Friday, September 5, 2008

Animatus Redux

It’s always the same with exhibitions, I guess: they are on for quite a long time, so I don’t hurry to see them at the first opportunity. Later I either forget about them or can’t find the time to actually go there. Last week though, I managed to see the Animatus exhibition in Basel (in its last week, of course).

For those of you not familiar with it, Michael Sporn (if you’re into animation, I urge you to go to his blog on a daily basis anyway…) has written about it here and here.

Since he features most of the original photos and illustrations, I will focus on the specific circumstances of the exhibition in Basel.

Contemporary art in a museum for natural history

In Basel, Animatus is not exhibited in one of the city’s many fine arts museums but within the context of a natural history museum. The institution regards this exposition of contemporary art in a scientific environment as a (successful) experiment in breaking new ground.

By placing the skeletons of imaginary creatures alongside skeletons of real (and extinct) animals, our views of scientific reconstruction are challenged. We can go next door and look at skeletons of various birds and mammals to see how scientifically precise the cartoon skeletons have been crafted. The physically present exhibits are technically by no means different from the other molds.

It’s nice to see the skeleton of the extinct Dodo in an adjacent room
to the manmade skeletons’ of Donald and his nephews

Hyungkoo Lee has reversed the process of paleontologic reconstruction. He creates bone structures from drawings, where usually drawings of extinct animals are made by meticulously studying bones. I don't think his work is meant to be imaginative (as in a Clampett or Avery cartoon), instead it draws upon our perception of these 2D characters as real dimensional beings. The sheer seriousness with which the artist takes their physicality for granted is funny in itself, though.


In agreement with the artist, the museum’s paleontological preparator Christoph Meier takes a step forward: He treats Lee’s works of art like archeological findings and tries to reconstruct the animals from what he knows about anatomy.

Plasticine muscle strands are built according to anatomical principles, eyeballs and nose are formed, then the skin is overlaid only partially to let us see the reconstruction process. This is demonstrated with an arm and the head of Wile E. Coyote. Of course, the re-reconstructed Coyote (a skinny pop-eyed mixture of a man and a dingo) looks quite different from Chuck Jones’ drawings. Meier forced himself to truly base it on his scientific knowledge of real animals, so the eyeballs are round despite oval sockets, for example.

By reconstructing a fictitious character whose original appearance is so well-known, the natural history museum raises our awareness of the room for interpretation in a paleontologist’s decisions. I sure thought of that when I visited the museum’s dinosaur section afterwards.

(Sorry for the low quality of some of the cellphone pictures)

1 comment:

Steve Downer said...

Those bug eyes on Wile are pretty creepy.
An excellent idea for an exhibit. Glad you were able to share!