At the Zoo.

Zoo_Logical_web_ O'Shaughnessy_ Title_Pygoscelis adeliae

© David O’Shaughnessy.

David Secombe:

My old friend David O’Shaughnessy has an exhibition currently on show at Stour Space, Hackney Wick (part of Photomonth, the east London photography festival). David’s show is called Zoo Logical, and is a study of the habitats of zoo animals in New York, Dublin and, as showcased here, London.


Zoo_Logical_web O'Shaughnessy_ Title_Elephas maximus

© David O’Shaughnessy.

The key word is habitat: the animals themselves are absent. The viewer is confronted with a series of disconcertingly empty rooms reminiscent of deserted stage sets: which is, of course, the point. The animals are expected to perform for our benefit, and their man-made surroundings either mimic their natural environment or display them as specimens in an alien setting. (As beautiful as Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool is, the birds themselves hated it.)


Zoo_Logical_web O'Shaughnessy_ Title_Diceros bicornis

© David Shaugnessy

Walking round the exhibition last weekend, it struck me that David has selected the perfect location for his show. For those unfamiliar with the locality, Hackney Wick is a kind of giant guinea pig cage for hipsters. A stone’s throw from the Olympic Park to the south, and within sight of the looming bulk of Westfield shopping mall, the area offers an environment as fitted to the needs of well-heeled young urbanites as any zoologically engineered habitat.  All the key elements are in place: retro-fitted brown field decrepitude, bars and cultural spaces sprouting from light industrial units, towpaths to cycle on, and a sprinkling of riverside new-builds. Anyway, this post is written in haste as Dave’s show ends on Monday: so allow me to suggest that you treat yourselves to a visit to Hackney Wick this weekend. Enjoy the exhibition, drink a craft beer or two and look at the men with funny hair.

Zoo. Photos: Britta Jaschinski, text: Randy Malamud. (3/5)

Asian Elephant, Zoo Series, London 1992.  © Britta Jaschinski.

Randy Malamud writes: 

Zoo animals are removed from their own contexts, their own habitats, and resituated in a context that makes it more convenient for spectators to see them.  The disjunction between where an elephant really lives and this Regent’s Park pied-a-terre is surreal.  Zookeepers tell their audiences that the point of zoos is for people to establish connections with other animals, and to inculcate a sense of ecological awareness as human expansion threatens animal habitats.  But paradoxically – perversely – the zoo features animals divorced from their world.

The elephant people see in the zoo is not a “real” elephant.  The real elephant lives in her place, in her habitat, in her environment, among and alongside many other animals of her own species, as well as many animals of other species, predators and prey, friends and strangers.  She lives there because her lifecycle is predicated upon a certain seasonal climate, a certain range of movement, an environment comprised of certain plants, trees, water, dirt, stones, topography, and so forth.  It is fundamentally impossible for zoos to reproduce any significant amount of this animal’s habitat.

As people expressed feeling of guilt about seeing caged animals in prison, some zoos began to modify the enclosures, largely to alleviate the spectator’s discomfort.  Perhaps the designers who created this brutalist elephant compound thought that the “brutes” inhabiting it would feel at home here. But the zoo’s architectural spectacles do not alter the fact that the constrained animal on display lacks most aspects of the environment in which he or she naturally lives.  Zoo-goers cannot see an elephant who acts or feeds or sleeps or eats or mates or nurtures or fights in the way a real elephant would.  Depressive, anxious, and fearful behaviour – learned helplessness, self-injury, stereotypic repetition — is rampant among captive animals on display.

© Randy Malamud.

Zoo by Britta Jaschinski is published by Phaidon.

Zoo. Photos: Britta Jaschinski, text: Randy Malamud. (2/5)

Black-Footed (Jackass) Penguin, Zoo Series, London 1995. © Britta Jaschinski.

Randy Malamud writes:

Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo.

The O.K. thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo.

So sang Victorian music-hall artist Alfred Vance – the Great Vance! – in 1870, appearing as a dandy London “swell” recounting his excursion to Regent’s Park.  The Fellows of the Zoological Society of London were not amused by his contribution of the word “zoo” to the lexicon, dismayed that the common monosyllabic moniker trivialized their importance.

“ZSL London Zoo,” as it calls itself today, opened to the Fellows of the Society in 1828, and to paying visitors from the public at large in 1847.  Some of its cages (or “enclosures,” in today’s softer euphemism of zoo discourse) date back to that era: the Raven’s Cage was erected in 1829, and the Giraffe House still in use was built in the 1830s.

Walking in the zoo today, one feels many shadows of the past: not just from the physical compound of Decimus Burton’s nineteenth-century architecture and grounds, but also from the historical legacy of imperialism.  The zoo was the project of Sir Stamford Raffles, imperialist extraordinaire.  His day job was subduing and plundering Java and Sumatra as a colonial agent for the East India Company.  As a hobby, he amassed animals during his exotic adventures, and this menagerie became the Zoological Society’s founding collection.

Zoogoers looking at these penguins’ silhouettes might recall the shadowy legacy of captive animal display as a celebration of Victorian triumphalism, offering spectators a taste, an amuse-bouche, of the British Empire’s global conquests.  The intent was to persuade the masses that they benefited somehow from the imperial enterprise – that is, “the white man’s burden,” achieving domination and ownership, imposing commercial, cultural, political, and ideological control upon all the world’s different regions and habitats and cultures.  The proletariat’s payoff was simply being able to see all these geographically diverse and exotic creatures and bask in the prowess that facilitated the exhibition of such a splendid corpus of animals in the heart of London.

Are the animals actually there at all, or are we just watching shadow-puppets playing out the nostalgic fantasy of imperial control?

© Randy Malamud.

Zoo by Britta Jaschinski is published by Phaidon.