Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

22 Nov 2011

Cryptozoologists, Kate Bush and the Wild Man

This October, in the Siberian region of Kemerovo about 2,000 miles east of Moscow, an academic conference on cryptozoology took place. International scientists who study "hidden animals" gathered to take part in an expedition to gather evidence for the existence of the Yeti. The discovery of "footprints, a probable den and various markers that Yetis mark their territory with" led the organisers of the conference to claim they had 95-percent proof of the existence of Yeti.

Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Not all were convinced: "It was a very awkward feeling because here I was a guest and this was clearly orchestrated," said Idaho State University anthropologist and anatomist Jeffrey Meldrum. And so the hunt for the abominable snowman continues. Whilst failing to come up with enough evidence to convince the scientific community of their existence, it has fuelled a folklore which stretches across Eurasia to the New World. 

Kate Bush, well known for her use of folkloric inspiration has for her new album, dedicated a "song of empathy" to the Yeti. In a recent interview, she explained that "mystery has become a more precious thing", and in a sense rather than concluding issues with scientific determinism, we are best to leave questions unanswered. In the song "Wild Man", she eulogises this mystery, and bids the Yeti to hide itself from its human exploiters. I too prefer the idea of a branch of zoology outside the reach of man, perhaps more as a totem against the potential arrogance which comes with understanding. I too prefer the image of a wild man, than of one caged in a zoo, or stuffed in a natural history cabinet, despite my appreciation of both of these.

20 Nov 2011

The Fire at the Taxidermist

As a lover of nature and the preservation of its longevity it seems immoral, but yes, I must confess that I love taxidermy. Unfortunately, I am not in the buyer's market with even stuffed street pigeons going at 400€. Like the giddy American girls who flock to the windows of Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, I can be found gazing longingly through the glass at the mountain goat from "Claude Nature". The one time that I did put my hand in my pocket (£5 for a weasel stole on Portobello market), it ended badly when I returned after a summer absence to find that a mouse had eaten its nose and paws. 

The art of taxidermy is dismissed by many as a dark and morbid use of nature to create objects of a purely whimsical benefit, to amuse or disturb. Walter Potter's anthropomorphic dioramas best fit this category, with card-playing kittens, or boxing squirrels to mention but a few. I was lucky enough to see some of these oeuvres when visiting the Museum of Everything on Primrose Hill last year, which are otherwise scattered in private collections. Whilst these do amuse and amaze, they fail to explain my fascination. Similarly, Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", a tiger shark preserved in a formaldehyde tank, fails to hit the mark for me. Too clinical, too knowing and too vulgar, it did at least raise interesting questions on the exhibiting of a dead animal, and the ownership of the work.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst 1991
Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil" contains an eloquent description of a taxidermist, not as a preserver of death, but of life. The profession seeks to take that which was beautiful in the living creature, and attempt to present its character, its form and its context. Indeed, the best taxidermy is that which looks as if it will leap from its pedestal at any moment. Miles away from Potter's boggle eyed kittens, or Hirst's tanked in putrefying fish are the exquisitely worked specimens at 46 rue du Bac, Paris. Since 1881, Deyrolle has been the world's finest purveyor of Natural History, from ammonites to aardvarks, beautifully rendered with an enviable craftsmanship. Each hair is perfectly groomed, each paw gracefully positioned, and every eye full of life. But when on the 1st of February 2008, a fire gutted the building, the iconic store seemed done for.

Touched by Fire, Martin d'Orgeval, 2008
However, it would seem that I am not alone in my appreciation of fine taxidermy. France's Ministry of Culture began a collection, Hermès sold a limited edition scarf to raise money, and past clients returned works they had purchased. Ingeniously, the charred remains of animals were crafted by a range of artists, before being auctioned off at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. The efforts paid off, the doors reopened, and Deyrolle today continues to stand as a testament to art of taxidermy. This weekend, I took my brother, prime candidate for mocking my taste in a 'naturalised' animal, to see the shop. Whilst we left empty handed, I like to think I converted one more to the dark side.

13 Nov 2011

On Perspective and the Nature of Physics

The observation of our planet, its processes and its constitution requires a line of sight which stretches beyond what is visible. Biology is confined to world of the living, but Physics stretches out beyond space and time. Moreover, as stated by Stephen Hawking, the ultimate aim of science is the attenuation of a single theory which describes the whole universe. This aim would seem ridiculous were it not for the fact that we currently already have two who sit awkwardly together and attempt to do just that: the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Still from Beatriz Milhazes' O Pariso (2011 Fondation Cartier)

More modest descriptive theories assess the natural laws. In his book "What is Life?" published in 1944, Erwin Schrödinger asked "How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?" His answers described the physical rules governing DNA, which was to be structuralised by Watson & Crick nine years later. This genetic revolution provoked a sea-change, opening up a new vantage point from which to observe the history of the living.

By looking beyond horizons, the exploration of physical theorem provides us with a language which communicates the functioning of everything (along with nothing in terms of antimatter). It has shown us our origins not just through the deciphering of genetics, but also in the postulation and simulation of the Big Bang. As far as perceptions of nature go, it is the be all and end all of comprehension of life on earth. 

12 Nov 2011


Paris, like the rest of the world is voicing it's contempt at the injustice of global economics and financial greed. I have spent the weekend "Occupying" La Defence, and walking with Breton farmers against the construction of a new airport, Provençals against the construction of a railway line, and suburban Parisians against the reconstruction of yet another waste incinerator. Along with accordion toting gypsies, cows, and tractors, the streets are lined with generally interested observers. After spending months during my undergraduate degree trying to convince indifferent students, it is great to finally see heartfelt expression. The occupy movement has provided an outlet to those disenfranchised with a system responsible for social and environmental failures. A truly democratic dialog is being facilitated free from corporate persuasion and Realpolitik.

BUT, my inner cynic cannot help but voice its worries. How can the construction of a cardboard camp, the chanting of Italian partisan songs and the blocking of traffic truly make a change, when a defined direction is missing? In the context of this blog, how can we redefine our economic model to preserve our natural resources by agitating riot police? I discussed this with a friend on the walk back home, and I continued to brew these thoughts (along with a tea) when i got in. To me it seems, the occupy movement is not about a solution, but about reuniting people, asking questions, creating discussion and exploring possibilities. Fragmented groups against capitalism, climate change, and consumerism are provided with a platform, but so are their critics. I, like everyone else, am avoiding predictions as to what results will come about.

6 Nov 2011


Marc and Olivier Namblard describe themselves as "Audionaturalists". The brothers, inspired by family holidays in the country and their fathers work in sound recording, combined their studies in fine art and music production to initiate "PROMENEURS ÉCOUTANT". Now based in Lorraine in Eastern France, the brothers record a variety of soundscapes, either in relation to natural pheonomena (spawning of frogs, rutting of deer, hatching of ciccadas) or geophysical processes (whistling winds and running rivers). Listen to their fantastic recordings on their website.

Nils Udo: External Artist

Natures beauty is assured, and it has long been used to inspire the artistic expression of man, from our paleolithic ancestors to today. Art has often attempted to address our relationship with nature, from a transcendental place of worship, to a threatening and alien environment. However, some artists choose simply to use nature as it is to elicit our own ingrained responce, and to exhibit that beauty which already exists within.

The Nest 1978, Without Title 1990, Farnblätter 2006

About 2 months ago, I visited a retrospective exhibition of the landscape artist Nils Udo. His use of natural forms, shades and colours creates epheremal transient structures which whilst  undone by wind, rain and fire are captured on celluloid. Udo uses mineral and vegetal matter to create pieces often at odds with their in situ surrounding, but ultimately built from within. I find that this approach gives real power to his images, in that their essence is maintained despite an artificial construction.

"Even if I work parallel to nature and only intervene with the greatest possible care, a basic internal contradiction remains. It is a contradiction that underlies all of my work, which itself can't escape the inherent fatality of our existence. It harms what it touches : the virginity of nature... To realize what is possible and latent in Nature, to literally realize what has never existed, utopia becomes reality. A second life suffices. The event has taken place. I have only animated it and made it visible." Quote taken from