Enfilade

Exhibition | Making Nature: How We See Animals

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on December 11, 2016

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Press release (23 September 2016) from the Wellcome Collection:

Making Nature: How We See Animals
Wellcome Collection, London, 1 December 2016 — 21 May 2017

Curated by Honor Beddard

The question of how humans relate to other animals has captivated philosophers, anthropologists, scientists, ethicists and artists for centuries. Making Nature brings together over 100 objects from literature, film, taxidermy, and photography to examine what we think, feel, and value about other species and the consequences this has for the world around us. It will include works by contemporary artists including Allora and Calzadilla and Phillip Warnell and asks how and why we look at animals and what we see when we do.

From the formalisation of natural history as a science, through the establishment of museums and zoos, to lavish contemporary wildlife documentaries, Making Nature reveals the hierarchies in our view of the natural world and considers how these influence our actions, or inactions, towards the planet. The exhibition—organised around four themes: ordering, displaying, observing, and making—opens with Marcus Coates’s Degreecoordinates, Shared Traits of the Hominini (Humans, Bonobos and Chimpanzees), 2015. This recent work questions the definitions of difference between species and establishes this as an idea that runs throughout the exhibition.

Attempts to categorise the natural world in the 18th century will be introduced through the work of Carl Linnaeus and the publication of Systema Naturae in 1735. His efforts to record, describe, and classify the animal kingdom solved the practical problem of identifying species but introduced a manmade ranking system. Similarly, Charles Bonnet’s Scale of Natural Beings 1783 provided a ladder of the animal kingdom with humans placed at the top. Such views are challenged by the depictions of animals—and human-like animals—in Jonathan Swift’s satire of man, Gulliver’s Travels.

Making Nature questions the approach of ‘learning through looking’, including artists such as herman de vries, a trained botanist interested in the challenge of objectivity, and Edwina Ashton who explores the politics of representation. The importance of listening is also examined by artists Allora and Calzadilla in The Great Silence (2014). This film installation is a depiction of endangered parrots paired against footage of the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest telescope, in Puerto Rica.

The exhibition also charts changing fashions of museum displays alongside society’s changing attitudes to nature, from overstuffed cabinets in Victorian institutions to elaborately staged dioramas from natural history museums in the 20th century. Contemporary photographers Richard Ross and Hiroshi Sugimoto expose the complexities of successive attempts to give visitors an authentic representation of the animal in a museum setting, revealing works of art as yet another form of mediation. Roger Fenton’s 1855 image of an unnaturally upright gorilla skeleton next to a human one, taken during his time as the British Museum’s documentary photographer, interrogates the idea that natural history displays may not necessarily represent an objective truth.

The search for an authentic encounter with nature will be further examined through our ever more ambitious attempts to get closer to animals—in zoos, national parks, and on screen—while simultaneously hoping to preserve their wildness. The New Architecture and The London Zoo (1936), a film by László Moholy-Nagy, and Casson Condor’s architectural photographs from the 1970s provide examples of how the designs of zoo enclosures are used to frame animals. The phenomena of the ‘zoo-pet’, or mascot, is explored through cases like Jumbo the elephant, adored by Victorian audiences and subject of a public outcry when he was sold to P. T. Barnum’s Circus in 1882. Souvenirs and toys will show how zoo animals have frequently been anthropomorphised in popular culture.

Depictions of animals on film include, Woodpeckers 1954, the first documentary to use new camera technologies to film a family of woodpeckers from within their nest. When broadcast on the BBC, it was second in popularity only to the Queen’s coronation that year and set the precedent for natural history documentaries that remain popular today. The exhibition also features an extract from Seal Island (1948), part of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures series of nature films promoted as entertainment.

Phillip Warnell’s film installation Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air (2016) explores the true story of Antoine Yates, who lived in a high-rise New York apartment with a tiger called Ming and a large alligator. Combining documentary with recreated scenes, Warnell offers new insights on the human/animal relationship and the question of representation.

The final section of the exhibition is curated in collaboration with the Center for PostNatural History, Pittsburgh, USA, the only organisation to solely collect organisms that have been intentionally altered by humans. Specimens, paintings, literature, and scientific models—many on loan from the Center’s museum—will chart a relationship to animals that is bound up with the history, and future, of human civilisation. This includes the breeding of domesticated pigeons by Charles Darwin that helped to inform his theories of natural selection and the genetic modification of mosquitos in the fight against disease spread. Further case studies comprise dog breeding, the origins of laboratory mice and rats, and a history of songbirds as told by musicologist Ian Nagoski. Unlike traditional natural history collections, the significance of postnatural organisms lies in the role they play in human culture.

Making Nature is the first part of a year-long exploration of our relationship with the natural world in the past, present, and future. The exhibition is curated by Honor Beddard, and the exhibition design is by AOC.

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Tim Dee and Anna Faherty, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Organising Nature: A Picture Album (London: Wellcome Collection, 2016), 112 pages, ISBN: 978 095  7028593, £13.

animal-vegetable-mineral-book-coverAnimal, Vegetable, Mineral celebrates the beauty and strangeness of the very early ‘infographics’, charts, and ordering systems devised in an age that transformed how we see and understand nature. These are the tools created by pioneering European naturalists, artists, scientists, housewives, and explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries in an attempt to better understand (and control) a teeming and shifting natural world: the original big data challenge. In a collision of science, art, and imagination, these images and objects range from intricate specimen illustrations, taxonomy charts, and animal distribution maps, to lavish colour dictionaries, and more. Together, they attest to the deeply human desire to order and identify the world around us—and a restless quest to find our own place in it.

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