critter cam as high art
The first thing you notice entering the Sam Easterson video exhibition at the wildlife art museum is the racket. Not the romantic sounds of wolves howling or loons calling across a lake. No. Easterson’s videos capture the scuffling, snuffling, munching, slurping, and grass crunching underfoot of quotidian animal life.
Easterson’s “Running Wild” video installation features a dozen or so monitors showing footage of assorted animals going about their business. Some videos are from tiny cameras mounted on an animal’s head or neck – as with a bison, a wolf, a ring-tailed pheasant, a mallard duck. a snail. These are by far the most intriguing and artful videos. Easterson also gathered footage from tiny cameras he installed in burrowing animals’ dens, in birds nests, and up close to a black widow spider’s web.
Before I go further, I want to note that Sam Easterson is no amateur home videomaker. Young, celebrated, and widely shown, Easterson, as NPR notes, has “refined the art of the critter cam.” I wasn’t aware that the critter cam is a new genre, but apparently The Whitney Museum of American Art, the International Center of Photography, and the Walker Art Center acknowledge it – they’ve all shown Easterson’s work. Trained as a landscape architect and a fine artist, Easterson is now on a mission to “help expand the public’s capacity to understand the natural environment in empathetic terms.”
A noble goal. My guess is he’ll have the same success rate as most wildlife artists. Which is to say, in my limited opinion, that art only has so much power to change a person’s inclination toward wildlife. Some of us are more empathetic toward wild creatures than others. Some of us will always see other animals as trophies or creatures over which to have dominion. Certainly watching a mouse scurry in and out of its den, glancing nervously at the camera light, helps me empathize about as much as a YouTube critter cam: cute, but so what. Also, I am not sure the critter cam attached to the wolf’s head will enlighten many of us to the vital importance of predators in an ecosystem.
However, the wolf cam does reveal how absolutely un-regal and non-vicious a wolf’s afternoon can be. Any dog owner will recognize the intense inserting of snout into mud or grass – canine’s live by their sense of smell. When the wolf lays down for a rest, front paws extended simply and elegantly in front of its nose, the viewer gazes with the wolf at the fallen pine needles, the roots, the fauna of the forest floor. Quiet, peaceful, it’s nothing more than a moment, a pause, before action begins again. The viewer is confronted with how this moment is only infused with meaning if we humans infuse it. Is the wolf reflecting? Dreaming? Pondering its next move?
Could it be enough for the wolf to simply gaze?
That question, then, becomes the remarkable part of this exhibition. Viewers must face their own discomfort with simply gazing. When the ring-tail pheasant careens across a field like a victim in a horror film, I’m the one who sees it that way, not the pheasant. For the pheasant, it’s simply a matter of getting from point A to point B.
A last note: there are two segments, the bison and the mallards, that reminded me of the Julian Schnabel film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” In that film, Schnabel created montages of the main character’s impressions of nature and his memories.
When Easterson’s bison dips her head to slurp from a shallow pond, the reflection of the sky and the shadow of the beast’s head are very much like an impressionistic painting. Schnabel will have been trying to create the same kind of effect that the bison captures accidentally. The pond, meanwhile, with its interplay of light and cloud, shadow and ripple, just goes on being a pond, whether or not anyone or anything is there to look into it and compose a thing of beauty.
“Running Wild: A Video Installation by Sam Easterson” runs through April 2013 at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.