The XX Factor

What is an Oil Rig Doing in the Penguin Habitat?

I live in San Diego, so I visit our famous zoo a couple times a year. My favorite part is a lush, leafy canyon lined with tigers and tropical birds and tapirs. It’s a little piece of the Asian forests on which it’s based, an idyll untouched by the downtown skyline or nearby highway. Sure, the path is lined by earnest plaques about poaching and logging and the dire peril of endangered species, but I’m there for a pleasant afternoon stroll and I’ve never read them.

That’s the fate of most earnest attempts to educate zoo-goers about environmental peril. Nobody (except perhaps attendees of environmental film festivals) wants to pay $50 to be depressed and guilt-ridden. But the Vienna Zoo has a different vision . As covered by the landscape architecture blog Pruned , the Vienna Zoo has inserted the nasty side of the human world right into the animals’ enclosures.

Instead of evoking a pure natural habitat, human impacts are clearly visible. Penguins frolic around an oil derrick, fish swarm around barrel of toxic waste, and alligators slither over tractor tires and beat-up metal signs. My favorite is a bit of railroad track bisecting a herd of peacefully grazing bison, which neatly summarizes the much of the unfortunate environmental history of the American West.

The artists who designed the trashing of the Zoo, Christoph Steinbrener and Rainer Dempf, say in their artists’ statement :

The viewer is forced to reconsider traditional modes of animal presentation and simultaneously to question the authenticity of concepts which are restaging ‘natural’ environments while they are increasingly endangered.

Their work follows a great deal of academic research on the political motivations behind zoos and parks. To choose a few of my favorite examples, Donna Haraway’s work on the the primate dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History examined how colonialism and gender politics was written into taxidermy . Susan G. Davis questioned whether Sea World’s corporate entertainment and faux emotion constituted actual environmental activism. And William Cronon argues that even our “pristine” national parks were only made possible by the displacement and slaughter of the Native Americans who had once lived there.

That’s why I love Steinbrener and Dempf’s exhibit in the Vienna Zoo. It’s shocking but humorous, and doesn’t require people to read depressing little signs or lengthy essays stuffed with postmodern jargon. With just a few well-placed bits of trash, the Vienna Zoo artists manage to say “Hey guys! The whole idea of natural wilderness is a human construction! Also, stop being polluting meanies.” And it bursts the myth, so lovingly propagated by TV nature specials, that there’s pristine nature somewhere out there. There isn’t, but unpristine nature is still worth having around, oil rigs and railroad tracks and all.

Thanks to AMC for the Pruned link!

Photograph of penguins at the Vienna Zoo by Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images