Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Aitken's not-so-migratory menagerie

Doug Aitken
Production still
25-minute video loop

Doug Aitken's haunting film "Migration," currently on view at 303 Gallery's 21st street space, focuses on the behavior of a number of North American animal species, each shown displaced in a banal motel room. "Migration" is a beautiful monument to our transient American existence. Indeed, whether moving homes or traveling for business, Americans are a peregrinating people; we move more often than citizens of any other industrialized nation. Aitken's decision to use wildlife to meditate on this phenomenon is affecting. The film is dream-like and hypnotic, and it was hard to pull myself away, even when the 25-minute loop began again.

But when I picked up the gallery press release, I noticed that it described the critters Aitken filmed as "wild North American migratory animals." This jarred me from any reverie. In fact, of the twelve species that I recall offhand, only three - the American bison (Bison bison), caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and hawk (unidentified sp.) - might be deemed migratory, and it requires an almost comical ignorance of wildlife to think that an American beaver (Castor canadensis) or raccoon (Procyon lotor) will trundle hundreds or thousands of miles in search of more hospitable temperatures. I don't know if the press release mistake is Aitken's doing or that of a gallery employee. Of course, I hope it's the latter, but I'm dismayed either way.

Artists are generally urban animals. We congregate in cities so that we might feel connected to other artists and novel ideas. (Certainly, there are many exceptions, and the rural, more solitary approach to art-making is no less valid or vital. Different strokes for different folks, as the expression goes.) Some of us, though, strive to straddle the urban-rural divide. But those artists who, like me, spent childhood in the country and now reside in the city (or vice versa) often come to feel uneasy in both environments.

In my case, that sense of alienation is felt most acutely when I am reminded of how ignorant most urbanites are of natural history. Even with their relatively impressive academic pedigree, artists and art enthusiasts are no exception. What's more, most city dwellers consider those individuals who do possess a knowledge of or curiosity about other species and ecosystems quaint; natural history is considered an esoteric and incidental subject. Among my friends, I'm the go-to-guy for questions about animal behavior or physiology, but these questions are cast as if the answers are more trivial than celebrity gossip. (My friends are often surprised that I can't name a fifteen-minute celebrity pictured on a newsstand rag, but don't think it odd that they can't identify but one or two of the city's most common bird species.)

Indeed, when I mentioned my fault with the 303 gallery press release, one artist friend chuckled and said, "Only you would even notice that." Sadly, that may be true. If so, it is proof of how divorced urbanites are from the lives and lifestyles outside the proverbial city walls. Such a dismissive urban attitude is not merely an unfortunate reality for natural history buffs; with an increasingly urban global populace, it bodes poorly for the future of ecological stewardship and, in turn, our human station.

Photo credit: image ripped from 303 Gallery website


Related post: Bioephemera discusses the same here.


andiscandis said...

This really happened. My educated city-girl friend was telling me about her husband (also educated, with a doctorate!) and his fear of mice.

City: "He's afraid of them because they try to climb in your bed. And they're blind."

Me: "What?"

City: "They're blind. Mice."

Me: "No they aren't. You're thinking of moles."

City: "No, mice are blind."

Me: "Do you really believe that?"

City: "Okay, fine... how do you know if mice can see or not?"

Me: "Because they aren't blind."

City: "But how do you know that?"

Me: "Because I've seen a mouse LOOK at me!"

City: "Whatever."

Michael said...

Yeah, I was given a tour of the Bronx Botanical Garden in which we walked through one of the few remaining forested areas in NYC. Our guide related several appalling tales involving terrified children and ignorant adults. The one that sticks out in my mind is the teacher that was panic-stricken by the gaze of a red tail hawk. She was convinced that the small bird was going to eat her. The guide was powerless to rid her of her terror and had to move on quickly.

Harpia Harpyja said...

Ha ha! Those two stories had me cracking up!

I once took an urban dwelling artist camping. I pointed out a salamander to which he responded "Awe, a little baby salamander. What will he grow up to be -- a lizard?" My brother and I still laugh at this years later.

I suppose knowledge of salamanders is bit more obscure than being aware of migration. Animal migrations being so tied in to human survival in the not so recent past, and all.

But you are correct, Christopher,"it bodes poorly for the future of ecological stewardship" and that is a clear and present danger.

Caril Chasens said...

Hello from the edge, Christopher...
I live and work up in the bush in western Canada, 56 degrees north.
Mice are not blind, and they are not quiet either. Gram for gram they must be the loudest things on the planet.

Sculpture in Wood, Caril Chasens

Hungry Hyaena said...

Andiscandis, Michael and H. Harpyja:

Thanks for the woeful laughs. (Although, Michael, it's a fact that some species of hawk do attack and devour teachers.)


I perused your website today. Some of your works are beautiful, and I enjoyed learning about your background. Keep up the great work! Thank you for stopping by Hungry Hyaena.

yorgi said...

very well written and poignant article. I appreciate your breakdown of the arrogance and untouchable intellectual bubble that floats among artists. Would an author write a period piece without doing proper research? I think this is a classic case of artists thinking that the physical execution of "His or Her" work is what is.

think of the future.


Anonymous said...

It's a good thing that humans have persevered thus far in their battle against the natural. Someday we will be able to banish the carnivorous Bison and other blood-thirsty members of the duck family to the fairy tale oubliette wherein reside the dodo, the jackalope, and the conservationist.
Seriously, though. Mice ARE blind... Aren't they?

Michael said...

Technically, yes. Mice ARE blind. They do, however, have eye-like organs that emit a constant stream of high-frequency energy waves. They use these organs to 'see' in a manner comparable to cetacean echolocation. That is why mice prefer darkness and can accurately detect space/time anomalies. They can also see through your underpants and know who you are thinking about during sex.
Isn't nature cool?

Oly said...

Quick Quiz:
Rank the Migration animals by cuteness factor alone.

1. The Beaver
2. The Beaver
3. The Beaver

Sorry... I know it sounds really bad, but the Aitken is all about the beaver here.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks for the comment.

Good luck with FutureClaw. It appears to be an interesting publication.

Anonymous and Michael:

I learn something new every day. ;)


Beavers are cute? I have to check Nina Katchadourian's chart.