The Institute of Critical Zoologists / Reviewed by Rory Duckhouse / 25.05.12
Entering the first gallery space, the viewer is confronted with a large image of a Blind Long-tailed Owl, Desert Variant of Little Owl. The blind long tailed owl has sight-sheltering plumage developed in order for these animals to cope with life in the tropical desert. In this first room the themes of the exhibition start to unravel – this show relates to the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’. Throughout the show there is an interesting play between visibility and invisibility, the boundaries of art and science and their attempts to portray knowledge and truths.
The Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) works with artists, scientists and researchers aiming to develop a critical approach to the zoological gaze, and to explore humans’ fetishisation of animals. The ICZ addresses the human regard for animals as conveyors of meaning with values that are both culturally and politically specific. Through looking at how we perceive and classify the natural world, the ICZ aims to pursue interdisciplinary research into an understanding of human and animal relations.
The exhibition at Chapter brings together commissioned projects and extracts from the Institute’s museum collection. The space is separated into four galleries dedicated to different works.
After arriving through the first gallery we are led into gallery 2 which features A Heart-Warming Feeling, which uses existing technologies to track the migration of birds from Yeshiva, Japan to the Arctic Circle. The viewer is invited to look into apertures in the gallery wall which present pinhole images that reveal a spectrum of light from the migratory journey. Opposite hangs The Whiteness of a Whale, which documents the remote village of Omishima in Japan and examines its relationship between the whale, the land and the community.
Gallery 3 houses The Great Pretenders, which looks at the Phyllidae Study group and the hybrid insects which are bred to mimic their food plants, providing camouflage so detection is nearly impossible. Still lives of winning specimens from the 2009 Phyllidae convention adorn the walls, where we are left to dectect their camouflaged presence. Pulau Pejantan is a study into a small previously undiscovered island off the coast of Indonesia and documents the number of discoveries and phenomena they recorded whilst exploring the microclimate. We are then introduced to The Blind, which carries on into gallery 4. The Blind presents a prototype for a meta-material cloak which reflect light to render the wearer invisible.
Gallery 4 presents new commissions and the Museum Collection of the Institute. A Guide to the Common Flora and Fauna of the World documents some of the paraphernalia used to smuggle animals across borders. Whilst The More We Get Together displays methods in which we attempt to capture and control animals. Two tables are laid out with 12 folders containing 530 documents from the ICZ collections gathered from residencies and projects. Each folder is numbered and ordered and laid out in museological form to provide a deeper understanding into each project and residency. Overlooking the fourth gallery is a mixed media sculpture of the blind long tailed owl. The exhibition comes full circle as we are brought back to the first image in the exhibition with the creature once again reminding us of our limitations in understanding the animal kingdom.
This exhibition has the feeling of a museum of curiosities where you are invited to immerse yourself in a critical dialogue with the works on display. Each series of works mixes a narrative of fact and fiction in which we are invited to examine our complex relationship with the natural world and its inhabitants. The work is deliberately ambiguous and we are constantly suspended in a state where we are asked to test our notions of trust in art and science. When viewing the work on show, one is consistently questioning the ‘truth’ often associated with imagery. Continuing a trend within contemporary photography that asks questions of the medium, the work is both utterly believable and unbelievable at the same time. It is never made known whether the findings of the research presented in the exhibition are accurate depictions or fiction paraded as documentary. This is where the strength in the work lies; the images adopt a scientific documentary aesthetic to question the documentary mode. As viewers we often believe what we are shown as evidence, however this relationship shifts and remains uncertain within the practice of the ICZ, what remains unseen is as critical to our understanding of the work as what we are shown. Our understanding is then put to a question of faith, do we believe what we are being shown, or question it?
Chapter, Market Road, Cardiff CF5 1QE
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