There’s a post on Instagram; a photo mottled with gallery reflections, close-up and a little oblique. It shows a vintage glass slide of a zookeeper and his charge. It’s not the best image but has an instant power. The keeper, wearing a peaked cap and a stern expression, holds high a short, straight chain. On the end of it is a bear cub, who – standing on hind legs to receive a proffered something – is about the height of a child. Sharp sunlight falls on the couple, throwing their shadows to the concrete. They are framed and bound by the bars of enclosure. So much history and narrative, trapped in a small sheet of glass, erupting like some anachronistic burp from the surface of my phone.
This is my first encounter with Animals Out of Place, a project set in motion by a chance find in an Ipswich attic in 2015. There artists Barbara Griffin and Graham Jarritt discovered a set of early 20th century glass slides, put aside sometime between 1920 and 1955 by Jarritt’s grandfather, who ran a furniture and house clearance business. The majority of these misplaced objects turned out to be images of London Zoo, made to be shown in a ‘magic lantern’ projector. That popular entertainment experience would shortly become ‘out of place’ itself, superseded by the moving images of nascent cinema.
Griffin, a visual sociologist, cites the slides as a find that best illustrates her interest in ‘objects out of place’ particularly those that embody the ‘performance of power’. What began as a research subject became a labour of love as Griffin and Jarritt (who has a background in librarianship) set about sorting and cataloguing the slides, which number over 700. They were made by two amateur photographers unconnected to London Zoo but who nonetheless seem to have had privileged access to the animal enclosures to record their inhabitants. Richard Hancock (1870-1952), was an auctioneer, amateur naturalist and microscopist. No details have yet been found for the other photographer: William Shakespeare. Drawing on specialist knowledge in photography, costume, social and natural history has enabled Griffin and Jarritt to identify species and date the slides to approximately 1910. They hope to complete a full inventory by early 2020.
Their initial findings are given artistic expression in a small if rather heart-breaking exhibition, Animals Out of Place, on tour this year. Twenty slides have been selected to form the basis of a show that examines the context of both the animals photographed and the slides themselves and finds them adrift from their origins. Jarritt devised wall-mounted lightboxes to display the slides and Griffin paired the images with simple wall text drawn from the IUCN Red List of threatened species and dictionary descriptions that emphasise the tension between popular perception and grim reality for the captives. In addition, two poets, Kathryn Hobson and Anna Edgar, were asked to respond to selected slides. Their interpretations take divergent paths. Hobson takes a leaf from the wit of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales: playing with form and words, she imbues the animals in her ‘small spaces’ with at least some agency over their human onlookers. For Edgar the contradictions of dull captivity versus the dangers of freedom lay the responsibility for nature’s demise squarely at our feet.
Like a kind of archaic camera trap, the lightboxes are sensitive to human presence, illuminating to reveal moments of encounter in the life of the zoo and between photographers and subjects. We know little of those taking the photographs and nothing of the zookeepers or the inner lives of individual animals who stand in for the rest of their kind. As well as the bear cub there are further wretched inmates: a gibbon in a collar and lead perches high up on a ledge seemingly ready to spring away; a zoo keeper pauses to caress a baby elephant in an enclosure bare but for the pail he has brought; a lion slumps into the corner of a cell; a lioness stares through bars resignedly and next to her the wall text notes the animals’ current status as ‘vulnerable’; ears back, a tiger frowns from the silvery glass with what I can only describe as an expression of utter madness that makes me want to step back from the glare of the lightbox in which it’s caught.
Over time the zoo as a place of theatre has come to be seen as one of incarceration.
Some species that would have been prized for their rareness and exoticism in the zoo appear in Griffin and Jarritt’s slides but have barely survived into the 21st century. Others not at all. The lucrative trade in wild animals for early zoological collections contributed to the subsequent extinction of several species including the unique Tasmanian marsupial thylacine (of which 20 passed through the zoo’s hands) and the quagga, a plains zebra distinctive for having brown striping restricted to its forequarters.
Animals in a zoo are, by definition, out of (their own) place. In his book, Animals in Film, writer Jonathan Burt remarks that zoos themselves ’are often places out of joint‘; journeys into nature through artifice. Their inhabitants are unwitting actors in a long-standing carnival of animals. The highlight of many a Victorian or Edwardian trip to the zoo might include feeding buns to the bears in their pit or taking an elephant or camel ride. Even through most of the 20th century, the antics of the chimpanzees ‘tea-party’ were hugely popular (at least with humans).
Whilst zoos remain popular in some quarters, the institutions themselves and their ethics are increasingly coming in for public criticism. At the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria alarmingly poor management and welfare led to the death of nearly 500 animals in its care over a four-year period, and the zoo losing its licence in 2017 (since renewed under new management) following public calls for its closure. Copenhagen Zoo met with a storm of international protest in 2014 when it decided to be transparent about the fate of ‘surplus’ zoo animals and, despite offers from other zoos, killed Marius, a healthy two-year-old giraffe whose genes were considered ‘too common’ for breeding, conducted a public dissection in front of large crowd and later fed him to the lions. It seems even the zoo sometimes sees its animals as ‘out of place’, albeit on rather different terms.
But animals can be argued to be ‘out of place’ in many other situations too: oceanariums, circuses, urban environments, on our plates or even in our homes. Anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out the sociology of ‘matter out of place’: dirt in the garden is good, on the kitchen floor not so much. Whilst I’ve no wish to endorse captivity, to say an animal is ‘out of place’ does presuppose that there is a ‘right’ place for other creatures. Even recognising that wild animals ‘belong’ in the wild, it’s worth considering how this concept reinforces division in a world in which no habitat has escaped human influence and our lives are entangled with animal others in complex and messy ways. How we perceive matter, or for that matter, animals, is determined by context and cultural values, but always in relation to ourselves. Animals in a zoo cease to be truly ‘wild’, but if they ever ‘escape’ their imprisonment, ‘wildness’ once again becomes their distinguishing feature in media reports. Over time the zoo as a place of theatre has come to be seen as one of incarceration. Even though the conditions animals are kept in have improved, it’s too late: we’ve changed our minds.
Realising that we are looking at nature not with nature, it’s ourselves that we see out of place.
In Griffin and Jarritt’s exhibition, the lightboxes are at once historic and contemporary. They are time machines ravelling up the circumstances of science, amusement, culture and history. It’s an act of temporal dislocation, this viewing by modern means, of glass plates of long dead animals, some of whose species are now more numerous in captivity than the wild. In Zoos: A Philosophical Tour, philosopher Keekok Lee speculated whether animals kept in zoos really are wild animals, or just shadows of wild animals. Peering into the lightboxes we are confronted by a dim reflection of ourselves and the exercise of power that characterises much of our interaction with the natural world and each other, resulting in division, opposition, and marginalisation. In the gallery we’re not separated from wild animals by bars but divided from their likeness by a pane of glass. John Berger, in his famous essay, Why Look at Animals?, remarks that visitors in a zoo ‘proceed from cage to cage, not unlike visitors in an art gallery’. Even then, viewers remain spectators; animals spectacle. Perhaps that’s the disturbing thing: realising that we are looking at nature not with nature. It’s ourselves that we see out of place.
Griffin and Jarritt say the slides are presented to ‘invite reflection – artistically, emotionally or rationally’ and indeed there’s nothing overt or garrulous about this sensitive exhibition. In fact, its power comes in part from curatorial decisions that quietly pair emotive images with impassive statement. Despite the modest approach conclusions are drawn: gallery text reminds us that the animals were ‘kept and displayed according to the order of a more powerful species (humans) and systematically recorded photographically’.
It’s a humiliating relationship that still stands today. In Some Notes Towards a Manifesto for Artists Working With or About the Living World Mark Dion points out: ‘While some may wish to dissolve the contradictions in our social relations to the natural world, others may be interested in analysing or highlighting them.’ Part of the artists’ purpose here is to provoke dialogue about how the world is seen and thought of, and viewers are encouraged to leave feedback. Comments in the visitors’ book contrast the feelings people had towards zoos as children, with how they feel today. One gallery attendant remarked she could no longer bear to look into the lightboxes, finding the pictures too upsetting.
What else is suspended in these lost-and-founds? The untold impulse or commission that prompted their taking, the fates of the animals within, the people seen alongside them; keepers and zoo visitors and what their opinions might have been of the zoo and its inmates.
Animals Out of Place invites the viewer to consider a raft of questions about how we perceive ourselves in relation to other animals, and what bearing context has on those attitudes. Amongst the contemporary issues raised by the exhibition is the purpose of zoos, whether we should look at other animals for gratification, and what rights we confer on them. A crucial point for the artists is whether, having made a connection, can it carry meaning beyond the gallery? Can art make a difference in the wider world?
Griffin and Jarritt are keen to continue the discussion via future iterations of their artwork. They are especially open to showing the installation in learning environments. Given they are only halfway through cataloguing the slides other readings of the collection may come to the fore, offering scope for variation as more is revealed. As it stands, Animals Out of Place is a work of sombre beauty and humanity that deserves to be seen widely.
Animals Out of Place was exhibited at Hartlepool Art Gallery and Library this spring before touring to Blackpool College. It will be shown next at St Aidans Hall, Berwick-upon-Tweed, as part of the Berwick Literary Festival, from 18th to 20th October, where visitors will be encouraged to make their own contributions to the exhibition in prose or poetry.
All artwork Barbara Griffin and Graham Jarritt, zebra house photo courtesy of Jason Hynes.