Lewiston, Maine and Kansas City
Cryptozoology consists of “damned” knowledge, “inexplicable facts and empirical fragments that are disappeared by ‘hard science’- or so posits Chris Thompson in his catalogue essay. Indeed, cryptozoology is first and foremost the hunt for Bigfoot, Mothman, Skunk Apes, the Beast of Bray Road, and the Mongolian Death Worm, denizens of a shadow world that may or may not exist. Its residuum of evidence includes pink tentacles in liquid-filled jars, shaky hand held videos, inexplicable eye-witness drawings, and an unknown anthropoid's petrified droppings that could be taken for abstract sculptures. It is also a field of research where folklore and pop culture mix with artifice and nature to produce a modus operandi so taxonomically anomalous that it brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastic Chinese Encyclopedia.
Seizing on cryptozoology’s taxonomical equivocation, curators Mark Bessire and Raechell Smith have produced an exhibition that contributes to the practice of institutional critique, while paying homage to David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Like Wilson’s cabinet of wonders, Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale is engaging for its artifacts and for the way it delicately unravels classificatory norms of natural science, and the art of gallery. The exhibition was appropriately launched at Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine [June 24-October 8, 2006], due north of Lovecraft’s crumbling Arkham, deep in the woods that inspire Stephen King’s macabre imagination. It was then transposed to the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute [October 28-December 20, 2006].
Crtyptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale is precisely installed. Nothing is crowded, sight lines are clear, lighting is exact, at times even understated. Its strangeness comes about gradually. Upstairs, Sean Foley’s painterly project and Mark Dion’s installation share space with bizarre taxidermied animals made from road kill. Sarina Brewer's uncanny updating of P.T Barnum's Feejee Mermaid out of found animal parts is one of the most memorable attractions of the exhibit. Brewer is a member of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART), which includes circus sideshow performers, trained visual artists, and amateur taxidermists. Marc Swanson's nearby Killing Moon, 2001-2006, a comically eerie self-portrait as a hirsute Yeti, is also striking. Brazilian artist Walmor Corêa's fantastic anatomical charts are equally arresting. His four canvases make up Project Unheimlich, 2004-2005, which depicts legendary Brazilian fauna that hybridize human with anteater, dog, jaguar and seal.
If photographic evidence is important to most scientific fieldwork, it is essential for cryptozoology. A vague blur behind dark woodland foliage becomes proof, for some, that cryptid was present. For others, it is another symptom of unraveling of enlightenment reason. For those who appreciate the spirit of this exhibition, such indistinct evidence offers verification that fantasy and wonder have survived the numbing hegemony of a seemingly rational consciousness industry. Dating back to the late 1980s, John Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera's Fauna series includes aged photographs purportedly showing a natural history tableau wherein fragmented evidence of a flying monkey species is being painstakingly resembled. Rosamond Purcell also uses photographic documentation to catalogue medieval renderings of monsters. Her bestiary ultimately traces the radical shifts in popular and scientific perception over the ages. Photo-based evidence also underpins Jill Miller's Waiting for Bigfoot: 51 Days in the Forest, 2006, which documents the tedium of the hunt by training a camera on Northern California's Bigfoot Country. Initially a real-time 24/7 satellite broadcast of the unchanging landscape over the fifty-one-day duration of an exhibition, the piece is here represented by recorded footage achieving a Zen-like monotony worthy of Michael Snow's comical work, La Région Centrale, 1971.
Off the Grid, 2003-2005, similarly takes place in a forest. It also involves series of tableaux whose genealogy can be traced to the 1970s shamanistic goddess art of Betsy Daemon and Mary Beth Edelson as Ellen Lesperance and Jeanine Oleson document a performance of a female Sasquatch who is befriended by a woman escaping civilization. Meanwhile, Vik Muniz resurrects the best-known cryptid photograph- Robert Kenneth Wilson's grainy Loch Ness Monster image- by way of his signature, syrupy print technique, heightening the irony of the iconic image, now known to be a forgery.
Photography's indexical representational power also underlies the work of Rachel Berwick and Alexis Rockman. Berwick's resin sculpture replicates the failed cloning of extinct Thylacine from frozen tissue samples in 1999. The Thylacine, a marsupial predator also known as Tasmanian Tiger, ranged in and around Australia. Bassire and Smith use this vanished animal's spectral presence as a recurring motif throughout the exhibition. The creature reappears in Rockman's book work, Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of Tasmanian Tiger, 2005, which chronicles his doomed expedition to locate a living Tasmanian Tiger.
The speckled black and white film footage of the last known Tasmanian Tiger taken in the 1920s anchors one end of the Bates College Museum's lower gallery, a smaller and somewhat cave-like space. Two installations consisting primarily of traditional museum vitrines occupy the other end. One glass cabinet holds the work of Jeffery Vallance, a reliquary filled with drawings, odd souvenirs, and taxidermied animals that simultaneously pays tribute to the extinct Tasmanian Devil and to the “Wildman.” While some anthropologists take this beast to be a prototype of both Yeti and Bigfoot, Vallance also considers it a forerunner for Santa Claus. A maquette of the Future Museum of Cryptozoology- the work of Loren Coleman, the leading cryptozoologist in the U.S.- sits next to Vallance's mischievous display. Trained in both zoology and anthropology, Coleman's projected museum comes closest to a genuine cabinet of wonders. It is crowded with his collection of evidence brought back from Yeti expeditions to Nepal, including casts of creature's footprints, hair samples, even a purported scalp. There are also newspaper clippings, maps and a scale model of an allegedly modern-day pterosaur cast in plaster. Finally, there are artworks depicting encounters with various cryptids, drawn in the compelling fashion of the amateur by various eyewitnesses, including an imprisoned serial killer claiming to have encountered Sasquatch while hiding out in the woods. Even Jamie Wyeth shows up here. Created for the television series Kingdom Hospital based on a screenplay by Stephen King, his illustration showing a monstrous anteater appears here as a copy amongst the forensic evidence that Coleman has collected.
Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale is certainly not the art world's first foray into natural history, and the realm of human-animal hybrids. Just last year, Nato Thompson curated Becoming Animal, an exhibition that explicitly sought to explore the unstable border between homo sapiens and the rest of nature, for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Curiously, it is often women artists- including Becky Howland, Christy Rupp, Kiki Smith, Jackie Skrzynski, Kathy High, Natalie Jeremijenko, and the tragically short-lived Paulette Nenner- who have produced the most focused bodies of work on the relationship between beasts and humans. Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale sets out on a similar path, and then diverges. This departure only becomes fully apparent in the concluding section with Vallance and especially Coleman. Here Bessire and Smith intentionally reference institutional critique's 1970s display strategies, using archaic, nineteenth century display fixtures set against the sterility of the white cube. This intentionally retrograde moves serves up a playful, yet cautionary caveat about the current dialogue between art and science, insider and outsider art. The distance between margin and center is disappearing. The weight of excluded theories and practices presses down upon mainstream institutions like dark matter. Ultimately, Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale illuminates an imminent danger: to lose the critical sting of marginalia as it infiltrates the center. In other words, how will we keep damned from simply becoming the new order of things?