Extinction Art Spread

Extinction Art

Artists are confronting us with the world as it is, was and could be.

THIRTY YEARS after Andy Warhol made a series of silkscreen prints to raise awareness of endangered species, evidence of an ongoing sixth mass-extinction event grows. Each year, Canada’s list of species at risk gets longer. A blogger at Scientific American offers an extinction countdown. Scientists provide alarming accounts and warn about “defaunation in the Anthropocence” – the elimination of wildlife from an age dominated by humans.

THIRTY YEARS after Andy Warhol made a series of silkscreen prints to raise awareness of endangered species, evidence of an ongoing sixth mass-extinction event grows. Each year, Canada’s list of species at risk gets longer. A blogger at Scientific American offers an extinction countdown. Scientists provide alarming accounts and warn about “defaunation in the Anthropocence” – the elimination of wildlife from an age dominated by humans.

But scientific warnings haven’t stemmed the collapse of biodiversity. Nor have well-meaning laws. Can artists open our eyes to what we are losing? Animals were the first subjects of art, in cave paintings more than 32,000 years ago. Real and imagined creatures figure prominently in art history. Art and conservation have long been close companions: John James Audubon discovered 25 new bird species on the way to setting a new standard for wildlife illustration. Taxidermy artist Carl Akeley pioneered diorama displays for natural history museums and helped establish Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect mountain gorillas. Artists continue to stand as society’s conscience and critics. They disrupt our complacency and broadcast calls for change. Increasingly, they are reflecting the disappearance of the animal world. Take the pangolin, the improbable mascot of last fall’s Extinction Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery. You may never have heard of the only fully scaly mammal – the “walking pine cone,” the “artichoke with legs and a tail” – but the pangolin may be the most trafficked animal in the world. And despite an international convention prohibiting trade in endangered species, it is on the way to being eaten to extinction.

Artists are acting as agents provocateurs, forcing us to confront our kinship with other animals, to acknowledge how we are diminishing them, and to see the world as it is, was and could be. This is particularly evident in exhibitions and works like Maya Lin’s online project What is Missing?; the Here Today exhibit, which debuted in London, England, in November 2014; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s ZOO; MASS MoCA’s Eclipse; the New York-based Canary Project; and the five far-flung sculptures of Todd McGrain’s Lost Bird Project. Many use historical ecology to remind us how abundant the planet used to be. Some tell “lively stories about extinction,” as Thom Van Dooren, an anthropologist in the new field of extinction studies, exhorts us all to do. Here, in prints, paintings, sculptures, photographs, video, textiles, multimedia installations and soundscapes, are some glimpses into art about species extinction.

Endangered Species
Andy Warhol

In 1983, art dealers Ronald and Frayda Feldman commissioned Andy Warhol, one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, to address this ecological crisis. He produced silkscreen prints of 10 endangered species: a bald eagle, black rhino, African elephant, bighorn ram, giant panda, Grevy’s zebra, orangutan, Pine Barrens tree frog, Siberian tiger and San Francisco silverspot. In his trademark style, the prints turn the animals into celebrities on par with Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. In 2014, a set of the 10 prints sold for $485,000 (US) at a Sotheby’s auction.

Thirty years later, all but two of these “animals in makeup,” as Warhol called them, are more endangered than ever. The bald eagle, America’s emblematic predator, was removed from the US Endangered Species list in 2007, and the Pine Barrens tree frog was upgraded to “near threatened” in 1996.

Pandy Warhol
Gavin Turk

At last count, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species included more than 4,500 species of mammals, birds and amphibians on nature’s equivalent of death row. Last year, to mark the list’s 50th anniversary, works from 50 artists transformed the Old Sorting House in London, England, into the massive exhibition Here Today. The show invited viewers to consider a response other than “gone tomorrow” and to start saying “Here today, here tomorrow.”

The IUCN exhibition poster was a riff on Warhol. London- based conceptual artist Gavin Turk produced a new silkscreen print for the show, in which he coloured a black and white giant panda red, emphasizing its presence on the Red List. There are fewer than 2,500 mature giant pandas in the wild. Wallpaper of Turk’s “Pandy Warhol” filled one room of the show. Print sale proceeds were donated to the IUCN and to Turk’s other favoured charity, the House of Fairy Tales. Turk said he had tried to make the print as humourous as he could. “Pandas are showstoppers. If you have a panda in a zoo, for instance, that’s national news if it gets pregnant. So then because I really wanted to make sure everybody was aware of the Warhol connection, I just thought we should call it Pandy Warhol,” he said in an interview with Absolutely Magazines.

Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of the IUCN, opened the Here Today show. “During my eight years at IUCN,” she said in an email, “I constantly worked on involving people who were not insiders to the conservation world, so of course having the interest and contribution of artists is great. The loss of biodiversity is a serious threat to the ecological balance on our small planet, and getting people to think about this and to take action to respect and save species is essential. I particularly liked the fact that, while the title suggested the usual adage of ‘Here today – Gone tomorrow,’ in fact the exhibit offered solutions, and while its messages were strong, the overall tone was positive and had a ‘can-do’ attitude.”

What is Missing?
Maya Lin

Continuing to reinvent the art of the memorial, Maya Lin says is her final work in this genre. The celebrated artist and architect is best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but has also memorialized the American Civil Rights Movement for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and created the Women’s Table for Yale University. She says her latest work is not really about extinct species: “We can’t do anything about that,” she said in an interview with Yale Environment 360 when the project began in 2012. Rather, it’s about what we can do to stop the diminishment of the natural world.

Instead of a single statue or canvas to commemorate an event, What is Missing? is a multipart work-in-progress designed to jolt us into awareness of the life disappearing around us.

Its centrepiece is a multimedia website of maps, stories and videos that invites visitors through “wormholes” to see the past, the present and in some cases the future of the natural world and its vanishing animals. The images open slowly, on constellations of moving, flickering dots that form into the shapes of animals as words read, “What is Missing? One in five mammals. One in three amphibians. One in eight birds…” As we read, “Human alteration of their habitat is the single biggest cause,” the dots take shape as the world’s continents. But this is just an elegant introduction. Roll your mouse over any dot, and the real story emerges.

“For instance, if you clicked on Manhattan, it would jump up and form 50 dots,” Lin told Yale Environment 360. “I call those wormholes.” Viewers can follow these wormholes to travel back in time to those places. “And so we went for the earliest written accounts, from the Dutch settlers, where they found that lobsters were six feet long [about two metres], oysters were twelve inches in diameter. And as you follow, say, the Manhattan wormhole, as you get further and further along, the rivers degrade, the abundance of wildlife disappears.” Lin calls on citizens from around the world to share on the site their own experiences of what is missing.

Related physical works that integrate sound and natural materials have been installed at scientific institutions such as the California Academy of Sciences and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Animal voices emanate from a Listening Cone of bronze and reclaimed redwood at the California Academy. Her Sound Ring at Cornell – eight speakers hidden within a sustainably harvested and sculpted walnut oval –broadcasts the sounds of woodcocks, loons, lemurs and Weddell seals.

“But then there is an arc of hope,” Lin adds. She goes further than many artists by explicitly calling attention to successful environmental laws: “The [1970s] come, the Clean Air Act happens, the Clean Water Act. And all of a sudden in present day, you get seals returning to the harbor, nature comes back. Where would we be in this country [the United States] if we didn’t have the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act?”

Rewilding Vancouver
J.B. MacKinnon and the Museum of Vancouver

Species loss is at the core of J.B. MacKinnon’s work, the inspiration for the Museum of Vancouver’s Rewilding Vancouver show in 2014. The collaboration between MacKinnon and the museum reimagined the city as it is, was and could be.

MacKinnon’s book The Once and Future World is a lament for what he calls the “10-percent world” – the world depleted of more than 90 percent of its natural richness, a diminished world that we now accept as normal.

The exhibit recreated Vancouver’s historic diversity and abundance of life and projected a vision of a “rewilded” city. There bears roamed the entrance to the Lions Gate Bridge, salmon swam in a daylit stream in the heart of a residential neighbourhood, and whales breached in the harbour. A video streamed real-life footage of the grey whale that swam into False Creek in 2010, drawing throngs of citizens to the shorefront to catch a glimpse, later commemorated with a new poem by Brad Cran: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Gray Whale, After Wallace Stevens and ending with a line from Rilke.

Extinction was represented by a life-sized, 7.6-metre papiermâché representation of a Steller’s sea cow, which hung from the museum’s ceiling. These massive “cows,” weighing up to 3,600 kg, were hunted to extinction in less than 30 years between their first discovery in 1741 and last known sighting in 1768. Named after naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, a crew member on Captain Vitus Bering’s expeditions to map the coast of Alaska for the Russian czar, the sea cow was a geographically apt addition to the show.

The exhibit’s bold proposals to rewild Vancouver have met with some success already: In 2014, the city unveiled the Rewilding Vancouver action plan. In the foreword to the plan, MacKinnon points to the next hundred years as the “age of rewilding. No longer will we settle for saving the last wild spaces or species from extinction. Instead, we will work to bring nature back to exuberant life, everywhere.”

Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died just over 100 years ago. The centenary catalyzed more than 50 exhibitions. Martha‘s death was a watershed moment for extinction, says artist Susannah Sayler, and marked the last of a species that once made up roughly a quarter of all birds in North America.

Motivated by writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s compelling narratives to produce visual work of equal impact, Sayler and Edward Morris created the installation Eclipse as an act of commemoration for the passenger pigeon. Eclipse was showing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) until October 2015. Its title comes from John James Audubon’s account of watching the passage of a single flock of passenger pigeons for three straight days, the birds so dense in the sky that they “obscured the light of the noonday sun as by an eclipse.”

Accounts say that seeing and hearing such flocks was an experience powerful enough to cause children to scream, horses to bolt, and grown men and women to drop to their knees to pray. To try to recreate that experience, the artists filled a skinny, three-story-high lightwell at MASS MoCA with reverse silhouettes, in white, of about a quartermillion animated pigeons that appear and reappear in a seven-minute video projected on a series of screens.

A white outline of a black elm tree shines at the end of a blackened room. A flock approaches. The rumble and beating of wings grows louder. The branches of the tree flutter, then shake under the weight of the birds. Birds rise, like ashes flying up in the sky after a fire. The shaft of a beam of light over the tree grows thicker with the flock of birds. The tree becomes swollen with birds and is eclipsed as the flock grows. The peak passes. The birds stream out, with a few left to fly up off the skeletal branches of the denuded tree. One bird remains, and then it too disappears.

Sayler and Morris’s work is unabashedly activist. They’ve been devoted to deepening public understanding of the Anthropocene for over a decade. Their A History of the Future documented climate-change scientists working in landscapes across the globe. They’ve put photos on the sides of buses, mass-produced Green Patriot posters and marked high-water lines to show people where the water will come up to when sea levels rise. Feeling the “need to shout,” they formed The Canary Project, a collaboration between artists, designers, writers, educators and scientists. Eclipse marks their first foray into extinction art. They’re now working on reimagining the Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to shed a stronger light on extinction and the Anthropocene.

Sayler senses a change in public opinion about climate in the last year. “People are freaking out because the weather has been so weird. It seems like it’s no longer possible to be a climate denier in the US.” She takes heart from Abraham Lincoln’s dictum that “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

Great Auk
Todd McGrain

Birds fascinate Todd McGrain. A sculptor with the enviable job of artist-in-residence at the Cornell Ornithology Lab, McGrain has devoted the last 10 years to creating five larger-than-life bronze sculptures of extinct birds. His Lost Bird Project has placed each sculpture to mark the spot where their original’s last known specimen was seen. His Great Auk, a gawky flightless bird hunted to extinction for its feathers, meat, fat and oil, now guards an entrance to remote Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador.

McGrain chose the site as the closest inhabited one to Funk Island, once the site of the greatest feather-rendering plant in North America. There, the birds were boiled in their thousands so that their valuable down could be plucked; the bodies were discarded. The location took some detective work. Other records peg Eldey Island, in Iceland, as the place where the last pair of great auks were killed. A tip from a Newfoundland fisher led McGrain to an historic marker recording the death of the last bird in 1888 (44 years after the Icelandic pair died) on Fogo Island itself. An old newspaper stored in the provincial archives confirmed the event.

Fishers on Fogo Island use poems to navigate through shallow waters. McGrain was honoured to learn from locals that the poem used to navigate through Joe Batt’s Arm was changed to recognize the new Great Auk sculpture – a estament, he feels, to how the bird has been reborn in the island’s lore.

“Extinct species tell us to pay attention,” McGrain says. Memorializing lost species has become the driving force in his life, and he has started a non-profit organization called Bellwether to connect people more deeply with the Earth through art. Though he finds it hard to be optimistic, he believes in strong laws and that people are out ahead of the laws. The Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1917, one of Canada’s oldest conservation laws, came too late to save the great auk.

Inspired by the Cornell Lab’s Elephant Listening Project, McGrain is currently producing a documentary film about forest elephants, which are being decimated by poaching for bush meat and tusks. He hopes there will not be a forest elephant sculpture in his future, too.

Primate II
Kitty Blandy

Kitty Blandy is a Vancouver-based artist whose work expresses a common thread of the physical sympathy that we humans have with the “animal.” By “sympathy,” she means the sharing of another’s sensation and condition. She’s motivated by the idea of animalism as a form of sensuality, and the view that humans are mere animals; or as she and others might have it, “animals are merely human.”

She drew this orangutan at the Natural History Museum in London, taken by the threadbare stuffed animal specimen exhibited in a hall on the way to the dinosaur room.

“The orangutan, in this instance, plays as a reflection of humanity’s narcissistic synthesis of our fellow creatures, examining ourselves and others through our sympathy with them,” she says. “The threat of extinction magnifies not only our terror for animal kind, but of our own mortality.”

Both the Sumatran and the Borneo orangutan are listed as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List.

Sara Angelucci

Sara Angelucci makes the haunting hybrid images in her 2013 series Aviary by combining her photographs of endangered or extinct birds from the Royal Ontario Museum’s ornithology collection with anonymous 19thcentury cartes-de-visite portraits. Collecting stuffed specimens of birds and collecting photographs were both popular activities in Victorian culture, and the images seemed like kindred spirits to Angelucci. The idea for the hybrid images came, she says, as she was looking at one of the ROM’s Eskimo Curlew specimens. The moment caused “something to break inside. It’s such an exquisite creature and looked so delicate and vulnerable.”

Angelucci exhibited two of the Aviary portraits as an artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Companion work included a performance of a mourning chorus, in which a cappella singers explored the disappearing sounds of North American songbirds in the historic setting of women’s public mourning rituals. She also organized a panel discussion, “Arts and Ideas: A bird’s eye view on art and extinction.”

Angelucci wonders what would it mean to embody another creature: “Could one then see, feel and understand its desire to live?” she asks. “Might we then imagine the Aviary portraits as chimera suspended in a state of empathy, and wonder what our treatment of other sentient beings might be if we could feel what they feel, or see what they see?”

Active beyond her art, Angelucci attended a Fatal Light Awareness Program event at which the bodies of over 1,800 migratory birds that had collided with buildings in the space of one year were on display at the ROM. “We mourn when we lose people, but not species, and that needs to change, ” says Angelucci.

Janice Wright Cheney

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, polar bears rely on sea ice as a platform on which to hunt and mate, and each year must swim longer distances as the ice recedes. The record for the longest polar bear swim in open water is 687 kilometres.

Last year, Fredericton artist Janice Wright Cheney commemorated one of these bears in her textile sculpture Spectre. An ephemeral vision of the bear is composed of crocheted snowflakes, stiffened by salt, interspersed with crystals and suspended from an armature. It’s a specific tribute to Buddy, a polar bear adopted by an RCMP officer that became the star attraction of the zoo once housed at the Banff Park Museum. The zoo was meant to show viewers a live version of each stuffed animal still displayed inside the museum. Cheney calls the Banff exhibits “a time capsule from the 1930s, packed full of glass vitrines of taxidermist specimens.”

During a residency at the museum, Cheney spoke at the Creature (Dis)Comforts workshop about the portrayal of animals in Canadian art and the unreality of zoos. She cited a passage from Pauline Wakeham’s book Taxidermic Signs, a quote from Susan Willis, which she says resonates deeply with her: “Zoo animals are body doubles, stand-ins for the real animals existing (or becoming extinct) elsewhere. Visit a zoo and you walk through a living cemetery of all that is diminishing, disappearing and soon to be gone. Look at the animals – they are living taxidermy.”

Cheney is working on a new project, upholstering a taxidermy form of a cougar in black velvet to place in the forest in Fundy National Park. The work is rooted in local stories: Hundreds of people swear they have seen cougars in New Brunswick, despite a lack of scientifically confirmed sightings. Cheney says the work is about her longing for predators and their need for habitat, because “we all want the dangerous forest to still exist.

Brandon Ballengée

Frogs and other amphibians are also seemingly doomed: 41 percent of their species face extinction. According to amphibian biologist and artist Brandon Ballengée, since the IUCN released its Amphibian Conservation Action Plan in 2005, at least seven more frog species have died out.

Ballengée promotes ecological understanding through “transdisciplinary art and participatory biology,” the title of his doctoral thesis. As a scientist, he engages citizen scientists to record the decline of frog species. As an artist, he produces work like Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians, which consists of chemically cleaned and stained ”reliquary” prints of terminally deformed frogs found in nature. Each print in the series is an original, so there is one reliquary for that animal in history. His research was conducted in polluted wetlands, where dragonfly nymphs have apparently become more voracious in biting off the developing hind limbs of tadpoles.

Recently in New York City, Ballengée unveiled Frameworks of Absence, a series of antique prints whose extinct animal subjects were meticulously excised. By cutting the animal out of the print, the glass of the frame reveals the species’ absence. He then burnt the cut-out paper containing the image of the animal, and placed the ashes in a memorial urn that forms part of the piece.

Ballengée is an advocate for strong environmental laws, and gave expert evidence about the wildlife impacts of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in a court case involving the company. His Ghosts of the Gulf print series and Collapse installation were on view until March 2015 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.

“I desire to the best of my abilities to help in any way possible to protect amphibians and other species from untimely extinction” says Ballengée.

Hordes of Provocateurs

These examples only scratch the surface of extinction art. Here are some other artists to seek out:

Mark Dion has worked for decades with this subject. His 1995 print of a dodo memorialized what’s likely the world’s best-known extinct species. His extinction series also includes 1989’s Black Rhino with Head, a taxidermied rhinoceros head nestled in a shipping crate, and tableaus such as M. Cuvier Discovers Extinction, an installation starring Mickey Mouse who recites a text about extinction.

Celebrated artist Robert Bateman has been painting animals throughout his career, including many endangered species. He remains an activist for nature at the age of 85, recently taking the stage at a benefit concert for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Brian Jungen’s cetacean skeletons – like Shapeshifter, made of white plastic lawn chairs – soar in art spaces, much as their bony counterparts hang suspended in the atriums and great rooms of natural history museums. Exhibitions such as the 2009 Becoming Animal, Becoming Human / Animal Perspectives in Berlin; the 2012 Animal Beauty at Paris’s Grand Palais, which included a room on endangered species; and the 2015 Rights of Nature – Art and Ecology in the Americas at Nottingham Contemporary in Nottingham, England, all took up the interaction between humans and endangered animals.

In the end, artists give shape to our deepest feelings, and help us see the world as it might be. As Lin says, “People care. I think they might be a little bit overwhelmed and they might feel helpless. Maybe art could pose the problems and look at solutions in a way that is funny at times, maybe a little abstracted at times, just look at it from a different point of view.”

To see all the art featured in this article, purchase a print or digital copy of 41.5 Out of the Box. 

You can see the entire Warhol “Endangered Species” series here.

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Linda Nowlan is an environmental lawyer based in Vancouver.