Monday, August 25, 2008

My Own (Borrowed) Menagerie

My last post got me thinking, so here is a nominal set of interesting and strange animals I might consider putting around my Baroque pavilion.

• The Aye-Aye, a "native to Madagascar that combines rodent-like teeth with a long, thin middle finger to fill the same ecological niche as a woodpecker. It is the world's largest nocturnal primate, and is characterized by its unique method of finding food; it taps on trees to find grubs, then gnaws holes in the wood and inserts its elongated middle finger to pull the grubs out."

• The yeti lobster, a very recently-discovered creature which lives, of course, in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, where all the really weird and interesting creatures come from nowadays.

• The cyclops kitten was an accident, and unfortunately didn't live very long. Not totally unheard-of, just less horrible than most.

Pill Bugs, or woodlice, or roly-polies, are weirder than you think: they are actually crustaceans, related more closely to lobsters and shrimp and so on than to insects or spiders. They are one of the world's old, (relatively) unchanged species, much, much older than the species I think of as old, like sharks and kauri trees, and they have some pretty interesting and strange habits.

• I thought the Liger was a joke when I first heard about it, along with its relative the Tigon. Or at least, some kind of hoax. But no, it's not - and they are enormous, I don't know why.

• My favorite creature: the Tarsier. I have a tiny picture clipped from a magazine of a tarsier staring with its trademark surprised look at the camera with a big bug sticking out of its mouth. For some reason, it's been a symbol for me of beloved dorks everywhere, and has inspired me to go on being silly despite everything.

• The Star-Nosed Mole is just odd. Always has been, always will be.

Leafy Sea Dragons are something I have always wanted to see. They are endangered because they are so particular about their environment and eager collectors are always trying to take them home (where they die). But in their home environment - unbeatable.

• I had to include a Komondor because, although they aren't particularly exotic, they have great hair. They do make you scratch your head and wonder how many other strange kinds of dogs you didn't know about? (And yes, they look like a tall version of Dougal, from the Magic Roundabout)

Grimpoteuthis, or Dumbo Octopi, are benthic creatures, living at extreme depths (up to 400 meters), and are some of the rarest octopi. Plus they use at least three different types of locomotion. Cool.

Blobfish. What can I say?

There are a few others who aren't quite weird enough, such as Cantor's Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle,

the Long-eared jerboa,

or Pink fairy Armadillos, but they're definitely strange. If I had space, I might consider them.

Come to think of it, many of the above creatures are a bit too attractive. I'd want to make my menagerie a bit more creepy, but the strangest and most disturbing creatures I know of are all parasites, which would make them difficult to display - except in jars, and that is really something more for a Cabinet.

Just for balance, though, perhaps I ought to include the Coconut Crab, a giant terrestrial hermit crab. I do find myself actually glad that I don't live where these creatures roam, cracking coconuts and garbage cans with their bare claws (thanks, Jeff!).

In any case, my beautifully-constructed, circular, conceptual menagerie needs only a beautiful (borrowed) pavilion to complete it, and I can go to sleep secure in the knowledge that I have expressed all the (borrowed) power and wealth I have to hand. Who needs royalty after all?

Thanks to World's Strangest Looking Animals for some of the pictures.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Menageries: Exotics in a Box

Historically, menageries are to zoos what Wunderkammern are to museums. In other words, like Wunderkammern, menageries were expressions of power and influence, collections of oddities from around the world designed to wow people and give the wealthy something to design, maintain, and pay attention to - in effect, an expensive hobby that also served to prove the owners' wealth and cultural prowess. As Wikipedia says, exotic animals, alive and active, were less common, more difficult to acquire, and more expensive to maintain."

Originally, menageries were the purview of royalty, a place where exotic gifts from foreign powers were kept on display as a reminder of the royal family's many good relations with powerful people around the world. In 1235, for example, a menagerie was begun at the Tower of London when Henry III received a gift of three leopards from Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor; the menagerie was opened to the public during Elizabeth I's reign. Two hundred years later, "the price of admission was three half-pence or the supply of a cat or dog for feeding to the lions." [wiki]

Louis XIV's menagerie at Versaille, begun in 1664, was the first example of a Baroque-style menagerie, being built on a circular layout around a beautiful pavilion, so that all the pens were on view when one strolled around the pavilion, but not on view from outside.

In the nineteenth century, with the influx of Scientific Thinking and the move from simple curiosity to logic and a more definitive view of the cataloguing of the universe, most menageries were displaced by zoological gardens, which reflected a more public and educational approach to the keeping of exotics. The only remaining Baroque-style menagerie is the zoo in Vienna, which has modernized enough to make the animals comfortable without losing its essentially radial layout.

I think about the progression from the menagerie at Versaille to the ulititarian zoos of my youth, where tired-looking animals sat or lay in cement enclosures. I'm sure the animals didn't have it any better in the early days, but it seems to me that a royal menagerie must surely be a more intriguing experience than watching the most annoying person in one's class throwing popcorn at beautiful and listless tigers. It seems to me that a royal personage could be more inclined to try to make the enclosures interesting to the eye.

Besides that (and always setting aside early ideas about how little animals cared about their environment), it must have been amazing to be invited into the inner circle, so to speak, and promenaded past animals which surely must have felt more mythological than concrete.

I came across a reference, looking into this, to an exhibition at the Getty a couple of years ago, of paintings done of animals in menageries. The featured artist was Jean-Baptiste Oudry, a rococo painter:

"Jean-Baptiste Oudry was one of the finest painters of 18th-century Europe, and he employed his prodigious produce life-size paintings of star specimens from the menagerie...of French king Louis XV. Never intended as an encyclopedic zoo, the Versailles menagerie was compiled through royal commission and diplomatic gifts. Exotic animals were imported on merchant ships along with sugar, coffee, and indigo, and were intimately connected with colonialism and the luxury trade. Oudry painted these animals as individuals. He used portrait conventions such as theatrical poses, dramatic light effects, imaginary landscape backdrops, and sensual color to give his paintings great drama." [from the exhibition website, above]

The thing about these paintings is their formality, the way the creatures seem to pose for the artist. They are not, in any sense, natural, though they are very lifelike. They remind me of the stuffed specimens in old natural history museums (like the one Curious Expeditions went to in Romania), for exactly the reasons stated above: the unnatural stillness; the artificial environment; the strange lighting. And yet, they are huge, real artworks, something from another time.

"The entrance to Hagenbeck's zoo in Hamburg, c1910. Hagenbeck was a flamboyant character who supplied zoos and circuses with wild animals and native people. His zoo was the first to remove cages and build fake scenery and mountains so the animals could be seen in their 'natural' habitat. The entrance expresses the victorian confidence in their command of the natural world perfectly." [Thanks to Tim Hunkin. To me, both these photos (above and below) remind me of nothing so much as If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss.

Of course, like all things, the menagerie must in the end come to the common person, who until recently didn't travel much. Traveling menageries became quite the thing, particularly in America, where distances were wide and people easily amazed. During the Civil War, however, these traveling menageries all but disappeared, and were swallowed up into the traveling circuses, which continued to flourish. Even small circuses were able to collect animals from the dying menageries, and this added attraction actually contributed to the health of circuses for many years. Nowadays, even Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, once the "World's Greatest Menagerie," is considering letting go the lions and tigers and concentrating on what is humanly possible.


Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West - a very different presentation of zoos through history, looking at the sociological side of how people view wild animals and how that has changed over time. Really, a marvelous-sounding book, with over 400 unusual illustrations.

The Fantastic Menagerie Tarot Kit - based on the drawings of J.J. Grandville, an illustrator of strange animal-headed people.

More about the Tower's menagerie, courtesy of the BBC.

Dolphins Have Memes, Too

I just heard about this from the BBC: there have been sightings of dolphins off the coast of Australia who are doing what is called "tail-walking" - standing above the water by waving their tales in the water. Tail-walking is not a behavior that wild dolphins display in nature; however, one dolphin from that area did spend some time in a dolphin facility recovering from illness - and, while she wasn't trained to tail-walk, she did see other dolphins doing it. What it looks like is that she took this new behavior with her out into the wild and taught it to the others.

Observers have been trying to understand what triggers the dolphins to do this, but they haven't yet discovered anything. What the article doesn't mention, and I think is probably significant, is the deep sense of play which dolphins have always displayed. It is likely they are doing it as an interesting and fun thing to do - though of course there are more boring possible explanations, such as looking for schools of fish.

But the really interesting thing about this is that it displays what is called "cultural behavior":

"Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief as well as the art." [wiki]

Dolphins off the western coast of Australia have been known to teach their young to use sponges to help them gather food, so this kind of dolphin-to-dolphin teaching is not undocumented. But to do something as a group that doesn't inherently gain them better survival actually points to something deeper, a communication and a passing-on of interesting stuff which, like internet memes and social networking in humans, is a cultural phenomenon. Strange and wonderful stuff!

PS. Link:
Another interesting article from New Scientist (of course - I love that magazine!) about animals teaching each other stuff.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Getting Small: Toys and Miniatures

People have been fascinated by miniatures for millennia. The ancient Egyptians made miniatures of the things which a dead person should have in the afterlife; the Romans were very fond of lewd little figures for self-apparent reasons. There are endless tiny sculptures of gods and goddesses from the Stone Age through the Bronze age and onward.

There are, of course, mundane examples of miniatures, things that are neither romantic nor religious. I encountereded some when we went to Croatia: moving to another country with children is tricky. What toys do you take? What other supplies? Puzzle books? Journals? (No, this is not going to be a "parenting is wonderful" blog post).

My answer to that is: Playmobil. Plenty of Playmobil.

If you're not familiiar with the stuff, imagine a company that makes sets of what my family calls "little people," about two inches high, with almost any tiny attendant articles you could imagine for what my kids call a "set-up:" A roman colosseum, for example, with lion, tiger, gladiators, weapons, and even an emperor to give the "yea" or "nay". Knights and castles; pirates and pirate ship (including working cannon and cannon balls, guns, swords, and a little island with a skeleton); native americans with tipis and bits of rocky landscape, complete with plants and waterfall. And on and on.

My personal favorites are the Safe-Crackers, who all sport five o'clock shadows and come with a safe, money, gold bars, a suitcase, a flashlight, and a tank of acetylene. Or the HazMat people, with suits and masks and special clean-up vacuums.

In any case, the best thing about Playmobil is that, if your kids are (like mine were) stuck in a foreign place with no friends, they can get really creative with it. In fact, it wasn't until we did go away that I fully appreciated the power of childrens' play and the incredibly flexible possibilities in that kind of miniature universe. Not so much that the HazMat crew can become astronauts, but that the fence-panels can become a tree-platform can become a house can become a raft, with the onion bag from the kitchen as a fishing net. And so on.

But most importantly, they are small. Whole worlds can be created, stories unfolded, and imaginary landscapes enacted. It is better than TV, because it is under your control. The tininess allows you to make things happen, and if you're someone (like a child) who has little say in what happens around them, it is a boon.

One short story which had a great impact on me when I was a kid was Microcosmic God, about a man who creates his own race of tiny, intelligent creatures, whose generational span was very small, and who could therefore evolve fast enough to tackle all kinds of problems and discoveries. He has a way of communicating with them which was a bit like a teletext machine to God. When the government finds out what he's doing, they send bombers to destroy the island, so the scientist asks his little people to protect him: and they do. A smooth, impenetrable wall is erected, bomb-proof and pretty much anything-else-proof, and so there he is, trapped in there forever with his little people.

This story kept coming back to me when my kids, isolated from Croatian children's culture and unable to make any headway at the local parks, would retreat to their room and take up the little people. Voila! Protection, microcosmic-style.

Controllable mannikins aside (where is Mini-me when you need him?), there is something about tiny reproductions of our inner and outer life which continues to fascinate us. Wandering around in Napoli, Italy, on the way back from the wonderful Ospedale delle Bambole, I got lost, and found myself in a district where they sell all kinds of tiny figures and items to do with the creches, or nativity scenes, of which the Neapolitans are so proud.

There were tiny baskets of fruit, tiny wagons, tiny tools, tiny trays full of tiny fish; there were miniature sausages and angels and people burning in hell (what that has to do with nativity scenes, I have no idea). There were political figures (in varying sizes) and teeny-weeny loaves of bread. The creches themselves, I learned, are traditionally made from natural materials: cork bark, wood, and moss, and are prized for their natural-seeming rustic quality.

They were completely absorbing: we looked at tiny things for literally hours. The array was stunning. You could barely walk from one shop and you'd find another shop, with entirely different sets of the same kind of stuff. They even had DIY bambole (dolls):

(Curiously, sprinkled in among them were other strange and tiny things, things that couldn't possibly be related to creches. For example, tiny versions of the red peppers that seem to be symbolic of some very particular Neapolitan magic, whether for good luck, or fertility, or what, I could never tell -

- except I got the sense that it was related to the Comedia del Arte's Pulcinella character - the precursor to Punch - a personality whom the Neapolitans clearly identify with. There was one display which had statues of Pulcinella as well as relatively large models of his mask, with a long nose, and larger (nose-sized) red pepper things - and several rather similar things which were decidedly phallic, leaving me wondering what, exactly, the symbolism of the peppers might be.)

Later, in the Archeological Museum, I came across this mind-boggling miniature Pompeii, the ruins of which lie just across the Bay of Naples. It is a perfect 1:100 scale model and shows the excavation as it was in 1879, complete with some of the paintings before they were worn away.

After I walked around it for awhile I noticed a little info plaque which told me it had been made from cork-bark and bits of wood - just like a creche (and thus, by conjecture, made by local model-makers in the creche tradition). It reminded me of the work of Charles Simmonds, who in the 1970's used to build tiny buildings out of teensy clay bricks into the neglected buildings and odd urban corners of Manhattan. I only know of one which survived, and it's in the stairwell at the Whitney, left over from his show there.

What makes people so obsessed with making tiny scenes? Prisoners building bridges and towers out of toothpicks, boys and their model airplanes. There is a level of control, as I said - one only has to look at the wide world of gaming miniatures and dioramas, famous or fantastic battles modeled on a 1" to 6' scale, to see a desire to manipulate worlds, to be the microcosmic god and step back from the painful intimacy of everyday life (I am ignoring the strategy side of this hobby, but still... actual miniatures are not necessary to the study of strategy - they just make it more fun).

I won't go too far into the idea of actually shrinking real people so that they are miniature versions of themselves, like in the Twilight Zone, where the people discover the sink doesn't work and all the food is made of plaster. But think of the old wives' tale about the witch who put her husband in a bottle. And then, of course, there's the miniature of a real person, containing nail clippings or hair from that person, said to be so powerful in voudun. How satisfying, to reduce your enemy to doll-size and then inflict all manner of misery on them! Of course, there's always the chance that they will do the same to you... and I have to admit to a creeping horror of anything small which might be alive (see my post on puppets and humuncula).

...But miniatures are not only about godlike manipulation. Maquettes, for example, are models built to help explain an architectural or sculptural commission to people who are no good at understanding arm-waving and verbal explanation: "[A maquette] is used to visualize and test shapes and ideas without incurring the cost and effort of producing a full scale product. It is the analogue of the painter's cartoon or sketch." [wiki] By building a scale model, the sculptor or the architect can make a layman "see" what they're getting - and at the end of the day, some maquettes become valuable in their own right, and are displayed by such museums as the Museo dei Bozzetti, in Pietrasanta, Italy.

Similarly, traveling salesmen as far back as the 1700's would carry perfect miniatures of their products so that prospective buyers could examine the merchandise before putting in an order. If you wanted a set of chairs, for example, you would look at the miniature to see how well it was put together. If the miniature was good, chances were that the real thing was good, as well. This was especially handy for such things as iron fireplaces and ceramic fixtures, like toilets, which were carried about the countryside to sell product to far-flung individuals.

In the seventeenth century, at about the same time that Wunderkammern were in vogue, "baby houses" - a precursor to dolls' houses - were all the rage among European women, comparable in obsession to the cabinets which housed their husbands' collections. A woman might spend as much money on one of these "cabinet houses" as a real house would cost. The one above "...was commissioned by Petronella Oortman, a wealthy Amsterdam lady. The house is remarkable in that all of the components are made exactly to scale. Petronella ordered miniature porcelain objects from China and commissioned furniture makers and artists to decorate the interior." (courtesy of the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam).

Then there's Queen Mary's doll house, made on the whim of "...the queen's cousin, Princess Marie Louise, who discussed her idea with one of the top architects of the time, Sir Edwin Lutyens at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1921. Sir Edwin agreed to construct the dollhouse and began preparations. Princess Marie Louise had many connections in the arts and arranged for the top artists and craftsmen of the time to contribute their special abilities to the house. As a result, the dollhouse has an amazing collection of miniature items that actually work... The bathrooms are fully plumbed that includes a flushable toilet and miniature lavatory paper. In addition, well known writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote special books which were written and bound in scale size, and painters provided miniature pictures. Even the bottles in the wine cellar were filled with the appropriate wines and spirits, and the wheels of motor vehicles are properly spoked."

And that, I think, is taking it too far, although my 6-year old daughter (the proponent of Playmobil) might disagree.


- Little handpainted people, left in London to fend for themselves: this is wonderful and amazing.

- Playmobile as prep for an operation

- Playmobil re-enactments of news items:

- A very interesting, if dense, article about miniatures, childhood, and fetish in the Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles.

...And lastly, I came across this extremely creepy video when looking for stuff on the Opedale delle Bambole - look carefully, and shudder

Ospedale Delle Bambole

This place is wonderful. If you are ever in Napoli, I highly recommend you swing by. It's small, and doesn't take much time, but the nearby neighborhoods are pretty great, too. I often find dolls somewhat creepy, but there was something familial about how they were all crowded together.

Some highlights:

These last two were standing on the ledge next to the stairs down to the very dark and interesting looking basement, which was essentially a hole in the floor.

Familial atmosphere aside, I wonder what happens there at night, when it's all locked up, and the lights are off....?