The Museum of Dying Giants. Fake fur, pine trees and needles, wooden frame, oil painting, fiberglass sculpture. 108 x 120 x 144.” 2009.
The tent is an icon of our idealized relationship with nature, of the contact zone between the human and natural world.
Generally, we set up a tent on the woods. But here, the woods are inside the tent. Nature- which in truth is often raw and deadly- has been comfortably contained inside a man-made structure, and there reduced to a magical, escapist construction of nature. This element of fantasy is enhanced by the luxury and purity of the white, fake fur, and by the anthropomorphic wolverine inside the tent. The fur- meant to evoke the fur of polar bears and of other arctic wildlife- could also be the fur of unicorns and other mythical creatures. Thus, the white fur tent suggests the fantasy of the elegant and comfortable containment and management of nature. The fur tent also suggests that somewhere, some animal is missing its hide. So there is a suggestion of violence in the containment.
The tent reminds me of the tents of my own childhood (my father is an outdoorsy type, and so we went camping now and again). Additionally, the shape of the tent is as minimal- and so as iconic- as possible. It looks much like the tents used by the arctic explorers in the early part of the twentieth century- Scott, Peary, Cook and Admunsen- in their bids for polar conquest. In these explorers’ attempts to reach the North and South Poles, we see another example of the romantic construction of the contact zone between man and nature; these men were universally lauded as heroes in the Jules Verne style, and seen as noble leaders exemplifying the strength and perseverance of their respective nations, in the face of harsh conditions. The fantasy certainly gave way to reality for these men during the course of their expeditions, and terrible hardships are described in their travel logs; Scott’s party froze to death, after reaching the South Pole only to discover that Admunsun had gotten there first.
And so the tent also represents a fantasy of protection, of coziness and safety against the harshness of nature. It is the emblem of shelter that allows us to romanticize nature at a close distance; without it, we are actually in nature, unprotected, which is usually most unpleasant.
Photos from airplanes. The bottom one is taken over Salt Lake City. There is something about peering through the little bubble of airplane window that is always magical- I love it when, somehow, beads of condensation make it into the space between the two sheets of plastic. Sometimes the outer window has a tiny pinprick hole drilled in the plastic too- perhaps to release pressure?- These signs of the tenuous nature of flight, the rinky-dinkyness of airplane construction and thrill of the thin, crappy plastic barrier between myself and thousands of feet of free fall into the landscape- well, they still serve as a dollop of compensation. Compensation for the fact that the seats are hideously uncomfortable and that the person next to me has a violent cold, or, once, a colostomy bag.
Admiral Peary- great charlatan that he probably was- perched at the North Pole in 1909. Maybe.
Or maybe not.
Jo Peary, the Admiral's wife, who occasionally accompanied him on portions of his expeditions. She was likely unaware of the children that Peary fathered with a fourteen year old Inuit girl. Nice fur suit though.
The above photos are all taken from the Peary family photo album, available at the National Archives in Washington DC.
Dioramas from the Natural History Museum in New York. I think.
The tent also makes me think of Narnia… to step through a portal and escape into a magical world of uncanny creatures and magical winters seems to be a very old idea… The interesting thing about C.S. Lewis’s tale is that it really is a fable of escapism (his religious parables aside). The four Pevensies are part of the great fleet of children who were sent away from London during the Blitz, and by stepping into a wardrobe, they escape the wartime world entirely. Such fantasy containments also make me think of dioramas- of nature made as real as possible, and frozen behind glass, enchanting and disorienting, and a total fake. Dioramas and taxidermy have a visceral reality beyond nature photos and video because they are three dimensional, and because you could conceivably touch real fur and real claws.
Illustration from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by Pauline Baynes. This image found on the blog "Ex Libris : Brian Sibley; volumes taken at idle moments from my bookshelves". I haven't had time to read this site in depth, but at first glance it looks intriguing.