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

28 Oct 2012

FIAC 3: Mark Dion, The Tropical Collectors

The final piece is by an artist renowned for works which draw on the culture of natural sciences. Inspired by childhood school trips, and a subsequent post as artist in residence at the Natural History Museum in London, Mark Dion is well aware of the importance of a museum in influencing public opinion. Whilst art galleries have their place, the scientific basis of natural history museums lends power to art works exhibited there.  The culture of scientists, field research and data collection are heavily referenced in his works, with Dion constantly questioning where the distinctions between 'objective' science and corresponding 'subjective' politics lie: "Nature is one of the most sophisticated arenas for the production of ideology."

Within the enclosures of the menagerie, accompanied by the chirruping of tropical birds and the strong odour of rutting mountain sheep, "The Tropical Collectors" is at odds with its surroundings. Seemingly dumped on a tropical beach is a mountain of field equipment to be used by a team of Victorian-era natural historians. Cages, nets, callipers and candles. Amongst all of this are certain objects which reference the work of Bates, Spruce and Wallace, documenters of the ecology of South America at the time. The irony of the setting is palpable, given that these objects of "discovery" led to capture, categorisation and measurement, reducing the unknown wild to a cuckoo in a cage.

The work of these explorers was great, and here Dion exhibits their methodology as opposed to the resulting findings.  For it is the results of scientific research, usually detached from cultural ties, which become bogged down in their institutional context. A discovered tropical bird, becomes a bundle of feathers in a zoo, as opposed to a detailed jigsaw piece in our understanding of ecological webs. In doing so, he reminds the viewer that whilst science can strengthen the foundations of knowledge, it is often misused in the hands of its perpertrators. As such, Dion is wary of those who attempt to present solutions to the ecological crisis in their art: “I’m not one of these artists who is spending a lot of time imagining a better ecological future. I’m more the kind of artist who is holding up a mirror to the present.”

22 Oct 2012

FIAC 2: Allora & Calzadilla, Raptor's Rapture

As well as natural history, the muséum also facilitates research into the prehistory of human society. The gallerie d'anatomie comparée is filled with a sea of bones, with mammoths and giant elk arranged alongside skeletons of our own ancestors. It is in this context that the artist's video holds sway. The installation is a projection of a woman using the oldest musical instrument known to date; a flute consisting of the carved wing bone of a griffon vulture. The sound produced is the same as that first heard by our Homo sapiens ancestors roughly 35,000 years ago.

This link between "man and beast" is all the more striking given that the performance is played out in front of a contemporary vulture, today threatened with extinction. The vulture, at ease and possibly indifferent to the sound of its ancestor interlaced with that of our own, drags the prehistory to the present, and confronts us with our continual and long term link with the wild world.

FIAC 1: Wood & Harrison, Butterfly

The hall of extinction in the grande gallérie d'évolution is a particularly sobering place. Here, the power of taxidermy is put to its best use, by illustrating the beauty of the living who are long gone dead. The dark wooden cabinets are sombrely lit, so that as if peering from beyond, the viewer meets the eyes of a dodo, a quagga or a bubal hartebeest. The iridescent wings from a cabinet of butterflies quickly attract the attention. A particular favourite of the naturalist explorer, the sheer number of these immobilised specimens makes you wonder whether they would have avoided extinction were they to have escaped the mouth of the net. 

Surrounded by all of this death, imagine then, the shock of the viewer at seeing the delicate wings of one of the butterflies fold in and out, like a ghost of its former self. Anamatronic trickery accompanied by the artist's statement challenges us to reassess our relationship with the tomb.

 "And I don't feel any sorrow

One museum
Hundreds of specimens
Once living

One museum
One specimen
Still living"

FIAC: Au Jardin des Plantes

I'm back in Paris for my final year as a masters student, focusing on the research speciality, Biodiversity and Conservation. It is with great pleasure that I have returned to the Jardin des Plantes, the hub of french natural history. It is also the leading name when it comes to the communication of societies interaction with nature. My daily walks from the library to the canteen (french style, think cheese and patisserie buffets) are interspersed with diversions to see 300 year old trees or sperm whale bones.

As if that werent enough, like last year, the FIAC (festival internationale d'art contomporain) has descended on the city, with 29 nature specific works scattered around the grounds. By using the Jardin as an alternative gallery, the artists are able to strengthen the messages of their oeuvres, but also target a non-art gallery audience. The following three works are examples of the importance of context when exhibiting work with a message.

15 Oct 2012


When the sun sets, the canopy closes over, and the chirping of birds gives way to the noise of the night, it is hard to remember that nature is what sustains us. Instead it becomes an unknown, a direct threat to our humanity, instilling in us the very biophobia which it could be argued is responsible for the brutal divide between us and it. Quick legs, sharp teeth, and piercing eyes all lurk within the hungry shadows. Lars von Trier highlights the idea of "nature as Satan's church" in his film Antichrist.

Fear stems from an inability to predict the unknown, but it could also be argued that we have constructed rational fears based on previous knowledge. Ssssnakes and spiders across the globe elicit reactions of terror, further enforced by cultural practice, rightly so given their nefarious defensive mechanisms which will have been of fatal importance to our ancestors. The nostalgia felt for the savannahs could be construed as viewed with the same eye, an area of abundant game but importantly visible enemies, unlike the dark dank green hell of the tropics. Biophobia must be an important consideration when tackling human enduced eco-cide, and understood when addressing our relationship with nature.