The worlds within... what is found there?
By Kaiwan Mehta
We are all familiar with something we call Natural History, but what would be the history of Natural History? Where I specifically would see Natural History as forms of relationships that human beings and human civilisations share with nature and Nature. This relationship is akin to a world view that people and civilisations develop and live with. We are also passing through a phase in human history where hyper-health-consciousness, Sustainability, and hyper-selective food habits such as Vegan-ism are popular are nearly seen as natural. Our relationship with Nature is most unnatural in these circumstances. Human civilisations have moved from being one amongst equals between different species of plants and animals, to masters of domestication and domination; it is the latter processes that create a sense of separation between humans and nature, rather than humans being one amongst many in the natural world. Once this separation, distance, and inherent hierarchy is produced, humans have constantly tried to theorise and dramatise, and even bridge (only as a ritual, as an idea) this gap, this separation.
The gap between human and animal
Two images come to mind speaking of ways in which we create our worlds and draw animals into it - the cartoon characters Tome and Jerry, as well as the animation film on Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. The former creates a world of home-animals, that exist within human life and a human home but clearly have a world of their own, with much characteristics as human beings, yet formless and material-less – they get stretched and return to normal shape again, they get beaten and come back to life, they take the shape of a container they are hammered into – it is nearly a violent cartoon yet very cute. But the primary basis of this series is the food-chain relationship between a cat and rat or mouse; the food chain gets expressed as fun enmity, playful sport, joyful teasing, and so on. While Jungle Book raises this sense of gap between human and animal, but not as a universal question, although it appears so; it is a question that is narrativised in the context of 19th century Industrialisation and the political colonisation of various parts of the world by Europe. It is about the food chain again, and this is in fact much more strongly expresses in the more recent film on the book, where the Jungle is a scary and dangerous place rather than a field for song and dance. But with the food chain it also introduces a patina of ethics and morality, as the basis for the functioning of a healthy and mutually beneficial society – superimposing ideas of civilisation on the natural world.
The plant and animal world are always mediated through stories
On the other hand animals thoroughly occupy the mythological world – from the army of Monkeys in the Indian-epic Ramayana to the wonder-bird Simurg in the Persian epic Shahnameh; and you also have more modern narratives in the form of novels and stories, exploring psychology and politics, as much in the worlds of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, or Animal Farm by George Orwell. What is the role that animals play when they are brought into such engagements with the human world, through narrative and story-telling, fantasy and politics? Or one could ask what does the world of other animate beings such as animals and birds mean to the cosmic imagination of humans? Plants and vegetation are the other layer in the world-view and cosmic imagination of human beings, where often these are animated through the idea of spirits or story-telling formats such as folktales. The animation of trees and other vegetation is not with the intention of finding a relationship or connection but it is the imagination of possible forms of life in species and beings other than humans, or species other than the self. Mythological engagement with plant and animal world is one of conversation, where the form of the narrative as well as its aesthetic structure (poetics of form and imagination) is the mode of carrying out this conversation with beings beyond the species one identifiably belongs to. It is no chance that animal and plant forms and images contribute crucially to the visual world of ornamentation that occupies textiles, pots, architecture, or other objects of daily use. The plant and animal world are always mediated through stories in the either in the form of narratives such as folktales or myths, or visual narrations animated as ornaments or patterns.
The reality of nature is distanced in our lives
The Zoo and Botanical Gardens emerge within the historical contexts of the Renaissance and Colonialism in Europe. Private Zoos may have existed, but the collection of animals and plants within a confined environment for public consumption (even if in a limited way) is something that emerges with the way human species approach the idea of 'the world' since the Renaissance, and the processes of collecting and measuring knowledge about it. Nature is innocent and beautiful, the virgin untouched by money or industry, but nature is also wild and hence should be domesticated, contained, and restrained, while one can continue to enjoy its 'beauty'. The 'wild' is an essential characteristic of Nature, a characteristic that human beings have not really forgotten but have decided to distance it from them. To imagine that at one time human beings would have lived, worked, and slept close to wild and kind animals and reptiles would have passed by them while some plant root poisonous enough may have been consumed in the memory of a juicy fruit one encountered a few days ago. The reality of nature is distanced in our lives. But as much we struggle to create it in its life-like replicas – the painted romantic landscapes, the Natural History vitrines, the small mud, or wooden or plastic toy sets, or the zoo. The animals and plants now become the objects of entertainment or at best of educational value.
Collecting foreign objects and species
The zoo is a collection of sorts – of animals, plants, and objects, and so a miniature world is formed within its confines. Traveling and exploring the world has got human beings to encounter other human beings and cultures and spaces that a different from one's own. The anxiety as well as the excitement of encountering things new and different bring great impetus to collecting foreign objects and species, and traveling them to different contexts as objects of wonder and trophies. But collections such those in a zoo or the Museum became through the 17th to the 19th century as libraries and studios of study. Those wishing to study human societies, or the natural world, or even design and culture, found these collections as laboratories of the world contained in one space, close to home.
Showcasing the variety of foreign objects and creatures
The great expositions such as The Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations in London held in 1851 also known for its wonderful building made of steel and glass – The Crystal Palace, developed into a complete arena of the study of materials and arts, techniques and cultures of the complete world brought to the doorstep of any Londoner. From private and royal collections to such public gatherings of alive and humanly-manufactured objects, these collections were entertaining as they showcased the variety of foreign objects and creatures, visually drawing out the world outside of home and far and wide, but also resulted in texts and schools that taught future generations the 'ways of the world' through these collections, such as the Department of Science and Arts set up in the British Colonies and part of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Technical and poetic reproductions – as sketches, as watercolours, as measured drawings, as well as precise documentary photography – were generated from these laboratories of 'world objects' – as scientific drawings and documentations that are sharp and exact to 'the real' and can be used as teaching and learning aids, as well as for research and thesis on people, cultures, and manners of the human and natural world.
The world of knowledge production
Entertainment and education went hand in hand; and that continues with television that often brings sharply framed views of the world to our living rooms. The world is transported visually and available at all times for viewing pleasure as well as education in our everyday lives. Highly developed recording and photographic instruments and devices bring reality to us in sharp reproductions as close to the real as real! Techniques of reproduction from the measured drawing, to the photograph, to the televisual films – technology constantly brings reproductions close to realities or at least claims to do so. From Durer's sketches, to Karl Blossfeldt's photographs, to the capturing of the drop of milk hitting the surface of liquid – these continue to amaze us for accuracy and their life-like capturing of nature and reality. They amaze us! They hope to 'teach us'!
The zoo is an inroad into the world of knowledge production – the way we as human being see the world and record it, our histories of love and prejudices, as well as our urge to capture the world in all its differences. Collecting, Documenting, and Reproduction are forms through which we hope to understand the world and its varied forms of life and culture. This history of collecting, of the sciences – cultural as well as natural, needs to be explored for its techniques and technologies of operation – production and reproductions, forms of analysis and thesis-making.
Gardens of ruins
Is the zoo a ruin of the Garden-ideal? The Botanical Gardens often seem to belong to the 18th-19th century obsession with collecting objects from across the world, where the world is a ruin, or rather a verdant ruin – idyllic, beautiful, and yet in a state of disrepair, where the ideas of Enlightenment and Industry will recover and restore, through Colonialism and other such encounters. The Picturesque in art and landscape design built on the garden of ruins often. The garden where Nature and Past are contained in a sense of beauty. In this imagination the vagaries of history, the brutality of nature, as well as the strained relationship one has with history and memories of destruction as well as the untameable aspects of life. But the garden of ruins brings in Nature and History under human control, or at least that is the idea it projects.
The garden brings the world to your doorstep
The zoo and the garden also produce a choreography of walking and viewing, a sense of looking at things, at objects, but also being a part of them; that moment of visit you are part of that which you watch only at a distance. The garden brings the world – of past and present, the faraway exotica, the distant as yet only imagined – to your doorstep. In a few hours of walk you could have visited many different continents, as well as historical times. It also clusters knowledge; it brings together a world of objects in one campus for studies and knowledge building. The producer of these collected worlds is in a position of authority to demand that the world and its knowledge, that history and its memories, are available at command, for entertainment and education.
The nature of nature
But to now see after a century or so, some of these Botanical Gardens and Zoos, become ruins as sites of neglect, or forgotten for some other encounters with world of objects – produces a new condition of imagination – how time erodes places and ideas, the ruin is real now. The larger sense of cosmic belonging, to time and space beyond one's lifetime, is brought to real material experience as one visits the sites of ruined gardens and exhibitions. It brings to realisation the nature of nature – its power to destroy and take-over, finally over a period of time. For the garden to lose its choreography, become another forest of shrubs, for cages to go empty with death and decay of flesh, as Time-Nature take over. What remain then is simply the vanity of human nature, to collect, to control, to measure.
Mythology is a measure of infinite time-space imagination and continuum. Mythology collects the world as a series of symbols and metaphors, stringing them in a narrative structure, giving the metaphors visual forms and bodily extensions; it merges the worlds of imagination and exotica with the worlds of reality and everyday life. But here the human self is part of production and narrative, s/he are committed to that same world, and not separated as viewers, as audience. Mythology is a renewed measure of life, and its extended imagination in the world of other beings and things, Gods and stars, every time it is recited or performed (although its basic format structure is repeated).
The zoo is a real condition destined to become a ruin of its own myth. It is the obsessive act of collecting to possess, to control. The obsession is the key motif in its ruin as well, when Time and Nature will obsessively take over.
As humans travelled, since the Renaissance, man has kept himself (rarely herself, historically speaking) at the centre of an external world. A world of stars and Gods, beings and creatures, plants and animals, other species and geographies – all external, outside there to be conquered, to be measured, to be documented, to be brought home as miniatures, as collectibles, as curios, filling up cabinets of curiosities – the Wunderkammer. The city collects pieces of architecture from across the world from London to Paris to Bombay to Cairo; details of style and ornament signify the imagined uniqueness of one place against another. Geographies and climatic conditions are seen as those 'regional curiosities' that can be measured and mapped in the material world produced, and so dividing the world as characteristic zones of uniqueness, to be subsumed within the large idea of Nature or Time – space distributed and collected, distributed as Nature, and collected as Time. What is forgotten is how migrations and confluences challenge notions of Nature-Space relationship.
Nature is a world and civilisation of its own
The world collects itself; and redistributes itself every cycle of the Sun and the Moon, Monsoon and the Solstice. The world expands in Space and contracts in Time with every migrating species. Nature is a world and civilisation of its own, not really waiting for someone to discover it. The best geographers and conservators, whether it is Alexander von Humboldt or Verrijt Elwin, have been those who saw Nature as an immeasurable expanse of myths and realities that one had to be a part of, at the cost of loss and death, or encountering the true measure of life and its unpredictability at every moment, and every step.
Italy Calvino's Invisible Cities is a measure of the world through that which exists, but is invisible, only appearing to the discerning eye, the eye that allows the imagination of the world subsume you. Jorge Luis Borges' Imaginary Beings, like other such accounts of travelled places and cosmic beings, produces a narrative of characteristics rather than forms, impressions that become documentary measure. One is the documentation of forms that scientifically (which means mechanically) document objects and their apparent and visible traits and characteristics. But what sits or hides beyond the visible? The spirit of Beings, animate and inanimate, buildings and creatures, pests and ornaments both clinging to buildings – always escapes documentation. The narrative form struggles to capture that which is Invisible or Imaginary, but it exists by virtue of escaping sight or sitting within imagination.
Drawings, Photography and Geometry
Drawings and photography dominate the world of Nature as crucial modes and processes of material and mechanical documentation. From sketches that render 'objects in their natural surroundings' to very technical drawings produced from measuring animals and other species, the pencil and paper have strongly contributed to our imagination of the world outside us and other than us is all about. Photography soon followed suit and brought with it an imagination of 'inherent exactitude'. The science that worked most universally in both case was Geometry – also imagined as a universal and eternal science; however, Panofsky in his texts, the Three Essays on Style breaks this myth of geometry as a universal science that will produce the same knowledge, the same truth under all circumstances. But Geometry and Photography are both imagined as sciences of exactness and truthfulness – leading to their roles within cultures of knowledge-production and the arts through techniques of reproducibility. The way the photographs of plant specimens were created by Karl Blossfeldt become tools of imagining the geometry of plants and natural world, to be then produced within design forms in stone or cast iron or so. These photographs, one should remember, corrected any natural discrepancies in the precise geometry one wished to see in Nature.
From Ruskin's study of Gothic Architecture, sketching and drawing its myriad details of plants and animals in the ornamental structure to understand the relationship of human imagination and man-made productions, to the use of photography to 'document nature' and bring forth its 'inherent science' (of geometry in this case) to be later used by art and design students to produce objects, is an interesting set of journeys in the history of documentation and understanding of Human and Nature relationship, but also as an aspect of aesthetics, culture, and design. A classic essay that strongly elaborates on this latter triad is Adolf Loos' essay Crime and Ornament, which in another way reproduces the imagination of journey that humans and their civilisation imagines/expects to travel between Nature (primitive) and Civilisation (modernity).
Humans further distance the relationship with nature
Nature today becomes a site for something as vain as 'edutainment'. Humans further distance the relationship with nature, which is a relationship of risk and struggle, food chain and territoriality, but yet increase their urge to be voyeurs of the animal world – watch them hunt, mate, struggle, and so on, all from the cosiness of the living room. You fetishise the struggle and strife between species of the different kinds in the world in adventure shows, much like nature trails and camps or with promised wild or spiritual experiences, make you imagine you are 'reconnecting' with the natural world. These further distance you as somebody who is separate from Nature, how much ever you may walk in the forest. The Forest devours, one kills the other and battles for survival or food; Nature is violent, vigorous, abundant, and also treacherous. Nature is also the ecosystem of networks, and not objects – it is not Noah's Ark but maybe some Garden of God.
The artworks in this exhibition are a coming together, in a narrative structure, a myriad of these themes
There is decay, things rot, and we today walk through ruins of times and ages past; fruits rot, and vegetation wild and crazy takes over the built environment. The zoo sleeps in its protected zones, while drawings and images capture the sense of growth and decay, death and creation. Ecosystems are lost and struggle to survive as humans do not remember any longer their sense of being on earth, but continue to crave for it. The artworks in this exhibition are a coming together, in a narrative structure, a myriad of these themes – from collecting cosmic objects, and maps of lost time, to being still within ruins that were once picturesque gardens, and moving meditatively within devouring landscapes or rotting fruits, while sleep shapes the body with life and the wakefulness of drawings constantly recreates the invisible worlds.