Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gorillas in the Mist: the Nature of Nature Art

...with a note about LMAG’s next “Wiki Night” (and why you should go)

Despite the widespread and often mistaken belief that there ain’t nawthun to do in the Antelope Valley, at least nawthun that does not involve tagging walls or dumping sofas at the ends of dirt roads, I am increasingly impressed by all that DOES go on.

One example is the event that has come to be called the “Wiki” nights, sponsored by the Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery. Once a month in a free event six speakers each gives the world’s fastest, most interesting introduction to an extended idea of her or his choice. In a strictly enforced limit, each speaker has a suite of just 20 images, and of those, each image can only be shown for twenty seconds, then the pre-programmed computer advances to the next slide. By the end of the night you’ve had a chance to hear half a dozen provocative, well-illustrated mini-lectures—some of them funny, some a bit odd, and all of them worthy of thinking about later.

Previous Wiki Night topics have considered experimental art techniques, gender roles in the Internet site called Second Life, maps as art, the ways in which modern comic book “speech bubbles” originated in Medieval manuscripts, and my favorite—though probably just because it was mine—the impossibility of nature art ever being able to capture nature.

The delicious irony of course is that I own a lot of nature art—some of which I paid hefty prices for—and a lot of my own photography, such as these gorillas in Uganda, could be labeled as nature art. And certainly, I will vouch for the reality of this image. These are wild animals, and the all-day hike up and down mountains through trackless jungle to find them and spend time with them counts as both a never-to-be-repeated hike from hell and as one of the absolute high points of my ego-driven quest to see all the major animals of the world in the their natural habitats. (Next on the list? A polar bear search via a two-masted sailboat in the Norwegian Arctic this coming July.)

In the case of these gorillas, in Uganda and Rwanda, small family groups have become habituated to human contact, and can be visited, but only under strict guidelines. At first light, each day trackers go through the forest looking for them, and, if they find a known group, tourists who have paid $500 a day for one of the quota-restricted hiking permits trek into the mountains and are escorted to the site and then allowed half an hour with these amazing creatures. It may be hard to see, but there IS a gorilla in this picture.

Sometimes the gorillas just are not in a social mood and will move on, but other times they eat and play and chase and copulate and nit-pick and even scurry past within touching distance as you crouch in the undergrowth, acting submissive and trying not to make sudden movements while at the same time trying to think, “hmm, f/5.6 at 1/60th might work in this tricky light.”

In this photo the guides are helping people climb through vines on a 40 degree slope. Are there poisonous snakes in these bushes? Let’s hope all the stomping and crashing has chased them away. Let’s also hope that Africa doesn’t have poison ivy.

As a side note, I think the gorilla thing is in my blood. Here is my father in 1957 at the San Diego Zoo. I have not been born yet, but he’s already priming me for my life’s passions.

The best “nature” countries to visit have a mosaic of vegetation types. In East Africa, it’s not just jungle and mist . . . Uganda has classic savannah habitat, too. Here, in this photo, some lions doze in a fig tree, hoping to catch whatever slight breeze will cool them off.

And of course not all of the interesting animals in Uganda are found in nature preserves. These cattle are similar to Texas Longhorns, but longhorns that have had a dose or two of some kind of Barry Bonds performance-enhancing drugs. This breed of cattle is called Ankole or sometimes Ankole-Watusi. Clearly nobody will ever convince this herd’s owner that size does not matter.

Ever go on the Jungle Boat Cruise at Disneyland? The history of that ride (and the semiotics of its design elements) will be the subject of a future blog posting, but part of the ride’s pleasure is the supposedly dangerous encounter with the ear-wiggling hippos and other natural threats. Well, let me tell you, if you interrupt an elephant while he’s drinking and you yourself are in a very small canoe, that Disneyland ride suddenly seems a lot more convincing. If you suspect this fellow below looks ticked off at me, you would be correct.

The problem is that for all of these shots, as postcard-friendly as they are, they are telling just a small part of the story. What about the blurry animals that you just see dashing in front of the jeep, or the injured ones, or the ugly ones, or the ones that won’t pose clean and nice for your camera?

This leopard was large, close, gorgeous—and, ultimately, camera shy. In the dim light, as it showed us just its butt and tail, even my fancy Nikon lenses couldn’t get a decent shot. No postcards from this guy.

In fact, most creatures don’t want their picture taken under any circumstances. This ostrich at an educational center in Entebbe certainly wasn’t shy about telling me his opinion of me.

This is a question this blog has asked before, but which of these is the “real” picture of a chimpanzee, the first one, of the animal itself, or the second one, showing beetles thriving in its dung? The second one may contain more important information—be a more complete and accurate representation of the chimpanzee as a vital part of the forest ecosystem—than the first one does, which could have been taken at a somewhat mangy and overgrown zoo. The first one is the expected shot of a chimpanzee but the second shot may have a fuller, deeper sense of nature in it. It may be the better example of nature art...good luck though trying to sell it as a postcard.

Is this shot below, taken an hour or two later, in some way a good nature art shot? Back at the lodge I am wet to the waist and too tired even to take off my soaked boots. The caption might be, “I fought nature and nature won.” At least Africa does not have leeches, not on the trails, anyway. (The classic movie African Queen is correct in claiming that there are aquatic leeches.)

Would a shot of leeches be good nature art? If this shot above had been taken on some of my Asian trips, the photo would show blooms of bright red blood where my pants, socks, and shirts revealed the places the leeches had been sucking away. Not to be indelicate, but they do get up your legs and down your trousers, and even inside your undershorts. A leech has no respect for your most intimate body parts.

Nature art has lots of pandas and bull elk, but nature art shows never include, say, a full color photo of a leech attached to your willy. That might be a good boundary never to cross (certainly for me, personally, some incidents I would gladly forget), but that boundary also limits options. After all, other kinds of art make space for the graphic and the confrontational. Some of the most powerful news photographs are not records of the happy, benign moments, but testimonial such as scenes like the Hindenburg going down in flames, visual surveys of post-atom-bomb Hiroshima, or an honest assessment of what New Orleans looked like in the months after Katrina.

In contrast, as pretty as this cheetah by Robert Bateman is, and as admirable as are his skills as a painter, I do have to wonder, where are the flies? Where is the reality? Nature can be sublime, so much so you want to weep. But it also can be dirty, sweaty, evasive, and ugly. It limps. It defecates. Nature is complicated and uncooperative. It gets down your shorts and leaves blood stains in embarrassing places.

Nature also is inexplicable. Look at this:

This is an undescribed species of jellyfish in the Maldives, off the coast of India. (I had gone there to see sperm whales, which I never found, which is a separate story. Nature is also expensive.)

So much of the natural world is beyond our understanding. Is global warming happening, and if so, what does that mean? How many species of butterfly are there? When will the next earthquake come? Nature art often implies a calm certainty that actual biological honesty might not support. Here’s something bright pink and the size of a Frisbee, yet it has no formal scientific designation. How can we have nature art if we can’t even begin to identify nature’s components?

Another aspect of all of this is the (limited) way that nature is catalogued and kept in museums. Here AVC’s Christine Mugnolo sketches tiger specimens at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

There are answers to these questions of course and I am skating rather rapidly over about a thousand ethical and philosophical issues. My point is not that a jellyfish needs a Latin binomial before it can be art, nor even that the Maldives could use a squad or two of grad students to help get the taxonomy up to date. This all is an extended example of the kinds of discussions going on in the Antelope Valley every week. I had fun doing my nature art wiki and I hope to be invited back, to do some other equally indefensible intellectual survey of my latest whacked idea.

So is this a dead zone, culturally? Heck no. We have symphonies, we have cafes showing art, we have open mic poetry readings, we have photo clubs and quilting bees and Bible study groups and this great local institution, LMAG, hosting provocative and fun (and free) evening events. Things are happening all over the Antelope Valley, every day of the week.

The next wiki night is this coming week. It will be Thursday, June 16, 2011, from 6 to 9 pm in the Lofts Gallery, 661 W Lancaster Blvd.

One of the speakers will be AVC’s Dr. Rachel Jennings, who is going to talk about the “Green Man” tradition in European art and culture.

Carved in stone on the cathedrals of Europe we all know there are lots of saints and Bible scenes, and we also know there are gargoyle drain spouts, such as the famous ones on Notre Dame.

That is not the only kind of carved church art though. Other mysteries occur as well, such as elegantly carved faces of men out of whose open mouths erupt complicated leaves and vine stalks, covering their cheeks and spreading outward like some kind of “it’s alive!” horror movie death vine from outer space. That “green man” cathedral art tradition ties in with Jolly Green Giant brand vegetables and the comic book hero, the Incredible Hulk. Where the druids enter in to this will be something I will let Dr. Jennings explain. She also will give a perspective on botany and regeneration that will make you think about plants in an all-new way.

You will definitely want to come hear her—and all the other presenters this month.

I will end with a shot from the Zambia / Zimbabwe border. We have talked about copulating gorillas and charging elephants and those nasty boxer-short-lurking leeches. Hood’s final comment about nature? ALWAYS WEAR YOUR SEATBELT.


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  3. btw thats a Crown Jellyfish

    was just searching to see of that was deadly
    encountered one of those at sea

    heres a video i took of it