Behind glass and a thousand bars: The perception and staging of zoo animals

Root Event

Werkleitz Festival 2011 ZOO
Behind glass and a thousand bars: The perception and staging of zoo animals

Giraffes, crocodiles, Dolphins, Penguins and, again and again, polar bears: Candida Höfers photographic cycle Zoologische Gärten1 [Zoo] shows zoo animals and their dwellings [Fig.1]. Contrary to zoo guides and advertising brochures, the animals are shown here as just one, albeit critical element in the total mise en scéne of the zoo enclosure. The incorporation of the architectural surrounds and the chosen standpoint make the zoos in the pictures a representation of the human. From the early modern era to the present, the building of animal enclosures has undergone continual change. Yet there are obvious constants. The generic term “Gehege” no longer encompasses the range of different methods of animal enclosure invented for the institution of the zoo.

In 1980, the author John Berger dedicated his seminal essay “Warum sehen wir Tiere an?2 to the artist Gilles Aillaud and his predilection for painting zoo animals in their enclosures. This turns our gaze onto ourselves. Our ambivalent relationship to animals is nowhere more apparent than in zoos. The encounter with animals generally produces mixed emotions due both to the sense of similarity and connection as well as that of difference and separation. At the zoo this contrast is sharpened by the liberty enjoyed on the one side and the captivity on the other.

The zoo too is anthropocentric

Zoo enclosures either demonstrate human dominion over animals or attempt to veil the fact of captivity. A glance at the history sheds light on the changing perception of animals and the rights accorded to them over the course of time. Despite all efforts to make it appear otherwise, the human is always at the centre. This already shows up in the building methods of the the menageries of the Baroque, precursors to the zoos. A prominent, much emulated example is the Garden of Versailles. The centralized conception, with animal houses radiating out from a pavilion, is the dawn of the modern approach to animal keeping as a form of representation. Contemporaries described itas an„établissement de luxe et de curiosité, entretenu ordinairement par les souverains, et dans le voisinage des parcs ou des jardins de leur palais“.3 [an establishment of light and curiosity, usually held by rulers in the vicinity of palace parks and gardens]There is an emphasis here on the interplay between the architecture of dominion, garden design, the possession of exotic animals and the power claims of the regents, an interplay which would remain relevant after absolutism.

This architecture, which literally removes the human into the heart of the animal world, is focussed from the very beginning on the opulent, stylised, artistic furnishing of the buildings. Exclusive abodes and rare animals conspire together to increase the splendour of the proprietor. This fixation on feudal culture drops off with the French revolution, after which the animals left in the Versailles menagerie fall into the hands of scientists and citizens. Nevertheless, the notion that the possession and exhibition of animals could reinforce prestige and power did not die off. Paradigmatically, individual animal enclosures were distributed around the Paris Jardin des Plantes. The current term ‘zoological garden’ expresses this horticultural aspect, while also pointing to the new bourgeois orientation. The animals were now to serve scientists from diverse disciplines as well as artists. Animals were no longer kept in a single enclosure but separately, affording the visitor a stimulating and rich promenade from one scenery to the next, comparable to the transition from one painting to the next in one of the numerous museums also being created at the time.

The 19thand 20thcenturies staged the observation of animals in different ways, canalizing perception and evaluation through positioning and design. Ranging from extreme close-ups to broad panoramas; views from below, from straight on as well as commanding, field-marshal-on-the-hill views from above. The animals were arranged according to species, climatic conditions or regions of origin. The enclosures themselves were constructed of different materials and usually harboured diverse styles within the same institution, from Neoclassicism to Neue Sachlichkeit, showing the animals either behind bars, nets, glass or trenches accordingly. In the late 19th century, the Berlin Zoo invented prestigious animal abodes in the form of buildings resembling temples and palaces ‘in the style of the native lands of the animals’.

The Zoo as window to another world

The Common purpose of all these arrangements was to create illusions. From the illusion of the absolute dominion over the animals (in colonialism this extends to the dominion of the animals’ distant continents of origins) to the illusion of their freedom. The gasp-effects of the zoo are indebted to the artistic inventions of English landscape gardening, e. g. moats separating distinct zones and rendering superfluous such protective devices as fences and bars, while retaining optical unity. The international animal trader Carl Hagenbeck also emerges on the scene at the turn of the century as the inventor of lucrative zoo shows. With his instinct for the spirit of the times and for financial success stories, he had landscapes replicated in miniature at great expense, presenting them as “scientific panoramas”. He succeeded convincingly at what trompe l’oeil effects would only have achieved partially: separated by moats, both animals of prey and herbivores could be presented ‘in immediate proximity to one-another’ against exotic backdrops. The visitors also profited from this invention that enabled them, e. g. to view a carnivore enclosure from ground level like a peephole stage. Removing optical barriers and building a landscape to copy nature can make even a small terrain appear appropriate and authentic.4

Zoo critique as social critique

The so called “bear fortresses” were supposed to express appropriateness and authenticity in a quite different way. Next to exotic animals of prey and elephants, bears still possessed high spectator value in Berlin. In the middle ages, brown bears, the largest middle European mammals, were kept in fortress and city moats. Bear enclosures in early zoos resembled fortresses and were constructed of historical (e. g. in Vienna) or seemingly historical materials. Like the exotic animals, who served to represent colonial success, the enclosures embellished the image of the powerful nations that zoos were generally meant to express. In this context, borrowings from the Gothic style were regarded as ‘altdeutsch’ [Teutonic] and ‘national’ and intended to lend historical legitimacy to ambitions of international power extension.

Among the countless artistic treatments of the subject, Adolph Menzels Alter Bärenzwinger im Zoologischen Garten von Berlin [Old bear cage at Berlin Zoo] [Fig. 2] from c. 1851 and the undated Drei Bären im Zwinger [Three Bears in the cage][Fig. 3] are typical of the German speaking realm. Depicting the way zoo animals were kept, staged and instrumentalised, their strong symbolic charge instils them with subversive potential. The use of Perspective is here indicative. The latter image shows animals pushed up against the bars, as though melting together with them, seen at about eye-level and apparently within reach of the viewer. In the lithography Alter Bärenzwinger, the gaze is drawn upwards from the depths of the enclosure. In the middle of a dark bear pit with a pool of water there is a tree for climbing around which five bears are grouped in spiral formation. The first is crouching down in the water while the fifth has attained the top of the tree and stands erect, face to face with the visitors, as though leading a Darwinist evolution of the species. The vertical movement culminates in five zoo visitors in a strip of light and cast in analogy to the bears. The dispassionate gaze is directed not at the animals, with which the viewer shares the darkness, but rather the vague figures in backlight, the observers of the zoo animals, turned by the image into the object of observation. In both cases the perspective critically accentuates the captive animals’ no-way-out situation. By choosing bears – mascot of Berlin, and thus a symbol of its inhabitants – the representation can be read not just as an ironic challenging of alleged evolutionary achievements but also as a critique of the Prussian censor, broadly limiting possibilities of expression, preventing breakout and gagging any urge for freedom.5

Zoo-guides and advertising campaigns often legitimate Zoos today by drawing the comparison to Noah’s arc. The popularity of zoos was recently reinforced by successful polar bear breeding as evidence for the institutions’ role in species preservation. Candida Hofer’s photographs show polar bears in the zoo amidst an imitation iceberg landscape. This concrete desert will be untouched by climate change, and the photo suggests that the corresponding social cold will also be maintained in the zoos of the future.

1 Candida Höfer, Zoologische Gärten. With texts by Hanna Hohl and Ulrich Loock. München: Schirmer/Mosel 1993.

2 John Berger, Warum sehen wir Tiere an? In: ders., Das Leben der Bilder oder die Kunst des Sehens. Berlin: Klaus Wagenbach 1996, S. 12-35.

3 In Encyclopédie Methodique, 1782, quoted after: Bettina Paust, Studien zur barocken Menagerie im deutschsprachigen Raum. Worms am Rhein: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft 1996, S.18.

4 Cp. Christina May, Hagenbecks Tierpark zwischen Utopie und Ökologie. In: Garten – Kultur – Geschichte. Horticultural scientific colloquium 2010, hrsg. v. Sylvia Butenschön. Berlin: Universitätsverlag of TU Berlin 2011, S. 123-128.

5 Cp. Susanna Brogi, Der Tiergarten in Berlin als Ort der Geschichte. Eine kultur- und literaturhistorische Untersuchung. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2009.