BY Andrew Dodds in Reviews | 01 JUN 07
Featured in
Issue 108

Great White Bear

BY Andrew Dodds in Reviews | 01 JUN 07

As the environmental movement’s newly crowned ‘poster child’, the polar bear has featured with increasing regularity in our Sunday supplements and television news in iconic poses as though stranded on disappearing Arctic ice floes. This timely exhibition of 34 colour photographs of taxidermied polar bears owes much of its resonance to its location within the dark, absorbing venue of the Horniman Museum. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader who, during the 19th century, amassed natural specimens and cultural artefacts from around the world at his home in Forest Hill. His idiosyncratic and esoteric collection of ‘curios and specimens of insect life’ was initially opened to the public, but in 1901, as both his collection and visitor numbers grew, he unveiled a modest museum dedicated to the spoils of his colonial expeditions. Today the museum has been successful in contextualizing its natural history displays with interpretations focusing on bio-diversity, conservation and the impact of genetically modified crops on wildlife and habitat. The collections are further complemented by a programme of visual art exhibitions that engage with contemporary issues about the natural world.

Part of an expanded project, nanoq: flat out and bluesome, which includes a publication and previous shows at Spike Island, Bristol and the University Museum of Natural History, Oxford (both, 2004), ‘Great White Bear’ features framed photographs of all the taxidermied polar bears from UK collections that could be traced by the artists Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson during a three-year search. Taken in situ the photographs show the bears in storage, in museum dioramas and in stately homes. Although the majority of the mounts are in the ‘realist’ style, a form of taxidermy that began in the mid-19th century, the most intriguing appear contorted or misshapen, possibly as a consequence of crude or ill-informed techniques. Some are reminiscent of interpretations made by artists from earlier times on hearing tales of fantastical beasts from faraway parts of the world, such as Albrecht Dürer’s Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros, 1515), conjured from his imagination by word-of-mouth descriptions rather than first-hand encounter. Nina, one of the ‘first captive animals to be associated with stereotypic behaviour’ – head weaving and pacing – seems to have been mounted in a pose resembling the syndrome. Encapsulated within the frames are brief texts listing, among other things, the histories of the specimen owners, where and when the bears were shot and often the processes involved in preserving each hide for mounting at a later date. The list of collections and collectors reveals a compendious ‘Who’s Who’ of the British empire from Captain William Edward Perry, who undertook three expeditions in search of the North West Passage between 1819 and 1825, to Sir Saville Crossley (1st Lord Somerleyton), who in 1897 bagged 55 bears, to New Labour apologist Lord Puttnam, whose auction-bought specimen is displayed at his home in London. The forthright and melancholy texts detail each animal’s provenance, a cultural history beginning from the moment they were subjected to human categorization.

The wealth of reference points and possible engagements with the photographs at times threaten positively to overwhelm, but the giddy heights of plurality are somewhat grounded when addressing the more prosaic concern of the images’ contents and their very particular relationship with the ‘idea’ of the photograph. Aside from obvious associations such as hunting and collecting, the most powerful link engages the site of absence – that place between the representation of a thing and the thing itself. With these images we are doubly distant from that which is represented because, as with taxidermy and taxonomy, photographs do, of course, tell a lie.

These taxidermied ‘bears’ are mere representations, hides stretched over a human-made, concealed framework, literally a cultural construct held aloft for scrutiny. Like the human form momentarily glimpsed beneath the archetypal, white-sheeted ghost, they become only our idea of a ‘beast’.

In The New Atlantis, the allegorical, Renaissance work of fiction by the English philosopher Francis Bacon, published posthumously in 1627, Bacon describes a society that has learnt how to control ‘light’, a mysterious element that enables them to ‘command nature in action’. Much of this society's alchemical activity is secretive and takes place in dark caves, far underground. The society reaps many material rewards from this knowledge but notes as a result ‘the affecting of all things possible’. Bacon hints that what was initially welcomed as a blessing may well carry portents of biblical proportions. As in The New Atlantis, ‘Great White Bear’ engagingly conjoins two distinct notions of nature as culture in the modern age: the Linnaean system of classification (named after the 18th-century Swedish zoologist Carolus Linnaeus), which applies nomenclature to the natural world, and, by implication, ownership via taxonomy; and the ‘Anthropocene’ era, a term proposed by scientist Paul Crutzen to describe our current geological epoch in which the effects of human activity are all-pervading, reaching even the most remote areas of the globe without ever having to set
foot there.