Hello, World: Making Nature at Wellcome Collection

Richard Ross, British Museum, Natural History, London, England 1985

Karl Reich’s 1913 recording of a nightingale – among the world’s earliest extant recordings of bird song – feels like a bottled metaphor for modernity. Trapped in shellac, this sweet twittering turned stand-in for nature, poetry and sex all at once, becomes a ghost of its living and mythical self, haunting us with questions of its reality and our gaze. The recording is not a nightingale – and certainly not Keats’ “immortal Bird”. It is our resonant image of a nightingale. It isn’t nature, poetry or sex, nor can it even fulfill the bird’s semiotic duties. It is neutered even as it is rendered permanent in its youthful glory.

Of the questions at the heart of Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection (to 21st May 2017), perhaps most consuming is the power and meaning of this act of distancing. By looking at animals, do we cease to see them? And when we cease to see them, do both human and nonhuman cease to be? Is our human gaze that of the Medusa?

Making Nature presents us with an historical and aesthetic survey of systems and structures, visions and vices that project our human impulse to organise onto our animal brethren. Through these systems we know which are the kings of animals and which are the expendables; we know which creatures have a moral compass and which are sly, slick and wicked. If these structures are overturned, if there is, in fact, no ‘natural order’ to the animal kingdom, can there be an order to anything? If you cannot know which of these others is which, than how can you ever ‘know thyself’?

The story of Making Nature is a beautiful one, its telling done with a masterful if, at times, forceful curatorial hand.

The story of Making Nature is a beautiful one, its telling done with a masterful if, at times, forceful curatorial hand. Its narrative arc begins with Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century naturalist whose taxonomy of the animal kingdom gave us methods of naming and classifying animals still in use today. It ends with the nightingale’s song, the mechanisation of animalia’s folk-queen. It is a story of a human relationship with the animal kingdom that ranges from respect to horror; swerves from organise-and-conserve to divide-and-conquer. It is the story, as the exhibition’s title implies, not of non-human animals but of the way we as humans look at them.

Striding atop Linnaeus’ paradigm-shifting taxonomy, Systema Natura, exhibited here in its aesthetically glorious and historically exciting 1735 first edition, is, of course, man – Homo – described with the phrase Nosce te ipsum: ‘Know thyself’. Surrounding the Systema in the room titled ‘Ordering’ are examples of mankind’s attempts to ‘Know thyself’, as our language is so often tempted to do, by describing what mankind is not. For example, naming the animals, as Adam does in a 1743 engraving by Gérard Jean Baptiste Scotin II, drawing parallels between Linnaeus’ work and something sacred and seminal, alongside scientific specimens and writings that help illustrate the simple perfection of the naming system.

Gérard Jean Baptiste Scotin II, Adam in Paradise, 1743, Wellcome Library, London. Making Nature

But there is another side to such ‘ordering’: that which lies between; that which is neither human nor non-. And these troublesome negations, too, describe what mankind is through a series of questions posed of humanity, of taxonomy, of systems in general. While many are direct – an advertisement for 19th-century carnival human/animal ‘nondescript’ Julia Pastrana; an extract from Jorge Luis Borges’ fictitious taxonomic system – the most powerful examples are, themselves, deeply nondescript.

In herman de vries’ 2015 works from earth, the Dutch artist creates rubbings from his four-decade old collection of earth samples – the ‘earth museum’ – directly into paper. There is no mediation, no description, no categorisation, simply the meaty ochres and chalks and flesh-tones of the ground presented to us in its stark beauty. Without words, hierarchies, with barely a concept, de vries’ work practically negates any need for ‘ordering’ with its act of being. (de vries’ anti-hierarchy stance extends so far as his titles, even his name: no capital letters.)

We can see the development of a cozy kind of folk-science: the feeling of a display – and therefore an idea of the animal – becoming ‘accurate’.

Likewise, in Abbas Akhavan’s works, the wildness of nature coexists with our order. Akhavan’s animals, frozen by taxidermy into their final death throes, are curled in unexpected places throughout the exhibition – a fox, an owl, a badger, prone on the gallery floor or under a display table with no label, no interpretation; no information at all. As I toured Making Nature, a school group encountered the fox, taken by surprise. There were shrieks and laughter, and there was genuine wonder: is it real? Is it dead? Is it still alive? In the case of one student, ‘Do they know that thing got in?’

Making Nature moves through its arc room by room, each building on the previous with its collections of artworks, literature, scientific documentation, natural-history exhibits and ‘nondescript’ ephemera. But always the focus returns to order – to the system, and that which defies it. As ‘Ordering’ becomes ‘Displaying’ and ‘Observing’, curator Honor Beddard’s lens turns to the natural history museum and the zoo – more precisely, the idea of a natural history museum and zoo. And it does so from top to bottom, from the concept sketches of Victorian museums, to models of dinosaurs to be fabricated for the Crystal Palace, to the 3D-printed skull of an extinct Barbary lion, purchased from the Natural History Museum, London’s gift shop. From the Smithsonian’s archival photographs of America’s 19th-century National Zoological Park and National Park system, to the proposals for the new mid-1930s modernist animal enclosures at Regent Park Zoo and mid-century BBC nature documentaries.

The Elephant House designed by Architects, Casson Conder Partnership. Elephant in front of pavillion with tree, photo by Henk Snoek, 1965. Making Nature.

The system – or, perhaps, Systema – is here seen changing the way we present animals to ourselves: if Linnaeus and his followers created a hierarchy, the culture has then gathered all the input from that hierarchy and reinforced it. Folktales, mythology and popular imagination all go into the way the animal kingdom is displayed in literature and in museums, such that we can see the development of a cozy kind of folk-science: the feeling of a display – and therefore an idea of the animal – becoming ‘accurate’.

Making Nature is organised as a web, an ecosystem: each object in the exhibition, be it a vitrine-displayed magazine article or a multi-channel video artwork, both supports and comments on the other objects. This ecosystem works particularly well for the contemporary artworks chosen for the show. In the images from his Museology series, artist Richard Ross creates photographs that show the behind-the-scenes lives of natural history museum exhibits: the plastic-bagged heads of mounted caribou from the British Museum, or taxidermy parrots jumbled together and covered with cardboard in Paris. These images remove the displays from their context and remind us that the origin of these views is in the human gaze. Similarly, in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Dioramas series, the artist’s photographs of diorama displays are carefully staged to eliminate from view any sign of the diorama – its cases and frames. Thus ‘Galapagos’ appears to be simply two stoical turtles, crawling aimlessly through their island still life. With the framework for ordering these creatures removed, the inhabitants of the diorama are returned to a neutered wild to stare in permanent confusion.

Hiroshi Sugimoto,  Galapagos, 1980 -¬ Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery. Making Nature

The making of nature itself is to be seen throughout this exhibition – from the way a 19th-century gorilla’s skeleton was positioned to look more human, to the 3D-printing of extinct species. The Center for PostNatural History (CPNH) focuses on much more direct ‘making’ and meddling. The Pittsburgh-based brainchild of artist Rich Pell and associates, since 2008 the CPNH has worked on its mission to collect and interpret biological entities that have been created or manipulated by human interference. Pell curated a selection of annotated items for Making Nature, and it examines a breadth of human interference: the body of a white rat which scientists had forced into alcoholism; the embryo of a mouse bred to have no ribs; photos of rodents samples held by the Smithsonian – rodents collected from Nagasaki and from atomic test sites; CPNH collaborator and Canary Records founder Ian Nagoski’s collections of birdsong recordings and ephemera.

The CPNH’s work, among the most unique and exciting art projects currently in action, is leant profundity by its dry, witty delivery. Interpretive information about many of the exhibits is provided via audio in a 1950s-educational-film delivery complete with space-age musical flourishes. The photos in the Atomic Age Rodents series play with the conventions of specimen documentation, the focus shifted to the ‘toe-tag’ informational label, the animal itself shown only as the tag’s bearer. Ian Nagoski’s contributions, which might seem distant from their CPNH sisters at first glance, are united by presentation – in similar vitrine-case museum style, with available audio of the birdsong’s and Nagoski’s interpretation.

Is, perhaps, the downfall of these animals to be found in their human-given names – our ordering, our systems?

In the sounds of the birdsong, we have one answer to Making Nature’s questions – the descent from human language; the attempt to notate, copy and comprehend the nonhuman song. In 1751, according to Making Nature’s notes for a flower given the taxonomist’s name, Carl Linnaeus wrote, ‘If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.’ It’s a theme that has become popular and important in recent years, as artists and writers attempt to slow the attrition of the English language’s nature vocabulary. A reconciliation is necessary, it is proposed, because we lose sight of nonhuman animals and habitats when we humans ‘forget’ them in our language. Making Nature begins to ask whether it might be the other way around. Is, perhaps, the downfall of these animals to be found in their human-given names – our ordering, our systems? Perhaps we need to put language at the root of this dichotomy. ‘The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck’ – within each technology is the root of its own disaster. With language comes naming, with naming comes hierarchy; with hierarchy comes distance, dissection and disassociation.

Making Nature is bookended by two pieces on language. At its very beginning is Allora & Calzadilla’s ‘The Great Silence’, a three-channel video installation that presents images of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, charged with sending messages into outer space in search of intelligent life, alongside similar footage of a sanctuary for the Puerto Rico amazon parrot – a critically endangered bird species. These are joined together by a modern fable written by speculative-fiction writer Ted Chiang and presented as rolling text: told from a parrot’s point of view, it questions why humans are sending messages into space while ignoring the pleas of their fellow earthlings. Chiang’s story plays off of the true story of a parrot named Alex that was part of an animal-language experiment and which, famously, the night before suddenly dying, told his keeper, ‘You be good. I love you.’ At the exhibition’s close is ‘Hello, World’, a CPNH exhibit of E. coli bacteria manipulated to be photosensitive and used to spell out the phrase as a ‘living photograph’ of 100 million bacteria per square inch.

In between these two greetings Making Nature offers a story full of recorded-nightingale questions – the kind of questions we usually mistake for external statements, even though they are really embedded in our DNA. Here, they are offered up as questions once again: ‘Know thyself?’, asked of emperor and clown alike; ‘Hello, World?’ – tentative and nervous of the answer.

‘Be good?’, spoken in the dark.

‘I love you?’

 
 

Making Nature: How we see animals is at Wellcome Collection, London until 21st May 2017.

Image credits (from top):
1. Richard Ross, British Museum, Natural History, London, England 1985
2. Gérard Jean Baptiste Scotin II, Adam in Paradise, 1743, Wellcome Library, London
3. The Elephant House designed by Architects, Casson Conder Partnership. Elephant in front of pavillion with tree, photo by Henk Snoek, 1965
4. Hiroshi Sugimoto, Galapagos, 1980 © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery.

 
 

The Learned Pig

Justin Hopper

Justin Hopper is a writer from Pittsburgh, USA, currently living and working in London. His recent work includes audio-poetry cycles rooted in landscape, memory and myth (Ley Line and the Public Record series), as well as readings and projects related to The Old Weird Albion, an in-progress book seeking alternative visions of Englishness while walking the South Downs Way. He has spent most of the past 15 years as a journalist, writing about everything from Icelandic art and blue-eyed soul to entymology, black-bloc agitprop, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.