Myths of Nature in Art, Science and Religion: From Dioramas to Dogmas
Katerina Lanfranco, artist, New York
The Creation of Ursus Horribilis, whose title is a reference to the Latin (scientific) name for grizzly bear, is an installation I completed in 2006. There are several themes that relate to the nature/culture dichotomy that run through the body of my work, and this project in particular. These themes include: order, collection, classifying, natural history, science, museum myth, allegory, fantasy, landscape, biogenetic engineering, and framing devices.
This project joins my interests in science and the natural world with mythology. The installation measures 12 feet in height, over 18 feet in width and 4 feet in depth, and is composed of two large oil paintings and a central Museum of Natural History styled diorama that is recessed into a fake wall. The central bear is a construction with taxidermed elements, named Ursus horribilis scurra (horrible jester bear) that has “evolved” to adapt to its environment by growing physical extensions and appendages. To either side of the bear are large (8’ x 6’ foot) paintings addressing the issue of Creationism on the right, and with a mirrored composition of Evolutionism, on the left. Both paintings and the bear's environment form a triptych that is visually unified to form a continuous panorama landscape. The diorama is similar to what one finds in a traditional museum of natural history as it contains a life-sized sculpted and painted nature habitat including an animal that is constructed with a combination of real and artificial components. The diorama “window” has the same dimensions and orientation as the two paintings, leading to an overall large triptych. All three parts of the installation address the issue of genetic engineering, and combine real and fantastical elements to heighten the ambiguous locality of this science-fiction reality. The large narrative painting of Evolutionary Biology is filled with flora and fauna representing the origins of life based on the Big Bang creation myth. While the other painting represents a theological perspective of the Biblical Creation myth including symbols representing the seven days of creation, the tree of knowledge, and the Garden of Eden.
(Brief visual reading of the installations with Slides)
The lynch pin of this installation is the diorama. Dioramas are a cultural practice of reconstructing the natural world by framing and artificially reproducing it. Natural history dioramas blur the lines between fact and fiction, life and death, real and fake. Like the panorama and the stereoscope, the diorama’s potential educational and scientific intent became secondary to its quality as a voyeuristic spectacle. According to the American Museum of Natural History website, dioramas are intended to recreate, within the walls of the museum the wonder of a personal encounter with nature in all its beauty, and in doing so, nurturing an appreciation for, and an understanding of these often endangered ecosystems and their associated flora and fauna. They attempt to bring a simulated experience of field observation to as wide a public as possible. These displays consist of constructed foreground with fabricated and preserved elements and usually taxidermy or modeled fauna that extends illusorily the vista of the horizon. The field of view contains no sharp angles, straight surfaces or corners. Nature is created in the most artificial ways: water is made of polyurethane resins, large rocks are sculpted in plaster, and a dusting of fresh snow is simulated with chopped acrylic. Are these dioramas anachronistic artifacts that reflect an outdated fantasy of capturing nature on infinite display and in so doing somehow project our dominion over it? Do the separations of us from “nature” bring us closer or further away from understanding our part in a layered ecosystem?
Admiring nature leads to urges to collect it, classify it, and keep it in little boxes. Natural history museum dioramas are one of many cultural framing devices used to present nature. Dioramas are descendents of 16th century European collections called Wunderkammern (room-sized) and Wunderkabinette (personal cabinet-sized) that combined natural specimens as objects of study and wonder. These collections were as important in themselves as they were reflections of the social position and status of their owners by being signs of wealth, knowledge, and power. Wunderkammern held both actual and made-up artifacts. There was often little or no distinction between things that were real or artificial, or from nature or culture.
Art, craft, and nature became institutionally separated in the 18th century. The role of natural history museums became the education of the masses in a natural history that was based on the theory of evolutionary biology. The attraction of a natural history museum to the public is its ability to show the “real thing”. Yet, what is presented as “natural” is a confluence of myths that in turn make nature culture. Thus natural history museum displays act as illuminating sets for the play between what is culture and what is nature.
Myth usually goes unnoticed as it appears in accounts of reality as “naturalness”. Implied meaning needs to be analyzed along with the apparent narratives of cultural myths in order to understand their larger consequences. We deal with life by finding meaningful patterns. Myths help us comprehend the unknowable, and provide us with narrative frameworks to answer our deepest questions, such as the origins of our existence and the direction of our future. Visual representations of myths about nature are found in art, science, and religion serving both to explain the world and as allegorical representations of the world. The Garden of Eden is a religious nature myth that establishes the origins of human existence and links it to moral codes of conduct. Postmodern deconstructive thinking enables us to analyze certain scientific concepts as having narrative structures. Consequently what is taken for objective and real in the realm of science can be viewed as belonging to a larger cultural myth of rational faith based in empiricism and progress that developed out of the scientific revolution. Thus the Theory of Evolution can be interpreted as a version of creation that reflects a particular cultural context.
I chose to compare and contrast the Theory of Evolutionary Biology and Neo-Creationism because of their fight for dominance over the claim to understanding the nature of our origins. I then ask both of these ideologies to contend with the recent development in bioengineering that challenge the basic tenants of their views. Have genetic engineers taken the place of the Creator in creating new hybrid species? Or have new animals such as the male Liger (hybrid offspring of male Lion and female Tiger) who are left sterile, examples of how the evolution of species is no longer based on chance mutation and survival of the fittest?
Values in scientific thought include unbridled curiosity, a quest for knowledge, and a commitment to revision and improvement. This self-reflexive character is a subtle strength that opponents exploit and misrepresent as a serious weakness and proof of science’s fallibility. Evolutionary Theory functions, in the scientific community, primarily as an explaining mechanism for biological development on Earth rather than as a creation story. Its acceptance has been crucial in the classifying and organization of species, and in such recent developments as the human genome project and genetic engineering. The inherent self-questioning and the instability of objective truth in science makes it unable to function ideologically to replace traditional religious ideas. This leads to a conflict between theological and mechanistic notions of nature and specifically a feud of competing ideas of how life began.
Intelligent Design is a theory that maintains the omnipotence of God as well as the central role of religion in explaining our origins, while also incorporating established scientific facts and recent discoveries. Complex issues like geologic formations and the age of the earth are explained by catastrophism, such as worldwide floods having significantly changed the geology of the Earth. The theory claims an intelligence behind material mechanisms that is not reducible to evolutionary mechanism as argued by Evolutionists. Intelligent Design argues that there are biological parts that have irreducible complexity where the mechanism cannot be reduced, without loosing its function, and that all parts are needed for the structure to be present and function simultaneously. This opposes the notion of slow evolution and proves, according to Intelligent Design, that there is pre-thought and forethought in the design of life.
Animals, collection, and order are crucial to dioramas. Animals as interpreted through cultural manifestations become symbols. The comfortable distance that dioramas afford the viewer, makes it easy to personify animals and endow them with alternately cute and threatening characteristic to act out our cultural subconscious anxieties, fears and desires.
The 18th century Linnaeus scientific classification system established the principle that nature fits within an order of taxonomy. Nature is therefore both a self-contained and autonomous system. Nature is made cultural through an organizational process of classification. The descriptive order in natural history is based on seeing what one can say, limiting semantic significance, that leads to a privileging of sight over story, myth, association, emotion etc… The mechanics of the ordering of the collection make dominant the role of looking and determines the future development of the collection based on what information is available to the eye.
According to Michel Foucault order is established through organizing and contrasting things based on their visual similarity and difference to a term that is chosen to designate the beginning of the order. To establish an order the first term in the order has to be intuited, followed by the rest of the terms ordered through arrangement of progressive difference. According to this system, knowledge is derived from the identity of something based on its resemblance to the defining unit and its distance through difference from this chosen term. Often the order seems to exist a priori, so much so that thought is only given to the grouping within the order and not the construction of the order. Because of this seemingly neutral quality of margins of the order, framing devices often go unseen and unnoticed.
It is my quest to invigorate the dusty museum display, and to invite viewers to experience my work as Art, as well as part of a ritualized behavior and viewing practice usually acted out in sites like the Museum of Natural History. I want to provide moments of self-awareness in the viewer. I want the viewer to form questions about established ideas of natural history and scientific classification that she/he may have taken for granted. To do this, I employ parody by recognizing an existing order and then making something that seemingly fits into that order but is different enough to call attention to itself and consequently affect the body of knowledge.
Also of significant influence on the project are works by Heronimous Bosch, Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer and High Baroque painters. In Bosch’s painting “Garden of Earthly Paradise”, he represents religious allegories while simultaneously addressing contemporaneous social and political issues about proper and improper social behaviors. His work follows a tradition of earlier religious art while simultaneously being informed by newly emerging scientific visual culture, such as illustrations of animals from travel journals (for example the grey giraffe that I quote in my theological creation painting). Bosch combines fantasy and reality in his work that conveys a sense of the humorous, absurd, through physical and sexual deviations and perversions, and the grotesque. Bosch achieves this through the use of disproportionate scale relationships between animals and humans; organic forms slip between representing real and imagined nature. His paintings are frequently composed with an all-over field of activity, dense narrative, and visual complexity. Bosch’s paintings are simultaneously cryptic, inaccessible, and totally open. A reoccurring animal motif in Bosch’s work is that of an owl enticing other birds. This is an emblem of sexual temptation, and in Bosch’s age women where considered to be responsible for temptation. There was a distinct linking of earthly nature with uncontrollable feminine character, both being sexual and dangerous. Consequently the only way to control nature was with reason, accessible primarily to men through education.
Bruegel’s complex worlds offer us a combined view of fiction and reality, in order to address social and cultural mores, while pointing out human folly in an intriguing and simultaneously attracting and repelling manner. Both Bosch and Brugel paint fantastical landscapes and social themes that can be interpreted as the artists’ critiques of social practices. They use animals and nature symbolically in their work in order to emphasize a combination of reality and fantasy, and to address issues of base/prima human drives and actions through myth and metaphor. Differing from Bosch and Bruegel, Dürer emphasizes mimetic representation of nature in his art. Dürer elevates animals to the importance of human subject matter in his drawings and paintings. Dürer pays special attention to animal specificity and details, thereby conveying presence and importance, giving his work a quasi-scientific feel.
Also influential, is the history of large-scale narrative paintings with vertical compositions and dramatic space with mystical images of nature that were particularly prominent in the Baroque, High Baroque, and Rococo periods in Italy, when painting served as a powerful political mechanism to inform, convert, and convince the largely illiterate masses of the power of God and the necessity of organized religion to mediate their relationship with God.
In summary, through "The Creation of Ursus Horribilis", the combination of a modern diorama structure and narrative landscape paintings are offered as part of a constantly changing dialogue on questions of cultural dominion over nature. The history of these visual forms are surely signs of cultural desires to control and re-represent nature under the guise of art, religion, science, education and critique.
A central goal in my work is to extend painting as experience while referencing old, new, and non-artworld visual culture. Using the weight and tradition of large-scale paintings along with natural history style diorama framing and installation devices, I address contemporary cultural issues related to the perceived dichotomies between nature and culture, science and religion, as well as myth and reality. I see my role as an artist to re-examine myths found in seemingly opposing ends of the socio-cultural spectrum and to compare and contrast them through the enactment of existing forms of visual display that have been traditionally used to convey their deep-seated narratives. In doing this, I hope to destabilize entrenched concepts that have come to seem “natural,” to call attention to their construction, and thus offer a new way of seeing nature through culture, as well as culture through nature.
Questioning aspects cultural, scientific, and religious authority will hopefully open the mind of the viewer, promote mental flexibility and give rise to a sense of self-empowerment due to gained insight, knowledge, and perspective.
Presented February 2007, College Art Association Conference NYC.