Making Nature: How we see animals

Allora & Calzadilla, 'The Great Silence' (2014) Allora & Calzadilla, 'The Great Silence' (2014) The artists, courtesy Lisson Gallery
21 Dec
How we present and view animals isn’t as objective as it may seem. A new Wellcome Collection exhibition explores how we organise and create order amid the chaos of the natural world

The work of Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus forms much of what we now know as a way of structuring the natural world. His self-titled taxonomy system provided the hierarchical organisation which has provided classification for species after species after species – birds and insects, mammals and plants, everything that lives, basically – ever since, and underpins our scientific knowledge today. The curators of ‘Making Nature: How we see animals’ don’t necessarily disagree with Linnaeus per se – they just simply wish to enquire whether it is still the right classification system to use. Should there be one at all? ‘The Linnaean classification system is a human construct imposed on the natural world,’ we are reminded as we enter the opening exhibit.

This question appears to primarily derive from curious minds pondering humanity’s place in the world. In this context, Linnaeus’ work can be combined, as it is in the exhibition, by the work of other naturalists, such as Conrad Gessner nearly two centuries earlier, whose Historiae animalium was the first volume to try and record known species, and Charles Bonnet in the late 18th century, who devised the ‘great chain of being’, ranking the natural world through animal species and down to the ‘basic elements’ of fire, water, air, etc. Naturally, humans (Homo sapiens, the ‘wise man’), come out on top each time, the only species capable of Nosce te ipsum, to ‘know thyself’.

However, is this even true? The absorbing multimedia short The Great Silence by Allora & Calzadilla, with words by Ted Chiang, informs us of the intelligence of endangered parrots, who are capable of far more than simply regurgitating our words back to us. Are we listening? Not while our ears are firmly focused on outer space instead of the natural world around us, is their argument. If we can’t hear the dramatic warning signs about the natural world’s impending doom from parrots, a supposedly inferior species, then are we really so intelligent after all?

making nature 2Peter Spicer, Taxidermy foxes diorama (1876), courtesy Errol Fuller(Image: Curtis Rowlands Photography)

We are encouraged to ponder not simply whether humans should be significantly separated from the rest of the animal kingdom, but whether we properly understand what this kingdom is that we either should or shouldn’t be separate from. Despite all our scientific progress, ‘nature’ remains largely subjective, the result of the stories we are told about the subject. It could reasonably be argued that our 21st experience of nature is as accurate and incomplete as that of children playing Grandmama’s New Game of Natural History, a mid-19th century wildlife-themed card game displayed in the exhibition.

Taxidermy and dioramas are something we have become used to the concept of, yet their theatrical displays can turn a supposedly ‘natural’ scene into something that is anywhere from simply overly simplistic and/or anthropomorphic, to plain inaccurate. But then, what chance do they have of creating accuracy? Even live zoos with their self-awareness as public attractions with a need to make profit, can’t guarantee an objective view of nature, with species so far removed from their natural habitats, completely incapable of migrating or following other instinctive actions hard-wired into their DNA over generations?

It’s worth acknowledging that for most of recent history, people’s experiences with exotic animals would mainly have come via interactions or observations of captured individuals – elephants and gorillas displayed in public – with famous names that sold thousands of books and toys. While this behaviour may seem quaint and simplistic, and with the deaths of wildlife ‘celebrities’ such as Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla still making waves in the 21st century, can we conclude that we are still best – or only – able to relate with other species when they are anthropomorphised in this way? Can we truly only see animals when we turn them into humans?

The animals we see most as humans are, of course, our pets, and it’s worth thinking about how human activities, beginning with domestication, have spiralled into a whole new way of organising animals; through their culture, instead of their biology and genetics. Much of the natural world has been altered, for better or for worse, by accident or with intent by humans. New species have been created (and many more killed) by our actions, and the Centre for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh is the first in the world to collect all these species, as something of an alternative to the Linnaeus system, or any purely biological system at all. The particular cultural history of these species is what sets them apart, dictating how they look (genetic breeding), act (domestication), or sound (canaries trained to sing specific songs, for example). While this system may feel alien to what Linnaeus proposed nearly 200 years ago, is it really so much less credible? This exhibition kickstarts such a discussion.

Making Nature: How we see animals is on at the Wellcome Collection until 21 May 2017. Entrance is free. Opening hours are 10am-6pm, with late openings on Thursday and closed on Monday.

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