Curated by David LaRiviere
May 17 to June 21, 2013.
Maria Whiteman (Edmonton)
Clint Wilson (Edmonton)
Curated by David LaRiviere. Text by David LaRiviere.
Memories of a Naturalist
How is it that the Memories of a Naturalist should relate to the work of artists Maria Whiteman and Clint Wilson? In order to address this question we will examine both of their respective art projects for a variety of concerns that pertain first to “memory,” then the soft science of the “naturalist” as related to the problematic1 concept of “becoming.” In the first case, how do the general conditions of memory operate in relation to the pursuits of a naturalist? The initial assumption pertains to memory as a construction, one that serves as an organizing principle for much of the taxonomies of the Naturalist, call it the “knowledge-base.” The specimen only becomes “knowable” in the course of memory setting out an array of points that construct diorama, hence memory is the constituent element of its construction and, as we shall see, a point of departure for both of the artists concerned. The title for this exhibition, as with its curious appearance in A Thousand Plateaus— found amidst a broader discussion of “becoming animal,” is here invoked not as a support, nor as a key or solution, but rather as a complex and ongoing problematic. If the Naturalist constructs her system from memories, moving from point to point, can the model be a sufficient account to determine, much less anticipate, the outcomes of a given ecosystem? Is it tenable for Scientific undertakings to encompass nature in this way? The artistic projects that comprise this exhibition are mounted precisely upon the terrain that escapes such determinations, variously exploring the pathos of capture and the limit-case of knowledge.
Maria Whiteman photographs and videotapes various taxidermized specimens from within the vaults of Natural History Museums that she has gained access to. Her interest in this subject stems from an impetus to interrogate the scientific assumptions of Natural History with an intuitive and artistic procedure, one that implicates systems of knowledge that would subordinate affect to narrative. To be sure, a haunted sensibility cuts across both her photographic and video work, and it’s not surprising given the base line fact that these are depictions of dead things positioned as living nature. Relative to her interest in diorama, the photographic series develops a theme of capture: vitality as it comes to be fixed in time. With each of the museological specimens, a snarling coyote, a lynx, an owl, etc. Whiteman prints onto acetate transparency that is positioned on top of such materials as bubble wrap and corrugated cardboard. These everyday office supplies impact the work by effectively immersing her subject onto a tactile, grid-like substrate, an aggressive but well observed use of common materials. The animals photographed and presented in this way take on a heightened sense of capture, frozen not in amber but in packaging. Bestowed animistic postures of each subject in turn promotes a sense of pathos that carries throughout Whiteman’s project, the snarling coyote is trapped in a moment of death after all.
A similar sense of bio-political pathos is explored with Whiteman’s video work, both pieces entitled I Saw You Standing There. The title refers to the artist’s recording of an encounter between herself and a series of larger stuffed mammals, specimens that are likewise kept in museum storage. Whiteman explained that a preliminary aspect of her process, before her performance, involves obtaining permissions, a matter that may be supported or justified by related academic and artistic activities, and one that entails navigating institutional authority. Suffice it to say that the project’s critical bearing must be carefully disclosed. Even at that, the permission that is granted only goes part of the way. Whiteman obtained general access to museum storage in order to photograph various specimens, but she only touched them when no one was looking. The camera tracks over the the body and face of the static animal in a slow, fluid motion, always at close range and following the artist’s hand (surreptitiously) raking with and against the nap of the animal’s fur. Around the edges of this interaction we catch snippets of the metal cage upon which a deer, for example, is hanging by an s-hook from its rump. The importance of such overtly violent edge-work lies in the way that the storage context overcomes, even implicates commodity fetishism, as with the kind of eroticism associated with stroking a fur coat. Especially where, for example, the grizzly’s face is concerned, the encounter that Whiteman stages implies a haptic2 communication, imbued as her action is with a close range, textural exploration. Empathy turns to pathos at the very moment that the intimate touch meets with an inert mass, an animal-become-prop for the memory of a naturalist.
Whereas Maria Whiteman contemplates the capture and pathos embodied by the natural history specimen, the counter-attack staged in Clint Wilson’s project targets the what Deleuze and Guatarri describe as a “Royal Science,”3 the science of establishment and control. A case in point is Wilson’s Untitled (Series), a grouping of nine colour photographs that feature labelled specimens, each named according to genus or species. The dictates of a taxonomy, a science of classification that assigns points and fixes the specimen, is also operative in a process that reduces a given animal to little more than a mnemonic device. As with Whiteman’s photographic series, Wilson deploys a shallow depth of field that mostly obscures its subject, drawing tiny areas into focus with a technique that resembles the tilt-shift lens effect. What is blurred in these photographs is precisely what ordinarily functions as an explicit relation, between the specimen and its corresponding name, the coordinates that locate this once-animal as genus and species. Wilson builds a tension between the label and the specimen, playing with focus so as to posit a purposeful ambiguity, a kind of mystery seeded inside of the declaration. Untitled (Series) was mounted in solid black frames of identical dimensions, foregrounding modular and interchangeable properties in the work. In fact with prior installations Wilson has configured the series in a grid, and in some situations edited out images for space. Between the hard, regular geometry of the thick black frames and the blurry displacement of the subject photographed, another content emerges, that of an overwrought scientific determination, one that fails to grasp the complexity of the subject as a multiplicity, the mysterious subject that embodies an entire constellation of affects that enter into composition with an open, chaotic system. In Wilson’s series, what escapes the taxonomic memory of the expert Naturalist is precisely this movement of becoming.
Up until now we have considered only photographs and videos of dead specimens, and as such both artists have imbued their respective frozen bestiaries with unexpected dimensions. In different ways, the diorama and other devices of museological “authority” are herein implicated as being little more than determinations that move from point to point, reducing a given animal to an established memory, a fully formed, even cliché narrative representation. With his video installation Carousel, Wilson turns his attention to the living specimen, timber wolves to be exact, and to their corresponding, quasi-scientific institutional frame: the zoo. The installation is named Carousel on account of its odd configuration, involving two video projectors mounted on posts in the centre of the gallery space, each post outfitted with a motor that rotates the projectors and projected video clockwise and counter-clockwise. The tracking movement of the video projection has an obvious allusion to a fairground carousel. However, a more ominous association overshadows the relatively cheerful title of this work, as the arrangement likewise alludes to the Panopticon– the infamous prison design invented by 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. As with the Panopticon, Wilson places the “sentry” post at the centre. Consequently, everyone entering into the installation is compelled to adopt the warden’s 360 degree vantage point in relation to the caged wolves. The projections themselves allude to cells, and their continuous back and forth tracking movements, which mechanically pan through a prison-in-the-round, double back at a certain point and intersect at times. Hence the movement of the video “cells” allude to the compulsive pacing of the wolves. With this work Wilson contests the fundamental assumption that in captivity we find timber wolves living, as it were, in a cross section of their “natural” habitat. The artist notes the pacing of the timber wolves fits a disturbing profile of animal mental illness sometimes referred to as stereotypy4. Having said this, what is at stake in Carousel goes way beyond a statement about animal rights. The wolves and their artificial habitat, like the museum diorama, are exposed as a Panopticism; a centralized form of surveillance and control, ultimately an expression of disciplinary society that privileges a “Royal Science,” and produces only the story of what is already established. In this way Carousel makes legible a counterproductive scientific expression of power, one that brutally subordinates that which is a chaotic and unpredictable to a mere representation.
In part two of the three-part BBC series All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis traces a brief history of the Naturalist and the popular notion of the “Ecosystem.” Within this recounting there are episodes of falsifying data and other byproducts of specious thinking, at one extreme leading to The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts5 and subsequently the apartheid system in South Africa. Perhaps more interesting than all of the skeletons in the closet, Curtis also recounts the challenges that are mounted from within Ecological science, the projects that overturn controlling scientific orthodoxy. One such instance is the story of George Van Dyne, the first director of the “Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory.” With only the best of intentions Van Dyne set out to build a comprehensive, cybernetic model of a complete ecosystem, painstakingly slitting open the bellies of insects, analyzing deer feces, etc. Upon entering an unprecedented volume of data Van Dyne discovered the opposite of what he was looking for, namely that the consideration of such comprehensive detail did not lead to a more comprehensive model but rather an increasingly chaotic one. While it is true that the system is rife with feedback, it is decidedly not closed, and the lines of escape will always overwhelm the model, increasingly so when it is rigorous. This is the point of departure for the art work in question, whether through pathos and touch, or by counter-attack, Maria Whiteman and Clint Wilson engage is an artistic expression that is in excess of the diorama, of the zoo, in deference to a content and expression that overspills the semiotic bounds of the memories of the naturalist.
1. “Problematic” understood as the activity of a problem, or a problem that is in motion as opposed to a problem that is situated.
2. “With the haptic Deleuze argues that space becomes tactile as if the eye were now a hand caressing one surface after another without any sense of the overall configuration or mutual relation of those surfaces. It is a virtual space whose fragmented components can be assembled in multiple combinations.” http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/crpl_art/entry/the_haptic/
3. In A Thousand Plateaus the concept of a “Royal Science” is opposed to “Nomad Science.” Whereas the former procedure is based on defending what is “established,” and is legislative in that it’s equations are invoked or privileged by the State apparatus, Nomad Science is predicated on “following” an uncharted course, inseparable from intuition, experimentation, and continuous variation.
5. Arthur Tansley, who coined the term “ecosystem,” levelled this accusation of “abuse” at Field Marshal Smuts, who deployed a perverse version of ecological science to justify the institution of Apartheid in South Africa.
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Friday, Noon – 6 pm; Saturdays Noon – 4pm.
PAVED Arts acknowledges the support of our members, volunteers and partners, and of our principal funders: Canada Council for the Arts, Saskatchewan Arts Board, SaskCulture, SaskLotteries, the City of Saskatoon and the National Film Board of Canada.