BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 11 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

Against nature

The cultural history of zoos

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BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 11 NOV 03

I think of it as my Angela Carter moment. Taking a shortcut through the woods near my home, skirting the boundary of an adjacent wildlife park around dusk, I have occasionally been more than startled by the onset of an unearthly howling. The park's wolf enclosure borders the woodland, and a local employee assures me that the monstrous noise means merely that the wolves are getting hungry (this is somehow less than reassuring). As I quicken my pace (placid suburbia is only minutes away), it occurs to me that my frisson of elemental fear, some deep ancestral horror of the company of wolves, would easily be cured by a visit to the park itself, where I could safely look my invisible tormentors in the eye.

The logic of the modern wildlife collection is surely here, in our ability to return nature's alien gaze, to enjoy a sublimely ambiguous ocular encounter. The zoo is a machine for organizing such lines of sight. In his poem 'The Panther' (1907) Rainer Maria Rilke, after visiting the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, tried to imagine what that meeting might look like from the other side of the divide, from the perspective of a creature whose gaze is blighted by captivity: 'his vision, from the constantly passing bars, has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.' The panther sees nothing but the meaningless markers of his melancholy fate: a feeble image 'plunges into the heart and is gone'.

The modern zoo has its origins in visual spectacles both savage and serene: in the public massacres of animals that assured the glory of the Roman empire and in the cabinets of curiosities that performed the same function for post-Renaissance Europe. Its clearest precursor is the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of wonders that brought together artificialia and naturalia: the promiscuous display of both human and divine creation. The seraglios of the Renaissance princes, in which animals were exhibited before fanciful trompe l'oeil representations of their wild environments, led directly to the prodigious menagerie of the palace at Versailles, where nature took its place alongside statues and fountains as part of the Baroque scenography of the king's domain. The whole was conceived in strictly dramatic terms: when the Versailles elephant died in 1681, it was publicly dissected 'on a kind of theatre stage'.

From the beginning of the 19th century the colonial version of such spectacular displays battled with an impulse towards scenographic realism to produce an astonishing array of visual cues for a viewer whose gaze was apparently unsatisfied by the mere presentation of the animal itself. At first an architectural exoticism predominated: the zoo at Antwerp housed its antelopes in a mosque; in Berlin an 'Indian pagoda' enclosed the elephants, while a 'Siamese' buffalo house provided an equally unlikely home. In a manifestly imperial confusion of anthropology and zoology, exhibitions were mounted of native peoples alongside their animal 'counterparts', the inhabitants of the Wild West or Arctic regions providing simulacra of far-flung outposts of empire or civilization. Often, as in the 'monkey temple' at Clifton Zoo in Bristol, a vague orientalism was enough to signify the desired level of zoological or cultural strangeness.

At the turn of the century a whole other presentational aesthetic developed, modelled on the zoological gardens at Stellingen, owned and designed by the merchant Carl Hagenbeck. Working in accordance with a geological imaginary inherited from Romanticism's obsession with Sublime crags and vertiginous peaks, Hagenbeck invented the artificial mountain, an innovation that suggested a natural environment and ensured that the minimum of territory could accommodate the maximum of stock. At Stellingen one side of Hagenbeck's mountain was a whitewashed polar landscape, while the other posed as an equatorial region. Rome's zoo followed suit with a reconstruction of the then fashionable profile of the Matterhorn. Hagenbeck's vision of 'cages without bars' enclosed the animals with a simple ditch (inspired by the 18th-century ha-ha), further heightening the idea of an untamed landscape.

If Hagenbeck's artificial geology recalls the naturalistic spectacle of a Victorian diorama, 20th-century zoo architecture conjures up another entertainment. Berthold Lubetkin's penguin pool at London Zoo suggests nothing so much as the set of a Hollywood musical, the birds circulating in a waddlingly elegant version of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. The clean lines of this Modernist choreography failed, however, to translate successfully into the housing of other animals. The Lubetkin/Tecton-inspired 'elephant silos' designed by Hugh Casson for London Zoo proved lethal in 1980, when a dead elephant could not be removed and was dissected on the spot; a neighbouring pachyderm, driven mad by the stench, died six weeks later. The modern dream of marrying form and function (the sinisterly named 'silos' were in fact designed around the dementedly circular movements of a captive elephant) eventually came to look like a scenographic and carceral madness on a par with its theatrical predecessors. In Brigid Brophy's novel Hackenfeller's Ape (1953) the protagonist, a zoologist at odds with institutional barbarity, despairingly speculates: 'even if the archaeologists of the future realized that here was a cantonment for housing and displaying the mystery of species, would it not seem to them wayward, a folly as inexplicable as the Labyrinth of the Cretans?'

This is the contemporary fate of the zoo: an image of endlessly tedious imprisonment (in the last century the iron-curtained East Germany outdid the rest of Europe in the number of its zoos): a vision only partly alleviated by the notion of the wildlife or safari park as a place of comparative freedom. The photographer Britta Jaschinski, from whose images animals stare out at us with a boredom that verges on the existential, has written that in a zoo 'we intimately recognize the unnatural minutiae of incarcerated life'. 3 It is all in the gaze that looks back at us from the darkness, now stripped of its long history of theatrical and architectural presentation: the gaze, as W. G. Sebald once wrote of the animals in Antwerp Zoo, that is 'found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness that surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking'.

1. Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, translated by Oliver Welsh, Reaktion, London, 2002, p.
2. Brigid Brophy, Hackenfeller's Ape, Virago, London, 1991, pp. 79-80.
3. Britta Jaschinski, Zoo, Phaidon, London, 1996.
4. W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2001, p. 3.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.

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