Natural Histories: Karen Knorr in Conversation with Rebecca Comay

The following e-mail exchange took place over several days in January, 2002, between Karen Knorr in London and Rebecca Comay, Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature in Toronto.  It was first published in the monograph Genii Loci, a comprehensive overview of Karen Knorr’s work from the 1990s to 2002, published in 2002 by Black Dog Publishing, London.

Part One: Natural history and the museum.

Rebecca Comay: Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, the European cabinet of curiosity — successor to the medieval Church treasury, precursor to the modern museum — embraced in its collection both artificialia and naturalia. Without necessarily seeing the need to distinguish or classify these two broad categories of objects (although the day would soon enough arrive), it would array before the spectator the most marvellous specimens of both human and natural provenance — narwhal tusks and miniatures, gems and tapestries, exotic plant specimens and various ethnographic booty from voyages of discovery in the new world.  The unity of the cabinet was underpinned by a theological continuity between the order of nature and the order of history —  a continuity which would equally suture the gap between divine and artistic production (the latter incorporated within the former according to a doctrine of mimesis whereby man, created in God’s image, would also produce images resembling the products of his maker: human creativity was thus a special case of divine creation.   

In the late eighteenth century – curiously, at the very moment when  scientific ideas were forcing a revision of nature as static artifact and pushing towards an idea of nature as “historical” in a robust sense (subject to mutation and decay, if not yet conceived in evolutionary terms) – the institutional separation between natural and historical artefacts begins to set in.   The museum in its modern form begins to take shape, with a clear demarcation between the art museum and the natural history museum.  A classic instance is Gottfried Semper’s twin museums in Vienna, the Kunsthistorische Museum and the Naturgeschichtliche Museum, erected side by side on the Ringstrasse under Franz Josef in 1890, at the height of imperial power, architectural mirrors of each other (the symmetry both underscored and weakened by the awkward approach to “anthropological” and archaeological specimens; famously, the Venus of Willendorf is housed among the fossils and stuffed birds).  

I’d like us to start thinking about what’s at stake in this institutional separation of spheres – a separation which has clear ideological implications, not simply in terms of our own relationship, as humans, to the natural world, but, as the last example suggests, the relationship of modern European humans, to non-European humanity? Curiously, the very need to distinguish something like nature and something like history at a museological level arises at the very moment when “nature” in fact is beginning to reveal a certain temporality or historicity, while ideologies of history are starting to naturalize the latter on quasi-organic lines.

First question:

How are we to start thinking about the animals roaming about in your  museums?   Unabashedly stuffed,  they seem to evoke the taxidermic specimens of the natural history diorama, while, wandering around freely within the museum, they escape the picture frame and displace the exhibition space that nonetheless defines them.  What is their status in the space of exhibition and how do they alter this space.  In this fantastic space that is opened up, is there a hint of a freedom – even if this freedom is absolutely non-idealized (the animals remain dead, stuffed, bear all the stigmata of their mortified condition) – an anarchic moment within the nonetheless frozen interior of the museum?  Do we have a kind of return to the category of the marvellous that informed the cabinet of curiosities before the Enlightenment bifurcation of naturabilia and artificialia? 

Karen Knorr: Taxidermy represents animals as idealised representations of the live referent (a bird in flight, a wolverine walking, a monkey climbing). There is something here akin to an idealised portrait of a human which succeeds if it looks lifelike. Taxidermy preserves the skin of an animal which it artfully mounts in a lifelike pose. Eyes are important: when they become dusty with age they no longer look lifelike. So there is a sense of a simulacrum of “life” using what in fact is a cadaver of a n animal. Yet these taxidermised specimens create a suspension of disbelief when photographed and people always ask : “Are they alive?”

I liked the idea of etymologically linking the wolf in the royal palace  library in Turin (“The Peripatetic Philosopher”) to  the Lyceum  (Aristotle’s school). Lycaon was in classical mythology  a king transformed into a wolf to test the divinity of Zeus. Lyceum is the place of the wolves and the Apollo of Belvedere , the idealised body so cherished by Winkelmann.  In “Lyceum” — the installation I exhibited with my video works “Being for Another” and “Movement of the Soul” — I used three wolf specimens from the collection of the Muséum de l’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. They are mounted on a base with their latin taxonomic titles of the 19th century. On the wall is a text from Xenophon’s “Memorabilia” which refers to a conversation between Socrates and Cleiton, a sculptor, about how to render lifelike representations and the role of imitation.  So the animals play with the founding mythology of origins in the academy linking it to the museum through the library which after all was the core of the museum. 

Yes, there is an anarchic transgressive element with these animals roaming freely — a bit like women being able to roam in such rigidly demarcated institutions such as the Gentlemen’s Club and the Royal Academy. I had a fantasy of bringing in a live wolf and letting it do its business among all the idealised canons of sculptor in the Royal Academy of Sweden in Stockholm, and I am now working on a film project at the Wallace Collection, where the camera position mimics the wolves foraging through the collection.

Second question:

How, specifically, does photography respond to this question of natural history?  Its ambiguous  temporality seems on the one hand to repeat the frozen condition of taxidermy, on the other hand to evoke the transience associated with history.  Does it point to a conjuncture of “nature” and “history” which the moderm museum at once represses and invites?

Yes, photography is part of the impulse to freeze temporality which can be found in nature petrified or preserved, whether through taxidermy or aspic. This frozen icelike or even glasslike objectness of the medium attracts and repels me simultaneously.  I think it lead me to the use of glass in my most recent work.

Nature is cultural in that it can only be understood by humans through the distortions of science and its taxonomies. Arcadia does not exist except in death (Poussin) and representation. So photography, which arose out of an impulse to preserve or freeze history, to stop time, decay and death, is at the same time a putting to death of the thing itself; yet its distribution through books and catalogues gives the nature or  history a certain prolonged life. A living death.  Photograph evokes history in its double temporality:  “it was” and yet when we look at a photograph it is.  So the past is in the present just as in  a sci-fi sense, maybe, the present is also in the past. 

Third question:

The crude animation of the videos at Quai d’Orsai – the apes remain stuffed, their jerky movements manifestly a product of manipulation – points to the impossibility of spiritualising the dead animals by bringing them to life; the moving image here thus underscores, in its very movement, the permanent reification of nature (and of a human history fossilized as second nature).  It also evokes the animatronic technology of the contemporary natural history museum, together with the participatory ethos implicit here.  These videos have a very different quality than your perfectly composed still images (which so frequently have the quality of a tableau vivant), and their formal and conceptual relationship to photography is intriguing; in their jerkiness, they retain a certain quality of still photography while relinquishing some of the pictorial properties of the latter.  Can you talk about what is at stake in putting the photograph into motion in this way  in relation to the tension between nature and history that we are discussing?

“The Visitors” was an attempt to bring back to life these monkey cadavers — reviving a dead nature which had become history, in the form of these monkeys which in their naturalistic poses evoke the natural history display cases so popular until their recent substitution by the interactive multimedia now used in museums.  I used a very simple basic animation device, moving the animals a fraction every 5 sections and then bringing them together through the editing process. The quality of the image is not as highly resolved as in my stills. The monkeys never manage to mount the statue which they threaten to do.  

It is very much the space between the still and movement which fascinates me. I think trying to put photography into motion touches upon early cinema. Here I would ally myself more to Melies. It is a prehistory of photography that it touches upon and a fascination for automata. Galatea is another type of robot. Photography owes its  reality effect to its indexicality yet it is no more lifelike than statues cast from live human bodies. 

II. Singeries and mimesis.

 In the 18th century —  at  the very moment when the split between nature and history is starting to become institutionalised in the splitting of the museum (and theologically expressed in terms of the rupture of the continuity between the divine and the human orders of creation) – European painting begins to regularly incorporate personified apes as a familiar part of its repertoire, with a certain self-referential twist.  In particular, the trope of the ape-as-painter (or, at times, the ape-as-amateur or as antiquarian collector) enters the scene in various allegories, satires, caricatures – and, at times, simply decorative divertissements, as in the panels and ceiling paintings of the Chateau de Chantilly – reflecting on the mimetic predilection and predicament of art.  Watteau and Chardin stand here as exemplary.   Although singeries had long been a genre of secular Flemish painting since the late 16th century and, indeed, frequently enough linked to the theme of the collection or cabinet (witness Teniers the Younger’s “Monkey Painter” [Prado], surrounded by canvases of all genres and periods), the rise of the Enlightenment was to transform the genre.  Whereas Renaissance theory had frequently invoked a positive notion of ars simia naturae (Boccacio) –  art as faithful copy of nature, the artist as faithful follower of the divine demiurge – and whereas the academic tradition had outdone the Renaissance in its preoccupation with the copying of works of antiquity, by the late eighteenth century the tide had turned.  Diderot and d’Alembert were to mock the servile antiquarianism of the academy, while Chardin’s “Singe peintre” [1740? known through several exemplars, including Chartres] shows a painter ape seated at an easel trying to copy a plaster reproduction of a sculpture while in fact  managing to commit to canvas only the outlines of his own simian image.  (Ironically, we can see this detail only in Sumurgue’s 1743 engraving of this painting – thus only in a copy of a by now illegible original.)   In the Louvre version of the painting, the ape stares out to meet the spectator’s eye — equally the eye of Chardin as painter, redoubling the sense of self-portraiture. 

 Your work seems frequently to play with this genre, and the monkey seems to link the theme of the academy with the more general issues of mimesis which preoccupy you.  How does photography specifically inflect the problematic of mimesis?  (For example, do the monkey artists, critics, and spectators clustering around the works in the museum also reflect indirectly on the status of photography itself?)   

I found this wonderful quote by Kafka “ A Report to An Academy”: “To put it plainly, much as I like expressing myself in images, to put it plainly: your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be further removed from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the Great Achilles alike.”   Here the mimetic faculty is compared to “sympathetic magic” — the old  belief that we can some how protect ourselves from the spirits by imitating them.

In “The Artist, the Model, the Art Critic and the Spectator,” a mandrill (male baboon) looks at us as the chimpanzee looks at the model (La jeune  Tarentine by Alexander Schoenewerk 1872). Who or what is the spectator addressed in title of this work? An ape or human?  The joke is that we ourselves are positioned as apes since in fact the model is cold marble stretched into an arc reminiscent of Charcot’s hysterics at La Salpetrière. Yes, like in the Chardin, there is also a self portrait here, yet I identify with all the characters including the dead hysteric.

How does the academic problematic of copying get transformed under the impact of photograph?

There has been a critique of original copies for some time now and perception itself is coded  — yet there is  a playfulness with the monkey or ape who acts out the baser instincts, or who becomes a jester figure. In “Genius of the Place” the ape figure taken from behind becomes like us a spectator — perhaps there is a reminder of what we share in evolutionary terms with the chimpanzee. The mandrill ape holding Eduard Zitsel’s book Le Genie is close to the figure in Egyptian mythology of the scribe. He becomes “The Art Functionary” who still today is looking for the next genius to promote — witness all the recent art competitions where the quest for genius becomes a media circus.

Does photography lend itself to the traditional opposition between “good” and “bad” mimesis – between the idealizing recreation of nature and the slavish reproduction thereof, ars simia naturae and imitatio insipiens?  

The whole notion of photography as slavish imitator of nature is one that plagued the beginnings of photography, but it really has less if any currency now with the use of digital photography, which in a sense brings it back closer to painting and drawing. 

The photographic sign is based on resemblance  which has more to do with conventions of verisimilitude. These conventions of what is considered to be real are very much contingent on time and place. The other quality is that of the index in which is contingent in its structure on the light which exposes the suspended silver crystals  via the optics of the camera lens. There is no lens that really comes to exactly reproduce our binocular vision and its sense of depth. Yet this indexicality the conatct with what it records has something close to magic that is if we are willing to suspend  our disbelief.

How does the mechanical moment in photography relate to the dimension of animality?   Is there a mortification implicit in the photographic freeze – and perhaps too in the jerkiness of the animated movement – invite us to rethink our conceptualization of “living” nature?  Does the blurring of the divide between nature and history, under the impact of photography, also suggest a blurring of the line between life and death as such?

The mechanical moment is in a relation of radical otherness to a living animal, although automatons can imitate animals and sometimes these animatronics used have the jerkiness and suddenness movement found in  old  pre-sound movies.  The uncanny as an idea may be relevant here.

III. Zeuxis and Parrhasios. 

In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells the tale of the famous contest between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios:  to the former’s virtuosic rendering of grapes so luscious that the birds themselves start swooping to devour them, the latter responds by painting a curtain so realistic that his competitor demands impatiently that he raise the curtain and reveal the work beneath.  When Parrhasios reveals that there is, in truth, nothing beneath the painted curtain of appearances, Zeuxis concedes defeat: “with a modesty that did him honour he yielded up the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds Parrhasios had deceived him, an artist.” (xxxvi.65f)   Implicit in the distinction operative here between two orders of desire — between the culinary appetite of the animal and the sublimated Schaulust which defines human desire as the desire to see — is the distinction, established within the field of mimesis itself, between the representation of an object and the representation of the conditions of representation as such: the veil itself is the very semblance it both hides and manifests.   Zeuxis — who wins a secondary honour [ingenuo] and self-affirmation as artist [artificem] through his very renunciation of the prize [palma] – in the end acquits himself by seeing through the curtain of appearances.  In a moment suggestive of Hegel’s account of the Emperor Pompey’s shock on discovering the emptiness behind the curtain of the Jewish holy of holies (and suggestive equally of Lacan’s depiction of the void at the heart of beauty), Zeuxis perhaps comes to see beyond the very opposition between truth and semblance.   

First question:  What if the birds of Zeuxis themselves were to enter the space of representation?   If, in a further twist, they were to appear as parrots – avian equivalent of the ape in terms of its mimetic associations – and thus impersonate both artist and spectator connoisseur?   Fluttering in the ambiguous space between the photographed canvas and the spectator of the actual photograph, casting shadows which at times occlude and preempt the canvas itself – how does their frozen airborne movement compare with the jerky movements of the simian “artist, critic, spectator”?

The birds have entered the space of representation: in fact they are one bird, photographed from three different points of view, and then placed digitally into the photograph I took of Fragonard’s “The Swing” at the Wallace collection. The idea  was to attempt to create movement, as if a bird where flying in and out of the plane of representation.   The jerky movements of the monkey are a longer version of the space between the flight of those three spendid parakeets.  But  I am not sure that the movement of the bird in those three positions is similar to the positions of the artist critic spectator in “The Artist, the Model, the Art Critic and the Spectator,” except that the spectator inferred in the title is absent, like the bird linked to the shadow on the top right of The Green Room..  

Let me specify (second question):  “The Green Room” in particular, appears to be a kind of reworking of Pliny’s allegory.  In the elaborate trompe l’oeil it develops, the stuffed parrot appears to be flying out of the frame (only of course to be recaptured in the surface of the actual photograph).  (Or does the bird make its final escape only when photography itself is abandoned – leaving only as a recorded trace of a song, and an empty glass cage?)  Is the parrot  inside or outside the space of representation?  Another shadow of a bird appears in the upper right corner of the canvas without any actual referent, suggesting that the source of the shadow shares the same logical space as the spectator.   That the bird in the lower left hand corner both covers up the voyeur in Fragonard – who is supposed to be looking up the woman’s skirt- and seems to be targeting us, the actual viewer, with his gaze, and perhaps with more than his gaze – is he about to fly into our faces and peck out our own eyes, in a Hitchcockian moment? — is suggestive.  Does our complicity with Fragonard’s voyeur (a foiled voyeurism, since we fail to see what he sees) get exposed in the violence of the bird’s movement? 

We are all willing accomplices here straining to see what is suggested or not shown entirely.  It is true that the shadow on the top right has no real referent in the plane of representation: it is a simulacrum of a shadow cast by a bird to give an impression that the disappeared bird flies between the spectator and the framed photographed in the exhibition space of the Wallace collection where it was installed as part of the exhibition “Sanctuary.”   What these devices point to is the space between the framed  photographic work  and the space in which it is placed. We are interpellated as spectators, standing looking at Fragonard’s painting in the “Green Room” of the Wallace Collection

Third  question:  I’d also like to think about the way in which the shadow functions here not simply as the index of a departed presence but also as the index of a real absence: no possible referent exists in either real or virtual (represented) space.  How does the medium of  photography itself – in its workings with light and shadow – develop this problematic?  The shadow equally evokes another also well-known tale from Pliny, that of the origin of drawing itself – Butades’ daughter who traces the silhouette of her departing lover (her father, curiously, proceeds to sculpt and freeze the image), according to an allegory in which the link between desire, loss, memory and the image is made explicit.  The trope of Dibutades enters explicitly, of course, in your earlier work “The Pencil of Nature” (from Academies 1994) – which features a male nude sculpture cast [?] in the background — in which the reference to photography is also made explicit in the title [Talbot].   Could you comment on any of this (or on the relation between these two works)?

Yes, there is  also a version called “Butades’ daughter” in which I am posing in place of the tall blonde young woman doing the drawing in The Pencil of Nature.  Photography shares with the shadow its indexical nature — the indexical sign is afterall the cornerstone of the photographic image. Although shadows are still relegated to the lower regions in some artists’ work (witness the Neue Sachlichtheit of the Bechers, where there are no shadows but rather the diffuse light so beloved of the sciences),  they are very present in the 60’s work of Lee Friedlander, who used the shadow —  often his own autoportrait — to puncture the plane of representation in his photographs.

Fourth question: There is also the question of all the curtains in the “Spirits” series (“Annunciation,” “Visitation,” “Heaven on Earth”, “Transmigration of the Souls”) in which the curtain seems to function as both screen and backdrop, and plays off against the birds and butterflies which appear pinned and  stationary.  This impression of an unnatural stasis or impossible movement is extreme in “Transmigration…”  in which  the butterflies appear upside down – here the  trompe l’oeil tradition seems stood on its head.

Yes. concerning the trompe l’oeil tradition.  In fact, the bigger top right butterfly is the right side —  up the others are upside down. Three again! I guess  I am slightly obsessive about this restaging in different versions of beauty and its voids….