17th April 2010 — 18th April 2010
The centrepiece of Richard Whitby's exhibition, 'The Bear Pit', is a looping video of the titular structure as seen from the perspective of its inhabitant, rotating in a jolting pan through the 360 degrees of the arena-like pit. The floor of the pit is an ashen desert dotted with the few sparse props one might imagine a particularly tawdry zoo might furnish the place with: a dead, limbless tree, a couple of tall wooden poles, and some meteoric boulders. All of this is seemingly extremely provisional: a set meant to defer to the viability of the animal it houses but not to be closely scrutinised in itself or, in fact, to weather the years. Tiered seating banks as an amphitheatre around the pit, giving way to hurriedly painted dioramas and lowered portcullises; statues of heraldically rendered animals and, to truly affirm the decrepitude of the construction, a frame of netted scaffolding. This all seems pretty archetypal in some ways. A sad paradigm of a particular kind of depressed, northern European zoo; the kind of place begun with exuberance and pride in the upswing of an economic boom – only to grind to a permanent halt in the grim pragmatism of the inevitable downturn; the kind of pragmatism, one might imagine, where the welfare of animals is quickly superseded and the zoo becomes the first symbol of decadence to fall – and at an alarming rate, too. Whitby's video joins the zoo at this point in its (d)evolution – a deferral of brutality within a society, or an emblem of degradation from some prior moment in history (related, though not by blood, to the freak show), that is a long way from the conservational worthiness of today's western zoos. Although it is a degradation that seems both predetermined by its rushed provisionality, and arrested by its artificiality – certainly a paradox that seems particularly redolent of capitalism. The exemplar of this mode in Whitby's work is surely cinema and Hollywood in particular.
In Whitby's video, we play the part of the bear (or at least, the camera empathises with the bear through an assumed Point of View) rather than the crowd that brayed at and subsequently deserted the bear. This kind of device, common to mainstream cinema, could be understood in this context as a kind of historical revisionism: a reinterpretation of a history through the anthropomorphised animal witness – in this case, the bear – whose testimony, previously unnoticed or ignored, provides potent, perhaps shocking parable for our hubris and our inhumanity. At least, this might have been the case in some other, Disneyfied context – one that insidiously resisted exposition. Instead, in Whitby's video, the bear's vision loops, never settling, always jerking – glancing about the amphitheatre in search of an audience, simultaneously emphasising its tropic status as interpretative frame, but also as technology; as a camera secreted behind the eyes of a huge, animatronic bear. The bear as camera.
In fact, it's the ongoing hubris as exemplified by zoos previously and Hollywood latterly, that Whitby seems particularly interested in: the rush of a new technology, a new expression of wealth and power; the means by which a society, a culture, claims history for itself – a form of archaeology – always ideologically revisionist. That period of zoo history at the turn of the century Whitby is most overtly referencing (as evinced in the accompanying online element of the show: www.richardwhitby.net/thebearpit) lies at the cusp of cinema's heralded golden age, and the cultural and historical pre-eminence exhibited in both The Mappin Terraces at London Zoo and D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' exemplifying an imperialistic worldview that rather crucially predates the First World War. The dominion expressed through the audacious building of artificial mountains to house bears, or the supremacy of confederate America both suggests an unbounded power over nature.
Beside the video piece at the heart of 'The Bear Pit', is a beige curtain covering one wall of the space. In the centre of this is an oval photograph of the corpses of elephants taken after the bombing of the Berlin zoo during the Second World War. It's an obscene image: carcasses contorted amongst the rubble, camouflaged as grey, geological forms. This image, presented as a kind of family portrait, suggests the death, not only of a specific kind of zoological presentation, but also of an attitude towards nature and industry. A dichotomy that might previously have been celebrated as a victory was subsumed and revealed as against nature, against life, exposing the terrible consequence of our hubristic desires. Along with everything else, zoos became a site for contrition, a place where recompense might be expressed. The reality of this manifest reassessment might not have been as straightforward as it seemed, but the reality was that zoos, along with man's inhumanity to man and animal, would never be the same again. A solitary heraldic lion stands, one paw atop an orb, at the foot of the grim curtain, gazing up at the ruin wrought on the elephants by man. It looks charred, petrified – a relic from a previous, imperial age, simultaneously preserved and burnt, a reminder.
Cinema, the foremost emissary of both technological advancement and historical revisionism, retreated partially from this supercilious role, into a more insidious kind of ideological connivance. Rather than the grand theatricality of The Mappin Terraces or The Penguin Pool, there is a preponderance for as authentic a recreation of the natural habitat of an animal as possible – a concession that somewhat dissembles the nature of spectacle at the heart of the entire project of the zoo, placating a more recent ethics with the edicts of conservationism – but not entirely. Importantly, Whitby's work understands the contingency of each episteme's cultural imperative, alongside a perpetual undercurrent of power over history.