A few weeks ago, one of the winning images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition was ignominiously disqualified. Marcio Cabral’s image of a giant anteater approaching a firefly-encrusted termite mound at dusk- ‘The night raider’ had won the ‘Animals in their ENvironment Category. The light was magical, the fireflies twinkled ethereally, the grassland backdrop of Emas National Park was atmospheric, but, unfortunately, the anteater was stuffed. A panel of experts agreed after a three-week investigation that the anteater in the picture could not but be a specimen. This was not an animal in its environment, it was only a simulation of a relationship we know to exist.
It is obvious that a photograph showing a stuffed animal cannot possibly be allowed in a wildlife photography competition. South America is running low on giant anteaters these days (Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List), but not low enough to justify not taking a picture of one. Plenty of photographers spent many hours and days in hides or other uncomfortable spots to get their images, and would be justifiably outraged to know that a winning photographer had been a cheat. However, the debacle does bring up some interesting questions surrounding the role of images of nature in our understanding of it, and how this has changed dramatically over time.
By way of counterpoint, I want to discuss an exhibition that the Science museum put on in its ‘Media Space’ in 2015, showcasing the work of the Catalan artist Joan Fontcuberta. Stranger Than Fiction wove several fantastical narratives. One traced the uneearthed work of scientist who had discovered and documented numerous outlandish creatures, including Cercopithecus icaronocornu, a winged unicorn monkey, Felis pennatus, a winged big cat and the mermaid-like Hydropithecus of Sanary. These, equipped with binomials, were presented as suffed specimens, photographs, sketches, scientific descriptions, snippets of film, and all of the trappings of a natural history museum. There was also a series of botanical photographs showing fabulous plants in pin-sharp definition, constructed precisely from real plant material.
These things were all real, or at least, they all existed, there, as physical objects in front of the viewer. They were largely composed of creatures and plants that actually exist, yet their existence was impossible. The authority was reoved from Fontcuberta by the inclusion of the naturalist-figure and use of photography, and the presentation was absolutely dead-pan. The really interesting thing was watching the visitors. Some people knew what they were going to see, and looked around with a wry smile on their faces. Many visitors were more than a little perturbed. Here they were in the Science museum, looking at evidence of creatures they were fairly sure did not exist, and yet all the usual methods of proving existence were being presented to them. Some people seemed to be going through a genuine empirical crisis, which was precisely one of the core aims of Fontcuberta’s work.
This type of trickery would not have worried early modern visitors to a gallery. We have become unprecedentedly inflexible in our appreciation for what constitutes truth- simply if it isn’t ‘out there’ (a natural ‘type’) then it has no place ‘in here’ (the science museum). Hundreds of years ago, there was no such preciousness. The world was thought a place filled with wonders known and unknown. Monstrous simulacra– such as Jenny hanivers (dried rays that looked like ‘dragons’) or composite ‘mermaids’ made from monkey, fish and other animal parts were enthusiastically displayed. Their veracity was debated, but they were appreciated as objects on the border of art and nature, imagination and truth. They were referents to things that may exist, or may not, it didn’t almost matter. What was of value was their exoticism and the wonder that they engendered.
This in part, was what Fontcuberta was recreating in his exhibition – the sense of a world that was not entirely known, and that might still contain the fabulous. It is a connection we do not often encounter these days, the emphasis on scientific reality can stymie the openness to wondering, as much as there are plenty of ‘real’ things to wonder at. Some people seemed to enjoy Fontcuberta’s exhibition a great deal, the ones able to understand the joke and inhabit the world of the fabulous briefly.
Another key goal of Fontcuberta’s work was to play with the authority of the museum and scientific evidence: people did not know how to take this dead-pan, formalised bullshit. Were they meant to suspend disbelief on account of its authoritative presentation, or feel that they were being made fools of? It was an exercise in sense checking, in both senses of the word: the reasonable and the perceptual. The evidence fooled the senses, even as the brain knew it was trickery- how can we trust other such evidence? We attribute, and have all agreed to attribute, so much authority to camera images, which seem to remove human interpretation from their products, but can we really do so?
In the case of the stuffed anteater, the trickery was much milder (competition rules aside). The simulation was one of a reality we all agree could exist. Anteaters do like to hang around termite mounds in South American grasslands. Did the constructed nature of the image change its appreciation by the audience? Probably only for the few, if any, Myrmecophagaphiliacs who happened to visit the exhibition. Yet the knowledge of the construction removed the images value in an instant. That we have moved from a place where representations of unreality are a source of fascination to one where simulations of reality are valueless is interesting, to say the least.
What else have we lost at the same time?