Somehow I got it into my head that the Nina Katchadourian exhibit I was off to see at the Catharine Clark Gallery was her work involving mending broken spider webs. The idea was so precious that I was chomping at the bit for a chance to view and write about this little bit of Nature Home Makeover. I even came up with all these cool “spider” titles for the post. I arrive fashionably ten years late for that one, but A Fugitive, Some Maps, Cute Animals and a Shark. carries on many of the themes of attitudes paternal, maternal and patronizing in our underestimation of a Biosphere we regard, if at all, in fragments.
First a stop into the dimly lit lounge where a TV and two chairs have been set up for viewing The Recovery Channels. Flipping through the selection with the remote reveals station after station of low brow and “improving” fare alike. Also porn: lots of porn. A Discovery Channel Bug in the lower right hand corner of the screen has been altered to bear the Recovery Channel logo as well as the station identifier. Most of it is still pretty watchable, despite the occasional stutter and vertical striping in image quality or squealing jump of pitch, especially considering what the source material has been through. According to the gallery binder, Katchadourian salvaged it all by combing the streets of New York, recovering samples “…hanging in ribbons from trees, wrapped around lamp posts or fire escapes, tangled in car tires, on traffic islands, and so on.” That’s right, not discarded video cassettes, just strands of derelict tape. A detailed list is provided documenting each discovery with the care of the avid bird watcher or ethologist: “(Channel) 15 – Driggs and N. 8th Street, Brooklyn 04/12/99.”
On to Mystic Shark, a video art piece looping in the hallway. Using petrified shark teeth she purchased at the Mystic Seaport gift shop, Katchadourian records her experiment of trying them on for size (as a side note, I visited the Mystic Seaport when I was a kid during a long summer road trip through New England. I still have fond memories of being the only one permitted into the kid’s playroom. One after another I brought the handmade toys up to my sister standing behind the gate, not because I was feeling especially empathetic, but merely to demonstrate that the youngest child always wins and to show her what she was missing out on). The artist’s brow creased in concentration, she dutifully attempts to tuck each one of the teeth between lip and gum. Once she has managed to fit them all in she directs her gaze to the camera and strikes an appropriately shark-like attitude. Or at least she tries. Despite the totems, it comes off more as a kind of dozy menace and almost as if acquiescing to some urging from the prosthetics, her jaw slackens, her brows unknit and her eyes widen in an endearing way. The use of totems stretches back to our prehistory, visible in cave paintings, and has continued unbroken, if less ritualized, to the current day. Shark tooth necklaces are coastal gift shop staples. I thought Mystic Shark was a particularly interesting exploration of our desire to somehow borrow the attributes of wildlife because it not only acknowledges the impulse in a playful way but demonstrates the strange projections we place upon other creatures. After all, teeth don’t bob precariously between an animal’s lips (assuming it had any), nor does a shark have any particular expression whether it’s attacking or swimming aimlessly about. There is a weird kind of itemizing of an animal’s features that we infuse imaginatively piece by piece to be divvied up, acquired and worn like clothing. A woman dressed as a cat for Halloween feels no need to cover up her own ears when she dons a set of cat ears. Someone wearing a shark costume might very well place the distinctive dorsal fin on his head, unworried that it lacks a projecting fin spine or that it is a poor approximation of where it should appear on his body. The look Katchadourian gives the camera in the final moments of the video could be trying to convey any number of things: “I feel ridiculous” or “a real shark can’t really make a face” or “does my changing of expression change your impression of a shark?” or “are you thinking of a person or a shark?” or maybe even just “sorry.”
A few feet away is The Continuum of Cute, a long series of photographs that stretches almost the entire length of the gallery wall. Each picture is devoted to a particular example of an animal species and the selections run the gamut from microscopic insects to the cuddliest of mammals. As one travels from left to right it becomes apparent that you are witnessing a progression from, shall we say, the less appealing creatures of the Blue Planet to FAO Schwartz bread winners, the superstars of adorable. Starting with the flayed open mouth of some kind of lampreyish horror, you continue along past lice, tapeworms, flatworms, angler fish, naked mole rats. They are all part of Life’s rich pageant but total creepy losers in the beauty pageant of Kingdom Animalia. If you’re upset that you were never notified about polling places for the preliminary rounds be assured that the contestants all went through a vetting process of sorts. You’ve seen these animals before, and I don’t just mean representatives of the ones who made the wall: I mean these exact images. Katchadourian collected her sample from the Internet and many of them will be startlingly familiar from virals that racked up the hits and made the rounds on the Web at one time or another in the past. Once you’ve gotten over the strange realization of how quickly an image can become part of our shared experience comes the fun of quibbling over the artist’s judgement. With the passion of a viewer who has stumbled upon the Westminster Dog Show while flipping channels I size up the results. I’m surprised that the possum gets higher billing than a cow or killer whale, but I suppose the point is arguable. But a parrot cuter than a porpoise? No way. As we near the furthest extreme it becomes apparent that a white coat seems to offer some kind of advantage. I recognize the baby seal photograph from somewhere, shot so that only the puffball head is visible, as if its cuteness was so dense that it created a singularity that sucked the remainder of its anatomy out of sight leaving a single point of ultimate lovability.
Konrad Lorenz is credited with drawing attention to the fact that we are attracted to juvenilized features like bigger heads in proportion to the body, big eyes and button noses and that while this tendency no doubt developed to ensure that we’d care for our own young, we appreciate these same qualities in infant progeny of other animals as well. But it was Stephen J. Gould’s essay A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse collected in the book Six Little Piggies that really lit a fire in my brain when I was younger. Partly it is an exploration of neotony in human development, that is, the very distinct probability that in our evolutionary progress the human species has retained juvenile characteristics and a prolonged period of immaturity through natural selection. But it is the detailed study of the development of Mickey Mouse, a kind of paleontology of ink, paper and celluloid, that opened by eyes to the way that pedomorphosis (that aforementioned retention of juvenile traits in adults) is exploited artistically and commercially. In Japan, the principles of kawaii fueled the success of the Sanrio line of products and are an obvious influence on anime character design which in turn has been explored in the work of Takashi Murakami. Ultimately though the “cuteness factor” has a profound effect on our relationships with the natural world. As our oceans fill with dead zones, we’ll no doubt save an orca or two because they’re just so damn adorable. Domesticated dogs are the living legacy of our unwitting favoritism for baby-like features which were molded to further conform during centuries of breeding.
Before leaving I looked over Geographic Pathologies. Katchadourian has taken the maps of continents and islands and sliced them in half retaining one portion. She then joined the reserved piece up with a duplicate of the same area to create new imaginary territories. South America ends up as a kind of amoeboid mass. North and Central America take on the character of a doppler radar image you see on the news whenever they’re tracking a hurricane’s movement and projected course. I should probably mention that this kind of relationship between the two halves of the form is known as rotational symmetry. It’s close to one of the necessary progenitors to the development of cute: left/right mirror alignment known as bilateral symmetry which is a characteristic of a face. Symmetry of all kinds is usually pleasing to the eye, which explains to some extent the fascination of these new regions, Indiaaidni and Japannapaj, as well as why protozoa are still checking their mail for an invitation to participate in Katchadourian’s Continuum.