nanoq: flat out and bluesome, is an artist survey of taxidermic polar bears in the United Kingdom.
It is conceived in four parts, and was developed over five years between 2001 and 2006. Today in 2009 the project is still alive as it is touring various museum collections in the UK and abroad taking on board respective new contexts. The sites vary from arctic and natural history collections to art galleries. Furthermore in 2008 we were asked to develop the project in the context of the international exhibition HEAT: Art and Climate Change in Melbourne Australia. There with the help of the organizers of the show we conducted a survey of taxdermic polar bears in Australia leading to an art work in the show entitled Polar Shift.
The first part of nanoq was the survey of taxidermic polar bears in the British Isles, undertaken with the assistance of gallery staff, museum curators and keepers of natural history collections throughout the country.
The second part was to photograph the bears in situ. The complete photographic archive comprises 34 framed, medium format colour images photographing, in their respective public and private collections and settings. The provenances of the specimens are incorporated into the work, either as part of the image in the form of a text at the bottom of the white margin (as in the photographs on this website) or engraved into a brass plate inserted into the hard wood frame. For an example click here.
The third part was to make an installation comprising ten of the bears in a converted light-industrial art space. The amassing of these bear specimens was accomplished through negotiations conducted over a period of three years. (Spike Island, Bristol)
During the installation the artists together with the gallery director organized a one-day conference (White Out) at which four invited speakers, an audience and the artists themselves discussed issues around the many associated themes prompted by the project - museology and display, taxidermy, the colonial impulse, arctic exploration, the whaling industry, subsistence and trophy hunting, shifting attitudes to environment etc.
The fourth part of the project was to bring all of the information gathered during the project, the provenances, the photographic archive, documentation of the installation together in the pages of a publication together with essays from those speakers and writers who took part in the conference.
A little more about the images and the project:
The polar bears were photographed, as they were when we found them. In each museum they are arranged and regarded in a different way. In the Hancock Museum, Newcastle, the display is set up with animals on and around an 'Ark' - the polar bear is roaming on the flats to one side, next to a lion, a deer, a bison and a host of other animals of disparate origin. In Kendal the polar bear, shot by (the local) Lord Lonsdale stands up aggressively with a painted arctic image in the background. Next to it is a deer head and a glass-cased musk ox. In Eureka the polar bear, originally brought to Dundee, is partly hidden, high up in the building in an 'attic' display amongst bicycles, a Victorian rocking horse and an old Hoover. It stands at the back, half-hidden looking out of the glass-paneled building onto the park below. In Hull the bear has a painted image of a polar bear behind it and to one side there is a skeleton of a juvenile polar bear in a glass case. Against this case is a 19th Century image of a bear standing next to its dead mother on board a whaling ship.
The project also addresses the notion of these bears as a symbol of status: many were shot for instance by members of the aristocracy and as a consequence they were brought to private estates. We photographed them just as we found them, very often amongst a disparate collection of historical and colonial artifacts. Some displays were under construction and this contemporary adjustment and reinterpretation informs part of the work. Importantly, the display of these animals in such a variety of ways leaves us caught in limbo. Clearly we are confused as to what to do with the legacy. It is no longer possible to see the bear as an animal in the way perhaps we might have done before moving pictures and sumptuous wildlife documentaries. So what is it to us now? It was our intention to raise questions about our perceptions of the north, of power in nature, in culture and the tendency of images to supplant reality.
The displacement of the bears from their space within each collection to a temporary grouping, stripped of interpretation; the photographic framing of the context in which they now exist and their multiple return in this form to a museum context, all underpin and attest to the artists' new exploration, their new hunt, which in some small way mirrors the original act; an act we would commonly now regard as destructive and entirely transgressive.