A photography show renders nature unnaturally
A small deer peers skittishly at the camera, its eyes gleaming
eerily green. Does it look suspicious? What about the fuzzy raccoon? Is it dabbling in some dubious activity? Are secret weapons concealed among the porcupine's prickles?
Welcome to the Bureau of Remote Wildlife Surveillance, a creation by artist Mark Dion that subverts our obsession with enemies hidden everywhere. In this case, the wily spies under scrutiny are wandering animals snapped by heat-sensitive "trap cameras" scattered about the landscape surrounding Dion's Pennsylvania home. Mounted in montages, the images are arranged on the walls of the bureau's putative head office, a room crammed with cabinets, rusty keys, and boxes labeled "Bats," "Weasels," and "New York Rodents."
The Bureau of Remote Wildlife Surveillance
Mark Dion/Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
(left) is one installation in Ecotopia: The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video.
On view through January 7, 2007, at the International Center of Photography in New York City, the exhibition explores humanity's oft-troubled interactions with the natural world. Forty artists from 14 countries are participating in the show, and it seems that nearly all have embraced a common theme, juxtaposing a pristine environment and rude reminders of the human footprint.
In a video titled Amphibious (Login-Logout) by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, a row of tortoises sit placidly on a log as it floats down China's sun-dappled Pearl River. The scenery is hardly serene. The implacable reptiles are dwarfed by tankers, tall cranes, skyscrapers, and cement stacks on the riverbanks. Simon Norfolk's Scenes From a Liberated Iraq depicts ostensibly peaceful spots: an orange grove, the magnificent North Gate of Baghdad. Close inspection, however, reveals a camouflaged surface-to-surface missile system amid the leaves of the trees and a mangled truck beneath the imposing arch. And in Mitch Epstein's photograph of the Amos Coal Power Plant in Raymond, West Virginia, cooling towers loom over houses and neat backyards filled with flowers and shrubs.
While these photographers seem to have chanced upon such strange contrasts, others manipulate the environment by introducing odd elements into untainted landscapes. Harri Kallio built life-size three-foot-tall models of the extinct dodo and set them down in Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island from which they were driven to extinction three centuries ago. In Doug Aitken's Plateau, sparrows and pigeons populate a city built entirely out of FedEx boxes (above). And in Catherine Chalmers's Safari, a cockroach emerges from a primordial sea into a jungle swarming with fearsome reptiles, insects, and frogs. This "return to nature" was actually filmed in Chalmers's New York City studio.
Making sense of scents
There's a whiff of nonsense in the sense of smell. Nearly identical molecules can have quite different scents—synthetic musk was accidentally created from a tweaking of TNT molecules in an explosives lab—and radically different structurescan smell similar, like the bitter almond tinge common to both marzipan and cyanide. We can't capture odor with a camera or play it back on a stereo, and scientists have had no idea how to predict aroma from molecular structure.
Biophysicist Luca Turin thinks he has cracked the code, a story he tells in The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell (HarperCollins, $23.95). What exactly does a patch of tissue in the nasal passage sense—the shapes of molecules or their vibrations? Why does rosy fall somewhere between woody and lemony on the molecular map? This is a science book that reads like a mystery novel, with vividly drawn characters (both human and odoriferous) and chemical clues (the formation of mercury droplets, the olfactory illusion of caraway).
Turin helped launch a company to create perfumes from first principles. Many scientists doubt his theories, but his odors impress the fragrance industry. If Turin truly does decipher the basic chords of smell, perhaps someday we will notate and compose fragrance as we now can a musical symphony.