Animals as art

A biologist and journalist review a Brooklyn artist's attempt to bring the zoo to SoHo

By | February 23, 2007

On a midwinter Saturday, evolutionary biologist Michael Purugganan and I cross New York City streets -- clogged with muddy snow and weekend traffic -- to meet up at the zoo. But this zoo had no cages or enclosures. Just TV monitors. Six years ago, while an artist-in-residence in Trinidad, Nina Katchadourian treated herself to a day at the zoo, and fell in love. She became inspired to create her most recent project, Zoo, a work-in-progress consisting of video and audio footage from zoos in Helsinki, Stockholm, London, and Port-of-Spain.
Showing at SoHo's Location One until March 24, Zoo showcases a number of bizarre zoo moments -- where, for instance, humans appear to mingle with lions thanks to an optical illusion, and close-ups transform the familiar into the unrecognizable. By presenting the animals ambiguously, Katchadourian wants viewers to question what they really know about these elusive creatures, and ponder the clarity of the line that separates us from them. One might expect the exhibit's creator to resemble a mad scientist of sorts, but the petite Katchadourian is frank, personable, and down-to-earth. The chaos that these bizarre scenes elicit is meant to capture the "weird and interesting sense of confusion" that people experience at the zoo, says the Brooklyn-based artist. Moving through the exhibit, there are many head-scratching spectacles: a peculiar hairy face (actually the top of a sleeping reindeer's head); lions co-habitating with children (thanks to a Plexiglas reflection); a neurotic bird; and what appears to be a close-up of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster (but which is, in fact, peacock feathers). In the background, visitors hear sheep bleating, birds chirping, and looping classical music; the environment feels less like an art gallery and more like a zany circus. One Brazilian otter's cry eerily resembles a baby's cry. The exhibit "is about building a whole space, visually but also acoustically," Katchadourian notes. After perusing the space silently and thoughtfully for several minutes, New York University Professor (and art enthusiast) Purugganan notes that the exhibit highlights, for him, the artificial nature of zoos. "I'm watching these animals, but they're so distant from me," he says, shouting over the noise as he continues to meander through the collection of monitors.
The distance that people create between themselves and the natural world affects science, too, he adds. "The study of human evolution is shackled by this notion that we as humans are a little bit distinct from animals." The exhibit, he says, accentuates this detachment, because not only has the zoo captured these animals once already, Katchadourian has "captured them again, in this virtual setting." Several of the monitors reveal this human-animal distance directly, by showing the aloof behavior of both zoo-goers and zoo animals. The animals are doing their own thing, and so are the people walking past the animals, and "there's this feeling of no communication between the two," Katchadourian says. This disconnect is also partially responsible for the sense of disappointment people sometimes experience at the zoo, when an animal doesn't display the type of behavior it's known for, such as fierceness, according to Katchadourian. One monitor highlights this, as people at the Stockholm Zoo walk, somewhat dissatisfied, past a dozing crocodile. When capturing the animals like this, the exhibit somewhat resembles a "really boring National Geographic show," Purugganan points out, laughing. But this is, perhaps, precisely the point: Katchadourian's exhibit makes us question our stereotypes about the animal kingdom.
The current exhibit consists of eight televisions set up to mimic a zoo environment, while the final version, which Katchadourian hopes will open this November at New York's Sara Meltzer Gallery, will have up to 25 monitors showing footage and audio from nine zoos. Melinda Wenner is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Melinda Wenner Images: Nina Katchadourian with the monitors that make up Zoo, all taken on February 16, 2007 at Location One. Links within this article Michael Purugganan Nina Katchadourian Location One ME Watanabe, "At what point do genes influence development?" The Scientist, November 25, 2002. ME Watanabe, "Standing guard - inside the zoo," The Scientist, July 14, 2003. G. Flores, "U.S. zoos prepare for avian flu," The Scientist, December 14, 2005. Sara Meltzer Gallery

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