One of the great stories about old Halifax is that it was home to the first zoological garden in North America, a private zoo created by Andrew Downs in 1847 on 100 hectares of land then just outside the city (in the current neighbourhood of Fairmount, near the Armdale roundabout).
Downs ran the zoo until selling the land in 1868 to move to New York. He was supposed to start a zoo in Central Park but somehow that never materialized (politics was suggested by one contemporary) and he was back in Halifax by 1869.
D’Arcy Wilson, now a professor at the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Campus of Memorial University in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, grew up in the neighbourhood and it has been a subject of her interest for years. For the last four years it has also been the focus of her art.
Since 2015 Wilson has been working on a series of work that she calls The Memorialist. Made up of performance documentation, photographs, drawings and video projections, the series explores the former site and sees Wilson visiting many of the museums that were supplied with North American specimens by Downs (he was also a taxidermist).
The Memorialist is a travelling project that evolves from venue to venue. In its Halifax iteration at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Wilson has added historical artifacts borrowed from Halifax collections, including a 19th-century glass display cabinet holding a collection of taxidermized songbirds by Downs. Another object displayed is a single white kid leather glove that the Prince of Wales dropped while he visited Down’s gardens.
Wilson’s subject, beyond the specific local history tied to her family home, is the disjunction between Western ideas of nature and the desire to contain the natural world. Zoos, which present artificial versions of the natural world, have a certain poignancy.
Once created to show nature as a series of wonders, brought from the wild to civilization, now they act as the only safe place for numerous species. Zoos today preserve animals whose habitats are fast eroding, if they remain at all. Rather than showing us glimpses of the wild, they highlight how little of the wild actually remains.
The absurdity of so much of our relationship with the natural world (Audubon, the great naturalist and painter of birds would kill thousands of birds in his career, often dozens in a single day) is brought to the fore in Wilson’s performances.
Dressed in a version of a museum guide’s uniform she travels to museums to seek out specimens collected in Nova Scotia. In “Museology,” a subsection of The Memorialist, a series of photographs taken in museums (both in their public galleries and in their storage areas), documents Wilson showing images of their natural habitats to stuffed and posed animals in display cases. The comic effect of Wilson’s pathetic fallacy only serves to make more poignant the inherent absurdity of the displays themselves.
Wilson’s drawings in the exhibition are perhaps the strongest elements of the project. A portrait of Downs, a view of the lost white glove, a map showing the placement of the gardens on a Halifax peninsula emptied of any other European presence, and a remarkable diorama of the gardens themselves, all serve to provide more traditional aesthetic pleasures amidst the research, documentation and photography.
The playfulness of the performances, or at least the absurd elements that drive them, seeps into (or from) the drawings as well, adding an element of whimsey to the more mournful video work.
The romantic elements of the diorama are echoed in some of the videos (one scene in particular stands out, where Wilson in her uniform rides the carousel on the grounds of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris) and in the absurdist photographs of the museum displays, where Wilson uses a tablet computer to show stuffed animals photographs of their native habitats. In The Memorialist we, as viewers, are still presented with a display designed to evoke wonder. But unlike in zoos and gardens we are invited to wonder at our strange and dangerous sense of the natural world.
The exhibition continues until April 14.