Make in your mouths the words that were our names
– Archibald MacLeish, ‘Epistle to Be Left in the Earth’
For Meredith Comi
While the installation’s raison d’êtrat is despair over humankind’s ‘curatorial’ failure to conserve habitat, it also questions the nature of the museum itself. Does an object cease to be representative when the original conditions of its existence no longer obtain? Isolated and bereft, does it become sui generis? In other words, does a tiger taken from the jungle remain a tiger once inside a zoo, or does captivity alter its identity? Can an object in a museum justly claim to represent its classification? And what if the world from which it was removed no longer exits? Can a thing be said to represent nothing or the absence of something? Or must it be elevated to the status of an original? And if it must be elevated, is a paleontological or archaeological vestige therefore meaningless in regard to the past life it would seem to represent? Despite their substance, is the tiger in captivity, the Etruscan coin, or a woolly mammoth bone nothing more than a ghost? Does that tiger, coin, or bone have any more rightful claim to our regard than its still or moving image?
In The End of Natural History, the zoo is clearly a virtual reality; but the ocean reef and the homo sapiens exhibit may insist on their reality in the way that a theatre set confutes its own counterfeit of reality in the mind of the spectator. The zoological garden is equally ambiguous in that the life it displays may, in fact, be a simulation, i.e., a fabrication. Most problematical of the exhibits is Antarctica, in which matter has been transformed from one state to another. Is water representative of ice? Can water be considered representative of the continent of Antarctica, or does the latter cease to exist when the ice melts? (And if the water in the jars should be from the museum’s own tap …?)
A natural history museum in the distant future. Whether overseen by our descendants or by a successor species cannot be known. Five small rooms (or exhibition spaces) open onto a narrow corridor along which spectators pass. In place of doors, a velvet rope forbids entry into the rooms. Rooms and corridor are dimly lit – their walls painted gray. Identical brass plaques used for museum displays are affixed to the wall outside each room, inscribed with the titles of the five scenes, below. Inside each room, displays will be functionally lit rather than expressionistically. (The drama is expressed by its objects and their ironic relationship to the titles that comprehend them and by our ambivalent response to each exhibit.)
Faintly heard, is the recorded sound of distant machinery such as might be used to ventilate the corridor and rooms (in an otherwise noxious environment presumed to be outside the museum) and to support the various exhibits. Perhaps grills can be set into the corridor’s walls or ceiling, delivering fresh air to the spectators.
Also faintly heard, a recording of sentimental waltzes played by a 1930’s orchestra or dance band. The music arrives in gusts of sound as if on a wind from the far-distant past.
Scenes in the Dramatic Action:
I. Zoological Garden
We see from the corridor, an arrangement of animal cages inside the first room. While scaled to the exhibition’s space and purpose, they are nonetheless identical in material and construction to those seen in zoos. Inside each cage is a plasma-screen on which is played continuously a video or film of a different species of wild animal – once in captivity, now presumed to be extinct. The moving images of this virtual zoo show each animal behaving as it would if it were still inside its cage, conveying an ironic double loss of habitat: that of wilderness and of captivity. (The cage does not appear in the video or film.)
Of the individual animals, issuing from unseen speakers in their actual cages. The sound can be heard only by spectators standing outside the first room. (Unlike the ocean and its sound in Scene IV, the moving images and the noise of the animals are synchronized.) The videos or films, accompanied by their sound tracks, are played simultaneously.
II. Botanical Garden
The museum’s second room contains a number of plants or dwarf trees housed in Plexiglas display cases, or small bio-domes. Each case is equipped with an automatic misting device, liquid nourishment system, meters, and lamps to simulate the former habitat of each of these presumed extinct specimens of Earth’s vanished vegetable life. While the spectators will be persuaded to believe that the specimens are alive, they may, in fact, be exact reproductions.
Uncertainty concerning the specimen (is it the sole survivor of its species or a simulation of an extinct original?) can be increased by exposing to the careful observer some malfunction of the life-support system, or a breach in its habitat.
Of life-support devices. Whether actual or recorded and enhanced, the sound can be heard only by spectators standing outside the second room.
Arranged on handsomely finished shelves, are samples of Antarctic ice formations, taken before the ice melted in the heat of global warming. Each jar is labeled with the water’s origin: ‘South Pole,’ ‘Aurora Glacier,’ ‘Byrd,’ ‘Amundsen Glacier,’ ‘Blue Glacier,’ ‘Dome Fuji,’ ‘Pine Island Glacier,’ ‘Shackleton Ice Shelf,’ ‘Siple Dome,’ ‘Koettlitz Glacier,’ ‘Ross Ice Shelf,’ ‘Ekstrom Ice Shelf,’ ‘Prince Gustav Ice Shelf,’ ‘Larsen C Ice Shelf,’ ‘Pole of Inaccessibility,’ etc.
Of dripping water. Recorded and enhanced, the sound can nonetheless be heard only by spectators standing outside the third room.
IV. Palmyra Atoll, Central Pacific Ocean
The museum’s fourth room houses a portion of an oceanic reef become a landfill. Projected onto a reef of junked electronics (computer drives, laptops, monitors, cell-phones, and other electronic devices considered central to the culture and economics of the first decades of the 21st century) is a video or film of ocean water. The water is agitated, but the waves are seen to break over the reef more slowly than normal as though the ocean itself were in danger of entropy. Whether the display is meant to be a simulation or – by the power of artifice – an actuality is ambiguous.
Of waves breaking over a jetty. The recorded and enhanced sound can be heard only by spectators standing outside the fourth room. Played slightly out of synch with the moving images, the sound will augment the spectators’ disquiet.
V. Homo Sapiens
Mounted near the top of the fifth room, at a short distance from the rear wall, is an overhead conveyor belt. Hooks of a kind used in slaughterhouses are hung at regular intervals from the belt. Belt and hooks are cleanly fabricated of stainless steel or of some chrome-coated metal. Suspended from the hooks are alternating male and female mannequins – convincing replicas of naked, dead or otherwise inanimate human beings. They are conveyed slowly, in orderly fashion, along the back wall – vanishing behind it at one end and reappearing at the opposite end, i.e., traveling in a constant loop. It is unclear whether we are witness to the slaughtering of the remnant of an almost extinct species or its standardized manufacture (or the dramatic reenactment of either possibility).
Of a mechanical conveyor system. Whether actual or recorded and enhanced, the sound can be heard only by spectators standing outside the fifth room.
Norman Lock’s newest book is Love Among the Particles, stories published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York City. His newest play, The Monster in Winter, has just been translated into German by Per Lauke Verlag. His newest radio drama, Mounting Panic, was recently produced in Germany by WDR. Lock won The Paris Review’s Aga Kahn Prize (1979) and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2009), the New Jersey Council on the Art (1999, 2013), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011). His work has been translated into Dutch, German, Turkish, Japanese, and Spanish. He lives in the U.S.