Between 2001 and 2006, artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson undertook a survey of taxidermic polar bears in the UK. They photographed each specimen – in storage, on display or undergoing restoration. They researched the histories of each and wherever possible identified the date, place and individuals associated with its death or capture.
The project was first shown as an installation at Spike Island, Bristol, UK in which ten polar bear specimens were shown, together with a wall drawing and a video of the preparation and transit of the polar bear specimens from their respective collections to the exhibition space.
As part of this project, the artists have an archive of photographs, each of which incorporates its provenance. The archive is available in editions of 5, at size 600 x 610 mm and of 3 (of selected images) at size 1100 x 1200 mm. This collection of photographs has toured to over twenty zoological, polar and art museums in the UK and in Scandinavia. Two editions now belong respectively to Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland and Nevada Museum of Art, U.S.A.
A publication entitled nanoq: flat out and bluesome, A Cultural Life of Polar Bears was published by Black Dog Publishing, London in 2006. The book discloses the process of the survey and the subsequent installation of ten of the bears in Spike Island Gallery, a converted tea-packing factory. It includes essays by Michelle Henning, Dr Garry Marvin and Dr Steve Baker, who write about taxidermy and photography, trophy-hunting and the depiction of animals in contemporary art, alongside previously unpublished archival photographs of 19th Century bear hunting in the Arctic.
In our often belated attempts to steward, care for or ‘repair’ environments – when individual animals and animal populationas are transformed from beings and societies into data, what of consequence is really captured – and importantly, what is lost?
The project investigates tensions and cooperation among scientific, public, and corporate stakeholders in how we have managed the wilds and the public lands. As the artists capture the complexity of human groups each vying for their ideas about the future of endangered species, the art work becomes a figure for the larger difficulty of realizing any sustainable future. Who is included in the future and at what cost?
The exhibition due to open in Arizona State University Museum of Art in Phoenix on 3rd of October 2014 explores how we perceive and communicate ideas of sustainability and how effectively we can engender collective responsibility regarding the environment.
Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson have undertaken their research for this project in and around the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Vermillion Cliffs, Mohave Lake, and Phoenix, tracing the ‘wild’ water system from the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River to the urban homes of the desert. Working with Dr. Ron Broglio at ASU, they met with, interviewed and laboured alongside research scientists running conservation programs for endangered species. The artists immersed themselves in the respective environments and landscapes of these species and the associated conservation programs.
Since 2001 Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson have been working closely on projects which hinge on specific relationships between non-human and human animals. Their inquiries have touched on extinction, colonialism, the naming of things, pet habitats, urban pest control and hunting, amongst other phenomena. The common thread is the relationships between humans and animals, and the insights brought by an examination of the margins where culture and nature collide. Previous projects have taken them to other kinds of ‘desert’, in the Arctic in Spitzbergen and Greenland and to Australia’s red center. This is their first major exhibition in the United States
This installation by artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson used the example of the thought-to-be extinct thylacine to examine human behavioural response to the unfamiliar and to fear and how acts of identification by means of comparison with what is familiar can be culturally expediential and environmentally fateful and irredeemable.
In 1936 the last officially recorded thylacine died in captivity in Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, the country where they last lived wild and where over a sustained period they were systematically hunted to extinction by British colonial settlers.
It was recorded that this last animal was known by the keepers as ‘Benjamin’. However this has been proven to be something of a myth. This was actually the name of the last person officially to photograph it. On its death she was identified as female.
It is understood that the thylacine as a species was used as a scapegoat for poor returns on sheep farms in the colony of Tasmania in the 19C and as a consequence, a bounty was offered in return for dead specimens. It was by this means that the extinction of the animal was rapidly accelerated.
Importantly, the thylacine has taken on further significance for humans since its apparent extinction. It is currently used in all manner of ways as a focus for longing, for possible redemption, for a reacquaintance with the wild and what may remain there, tantalisingly and mysteriously still beyond our reach.
In addition to the above factors, the sheep’s ‘clothing’ here exoticises this most ubiquitous of ‘domestic’ animals, establishing it firmly as a target of human expedience at the same time as making us consider again its animal-hood. The signs (badmouth) are an embodiment of the kind of naming and commodification that announces and celebrates the existence of a thing and simultaneously divorces us from its reality. The zoomorphic seating platform offers the opportunity to view the installation in a way relating to other circumstances where the human gaze falls upon the animal.
Big Mouth ultimately, is not about a particular animal or animals. With this installation, as indeed in other projects, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson have spotlighted particularly charged human/animal relationships in order to help unpack some of the myriad instinctive and cultured responses and projections prompted by our experience and understanding of habitat.
between you and me (2009) acknowledges the presence of non-human-animals as co-partners in any human-animal dialogue with landscape. It set out to test the effects of representation and the consequent depletion of the referent. We wished to investigate the relationships between naming and taming, the functionality and consequences of animal image appropriation and depletion and to voice ideas concerning the perception of ‘environment’ and ‘wilderness’ in relation to both human and non-human occupancy and usage. We were also keen to consider environmental ontology in the context of historically incremental detachment from ‘wild’ landscape and to test new interspecific relationality predicated on respect and inquisitiveness.
In the light of this, the project focused on the seal, a non-human-animal, widely appropriated in Western culture, for a variety of human-animal representations. In this specific it was our ambition to explore the logical indeterminacy of the seal within this cultural context and to use this complexity and variance in perception, usage and instrumentalisation as a way of extrapolation more widely in respect of human/non-human animal relations.
Featuring key works the naming of things and Three Attempts, the exhibition centred on the representations and intrinsic value of things and calls into question the myriad bases upon which we construct such representations. At each venue these two video works were installed alongside video interviews with Icelanders for whom the seal has been a significant animal, either in continuation of a cultural legacy through hunting or ‘farming’ or in relation more recently to their role as a tourist attraction.