My daughter is doing her A-levels. So a flock of education professionals alighted on her school recently to talk about university entrance requirements. She wants to do sciences, but the grim woman from Cambridge informed us that, from next year, Cambridge will require an A* in chemistry, as well as two more As, from everybody seeking to enter the biology course. Wow. A* represents a score of more than 90% in the exam. The talkative chap from UCL, who came next, had a small swipe at local rival Imperial College for demanding the A*, then admitted that UCL will probably follow suit, which it has. Thus, I found myself wondering why they bother with people at all. Why not build more computers and send those to university?
The final session was with a chap from an art school. Out of kindness to her old dad and his madcap profession, my daughter agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to pop in. And from the moment we joined the briefing, it was clear we had successfully strayed into another dimension, a different way of being: somewhere else. The art-school chappie had about him the air of a newspaper delivery boy who whistled as he cycled. Announcing that he had tinnitus, his first act was to yank the class plug out of the class wall and happily kill the class computer. For the next 20 minutes, he said nothing remotely practical or useful. At the end of the session, I piped up from the back to ask what qualifications were actually needed to get into his art school, because he hadn’t told us. Students were expected to have an A-level, he announced confidently. But in certain circumstances, exceptions could be made.
The art-school session kept barging into my thoughts as I drifted through A Duck for Mr Darwin, at the Baltic, in Gateshead, in which nine contemporary artists who have visited the Galapagos Islands, or whose work is deemed to deal in some way with the theory of natural selection, have been brought together to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Someone, somewhere imagined it was a good idea to direct some one-A-level understanding at these momentous scientific issues. And guess what? They were right.
Greeting us at the event is a choir of little girls eerily singing All Things Bright and Beautiful, in a disembodied sound piece by Andrew Dodds that seems to haunt you wherever you are in the room. The caption informs us that Britain’s first creationist academy has opened in Gateshead. But Dodds is surely not trying to placate the local flat-earthers with this tribute to God’s creatures great and small. Neither is he deliberately seeking to annoy them. Instead, the ethereal voices of the singing kids have a persuasive sweetness to them that successfully fills the show with doubts. How could this much sweetness be so wrong?
At the other end of the display, a video piece by Marcus Coates presents us with the ghastly spectacle of two giant Galapagos tortoises attempting to mate. Imagine one sack of coal trying to climb onto the back of another sack of coal: rarely can so little moisture have accompanied the act of love. As always with video art, the close-ups of the grunting tortoises are horribly filmed, and it all goes on for much too long, but the dry scraping of shell on shell sticks in the ears, and the piece’s title – Intelligent Design – is nicely sarcastic.
So why are tortoises this bad at mating? Beats me. Unlike science, art celebrates the absence of solutions. Scientists can probably count the exact number of atoms in one of Tanya Kovats’s solid-silver worm casts, but they will never be able to tell you what these worm casts mean. In an overexplained world, art still has the power to return us to a state of ignorant wonder.