Whereas museum dioramas are labored over in an attempt to resuscitate the husks of the animals enshrined within, I have always been drawn to their outright artificiality. I love the contrast of the carefully constructed foregrounds, perhaps with sprigs and shoots of long grass sprouting from the sand and the two dimensional backdrop, lavishly painted but never quite matching the sculptured floor. Birds may wheel and turn in the mural but they are somehow both lesser and greater approximations of their cousins, the latter puffed up with sawdust, feathers dusty and off-color, frozen in mid-step with one too reflective bit of colored glass or glossy paint for an eye that is looking nowhere.
Accordingly, it was Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of American Museum of Natural History exhibits that really captured my attention when they appeared last year at the de Young. All the elements are there: the barely concealed seam where two dimensional and three dimensional meet, identifiable but fuzzy, like the terminator between night and day; the abundance of activity in the painted background, as if to compensate for the lifelessness of the models, despite them being remnants of living, breathing creatures. There was an extra layer of artifice apparent in works like Earliest Human Relatives, where the subjects are humanity’s distant ancestors and so their representation is a painstaking approximation. While works like this are likely constructs of wire mesh, plastic, wax and paint, with touches of real hair for verisimilitude, they somehow prove a better artifice of life than many works stitched together from skinned carcasses.
So inevitably, Root Division’s recent show Historiographie, found me gravitating toward Dana Hemenway’s memorial, tribute and unabashed cashing in on a species eradicated from the Earth in the early Twentieth Century. Inspired by Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon who died on September 1st, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, Hemenway has recreated her in paper-mâché, and set her on a small shelf surrounded by historical photographs and cut paper works. Much like how the hominids in the Natural History diorama seem to display more life than the results of taxidermy, Hemenway’s Martha wrings more animation out of the subtle inquisitive tilt of the neck than all the stiff spread-winged examples visible in Sugimoto’s Hyena-Jackal-Vulture. With two dots for eyes and a broad smile indicating the beak, the sculpture is full of charm, right down to the twisted wires used to construct the little salad fork feet.
The fact that such smile-inducing details hold a powerful sway over us is not lost on Hemenway. Just a foot or two away are shelves with her handcrafted cell phone charms and postcards, dedicated to both Martha and the exigencies of commerce. It’s a clever reminder that museum gift shops are counting on junior to be so charmed by that zebra on the sand paper savannah that he’ll want to pick up a stuffed animal at the gift shop on the way out. Capitalism gives an odd edge to the tribute. It drove museums and zoos to seek more and better specimens, even as the unrelenting juggernaut of progress turned the world into a place unable to sustain animals in their natural habitats. Capitalism of course doesn’t need the species that inspired it to still be extant in order to produce cell phone charms. The Passenger Pigeon is a unique case with an interesting story, especially since it’s one that I had largely confused with the Carrier Pigeon. Excommunicated by the Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec (!), it was indeed a victim of deforestation, but also also used to supply food for American slaves and servants in the 18th Century due to its abundance and therefore cheapness. To some extent they were eaten out of existence. Wikipedia quotes a telling section of a report filed for the Ohio State Legislature, which in 1857 saw a bill submitted for the bird’s protection:
The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.
Hemenway’s Martha captures some of the qualities that Nina Katchadourian wryly examines in her work The Continuum of Cute. The charge of both works is the way they embrace the human tendency to impose qualities and value upon nature without losing sight of the horrible undertones of our process of selection and dismissal. Indeed they seem to suggest that the incorporation of the brand, the exploitation of our automatic emotional response, might be the inevitable mercenary marketing response needed to see that whole species do not share Martha’s fate. While I find the artificial an inexhaustible source of fascination, Hemenway’s piece After the Last Passenger Pigeon is a bitter reminder that the species and many others are gone for good, and it is all the more biting that it is done with a smile.