nearby glass display case. A few feet away, another screen offers the changing image of a DNA chromosome, three humanoid skulls and the carcass of a decomposing cow, filmed over four weeks. With mesmerising detail, the latter bloats, becomes infected with maggots, voids various fluids and finally deflates to a preskeletal state. Above the screen the artist has suspended a giant wooden cage and beyond this is the cow with the worrying gaze.

According to the publicity, the decaying cow "defines the scientific nature of an ecosystem". But such prosaic platitudes do the artist an injustice. It is the museum's purpose to define Robertshaw's work as a useful, illustrative learning tool. But, while his art might embrace the latest technological possibilities, Robertshaw himself falls firmly into an artistic tradition which reaches from the morbidities of the Elizabethan vanitas, through Gauguin and Mondrian to Surrealism.

His "morphing" child/ woman echoes nothing more closely than the 16th- century prediliction for those eerie anamorphic double portraits of youth and death. Robertshaw's decaying cow is essentially no different from Mondrian's studies of the slow death of a rotting sunflower. The three revolving skulls are powerful mementos mori. Robertshaw is a romantic - a symbolist. His multiplying bacteria are a constantly mutating abstract. Yet in their of-the-moment reality the artist provides a more immediate glimpse than Rothko into the sublime in which the microscopic mirrors the macrocosm. The questions Robertshaw poses are not new. They were offered almost 100 years ago in 1897 by Paul Gauguin as a title for his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? And, despite what the scholarly hosts of this successful if misrepresented exhibition would have us believe, they still remain unanswered.

n To 28 August, Natural History Museum Cromwell Rd, SW7 (0171-938 9123)