TO ROAM FREE
Essay by MICHAEL MACK from ‘TO CAGE’
There is a surreal story about the city of Düsseldorf during the Second World War. The heavy and inaccurate bombardment of the city resulted in decimation of parts of the zoo, allowing certain animals to roam freely beyond the boundaries of their cages and even the containment of the zoo itself. Imagine, amidst the fear of what must have felt like indiscriminate enemy air attacks, the added concern about wild animals appearing on urban street corners. It conjures mental images of giraffes loping down tar macadam strasse, polar bears and Gentoo penguins basking on traffic islands, Indian elephants and okapi feeding on grass verges, with ring-tailed lemurs and capuchin monkeys ruminating in trees overhead.
This tale of Pythonesque chaos intrigues me because the idea of these animals wandering around a sophisticated European city seems wonderfully incongruous to someone who grew up in Africa. I was used to elephants wandering at night through the farm and one of the games we would play on long car journeys was ‘first one to spot a …’. The aim was to be the first to spy a giraffe, kudu, rhino or one of the many wild animals that fed along the edges of the thin asphalt and dirt-track roads. My brother and I accepted the animals as a part of the landscape, awesome, beautiful and tinged with a frisson of danger. By the time I came to Europe as a teenager, the melancholy of growing up included the knowledge that the romance of those early years had kept us from the realities of dwindling species and the devastation of natural habitats.
Dominic Davies’ series of photographs alludes to such inherent inconsistencies in modern zoology. His images utilise an unsettling visual device which approximates to a form of selective myopia. He has photographed zoos around the world through a lens, which seems to have tunnel vision or the limited sight of an unsophisticated animal. The cages appear through a swirling vortex of blurred light, seen with destabilised eyes in a manner quite contrary the precise perspective, which the geometrical optics of the camera mechanically presents. They recall the paintings of Turner in the 1840s in which the luminescence of the sun was represented in bold swirls of abstract colour. Davies undermines the camera’s linear optical system with its inflexible identification of perception and object. That transformation of subject into object is mediated by theatre. Whilst his images are photographic and hence are not entirely severed from their subject, they do circumvent the purely indexical relationship inherent in industrialised image making. The composition, framing and Cartesian perspective is absorbed into a visually disorienting haze, a phantasmagoric blur which interrupts mimetic reproduction. In representation the blur dispossess the subject of its coordinates, unpicking the eye’s privileged position. The photographs appear roughly hewn and the link of vision with pure synchronous presence is broken. They become coded and emotive presentations of reality with greater focus on the process of perception which highlights zoos as attractions engineered toward visual consumption by a paying audience.
The zoos appear to be fundamentally false environments and these are pictures of stage sets. In some cases the photographs are of the simple illuminated cage, with the stage lights supplying both the animals’ heating and the resource which facilitates the audiences’ sight. Davies’ visual distortions represent architecture which is unnatural and alienating and the animals appear as playthings in a voyeuristic vortex. The viewer’s perception of scale is disturbed such that the stages appear minuscule and child-like, emphasising the psychological as well as physical caging. Unsurprisingly bars are rarely present in modern zoos, due to their negative connotations as symbols of restraint. There are few bars in Davies’ images; more often the means of containment is in the form of brushed aluminium and plate glass with consumer friendly corners. At the beginning of the twentieth century Carl Hagenbeck revolutionised exhibition philosophy in zoos with his panoramic display of animals on simulated terrain such as rockscapes or hills. These simulations have resulted in highly creative recreations of natural habitats but in Davies’ photographs these landscapes bring to mind Desmond Morris’ aphorism that the city is not a concrete jungle but it is a human zoo. Animal zoos can be seen in converse terms because most consist of jungle cast out of concrete. Such Hagenbeckian naturalism is distinct from designs like that by Bertold Lubetkin of the Penguin Pool at the London zoo in which the dramatic stage for the displayed animals involves the theatrical juxtaposition of audience and performers. Whatever the specific design approach in attempting to rationalise or exaggerate the spectacle, Davies’ photographs have the effect of emphasising the isolation of the cages and the fundamental fact of the human domination, control and consumption of the lower orders of the animal kingdom.