The Ox-Born Bee

Excursions into art and science

Tag: natural history

The Dream of the Unicorn, Part 2: How to Invent an Animal (I)

In my last post I wondered what it means to “discover” something that doesn’t actually exist, or to describe something before we have knowledge of it. How much of the unicorn was discovered, and how much was invented? The unicorn was, I think we can all agree, invented, but the point of this post is to consider further this question of the unicorn’s discovery. And to ask, what role does invention—imagination—play in science?

The unicorn is more than a myth, more than wonder word: it sheds light on scientific understanding, in particular on the way analogy works in scientific understanding. Analogy is sometimes called a “predictive metaphor.” 1 While both analogies and metaphors offer comparisons, the comparisons that analogies make are not purely idiosyncratic (“red is the sound of a trumpet” 2, or “effectrix of divine honey” for bee) but predictive (“hand is to glove as foot is to _______”). For this reason, metaphors do not claim any special relationship between the two terms being compared. Rather, the relationship is in–and reveals–the mind of the metaphorist. Analogies, on the other hand, claim a certain knowledge-value: they help our minds move from known terms to unknown ones.

Another way of saying this is that analogies are, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, a species of “heuristic”: they provide “aids to discovery” based on the properties of a known thing, which we can extend to the properties of an unknown thing. Heuristics and analogies are like rough-and-ready sketches that allow our minds to approach the unknown. It would be tempting to say that metaphor is to poetry as analogy is to science, but I think a more accurate analogy for analogy would be, analogy is to science as the hand-drawn map is to territory. In other words, we don’t require a satellite-generated topo-map to navigate territory—often a hastily scrawled crayon drawing on a napkin with a few points of interest will get us close enough to our destination. 3

Pliny the Elder’s 1st-century CE description of the unknown beast first described by Ctesias reveals something of the sketchy, predictive power of analogy. In Pliny’s account, the beast

has the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of a boar, while the rest of its body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length. This animal, it is said, cannot be taken alive. 4

The sources of these analogies to stag, elephant, boar, and horse in Pliny’s account are unclear. We know that Ctesias did not make such references to other creatures in his account, except to compare its astragalos, or knuckle-bones, to those of an ox. However, between Ctesias in the 5th century BCE and Pliny in the first century CE, we find a possible source in Gaius Julius Caesar’s first-century BCE Commentaries on the Gallic War. Caesar apparently did a little natural history when not conquering the Gauls, and provided a description of animal in the Hercynian forests of Germany:

an ox of the shape of a stag, between whose ears a horn rises from the middle of the forehead, higher and straighter than those horns which are known to us. From the top of this, branches, like palms, stretch out a considerable distance. The shape of the female and of the male is the, same; the appearance and the size of the horns is the same. 5

Andre Arbus's (1903-1969) Actaeon takes the form of Caesar's Hercynian unicorn. From Le Cabinet de Loup (the Stag & Wolf Room) at La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), Paris, France. Author photograph.

Andre Arbus’s (1903-1969) Actaeon. From Le Cabinet du Cerf (the Stag Room) at La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), Paris, France. The author apologizes for his blurry photograph.

In the above image, taken from the Stag Room of the Museum of Hunting and Nature, André Arbus’s statue of Actaeon, the Greek hunter transformed into a stag by the goddess Artemis for the crime of gazing on her while she bathed, takes the form of Caesar’s Hercynian unicorn. Arbus helps us see what Caesar thought he saw in the forest, and what Caesar thought he saw in turn might explain where Pliny got “stag.”

Walter Hyde, in “The Curious Animals of the Hercynian Forest” (1918), attempted to save the “sober historian” Caesar from trafficking in fables of “one-horned deer” and other chimera, noting that “it is now fairly well agreed among Caesar scholars that the whole account of the forest and its wonders is merely an interpolation into the body of Caesar’s work by some unknown scribe.” 6 So we may justly surmise that Pliny was a bit credulous to include this fabulous animal in his Natural History based on this and, before this, Ctesias’s limited accounts.

But then, how did Pliny arrive at his other comparisons? Is he—are all of these observers, from Ctesias forward—merely trafficking in fables as a result of some centuries-long game of telephone? Despite his own suspicion of Caesar’s account, Hyde may give us some clues. He notes that “It is well known that Roman writers called unfamiliar wild animals of large size boves, ‘oxen.’ Thus the elephant was known as the Lucanian ox…. Seals were also called ‘marine oxen.’” This is important, and reveals the analogical significance of Caesar’s—and Pliny’s— account that Hyde doesn’t quite understand, and which he in fact attempts to erase with the help of “unknown scribes”: it shows how one animal can become a heuristic, a map, to another. The animal itself ceases to be a collection of specific details and becomes a rough sketch for thinking, which is then used to compare to other animals in search of underlying similarities. Caesar was simply using “ox” and “stag” to describe something that was ox-large and stag-like. The only “fabulous” dimension of the animal is its single horn—and this would not have seemed especially fabulous to Romans carrying around with them ideas, like Ctesias’s, of single-horned animals.

Caesar and Pliny are employing some analogical reasoning based on such prior eyewitness accounts, using the parts of known creatures to account for the elements of the description of this unknown creature. They are, in a sense, modeling the unicorn using terms known to them and their audience. The destination might be unclear, but the coordinates they are using to plot the route are well known. They have, in other words, discovered a unicorn through analogy—predicting the existence of an unknown thing based on the existence of known things.

To think of these accounts this way reveals their real knowledge-value as heuristical, not simply empirical. In Gregory Bateson’s terms, they may have discovered, not a thing, but a “pattern which connects.” Pliny, in casting about for coordinates, might have freed the unicorn from its binding specificity and rendered it a tool for inquiry.

Bateson called this kind of thinking “transference,” or the seeking of underlying relationships between things—a kind of pattern-seeking in contrast to simple collecting or defining. Transference involves contextualizing details so as to allow for such pattern-recognition. His example is the elephant’s trunk:

What is the elephant’s trunk?…. As you know, the answer is that the elephant’s trunk is its “nose.”… And I put the word “nose” in quotation marks because the trunk is being defined by an internal process of communication in growth. The trunk is a “nose” by a process of communication: it is the context of the trunk that identifies it as a nose. That which stands between two eyes and a north of a mouth is a “nose,” and that is that. It is the context that fixes the meaning, and it must surely be the receiving context that provides meaning for the genetic instructions. When I call that a “nose” and this a “hand” I am quoting—or misquoting—the developmental instructions in the growing organism, and quoting what the tissues which received the message thought the message intended.” 7

Bateson is exploring the process by which we arrive at knowledge, a process I think is at work in early accounts of the unicorn. At the most basic level, we can call the elephant’s trunk its “nose” because of its context in relation to the rest of its features (above this, between that). The definition of “nose” ought not to be a list of characters: this would produce a venn diagram at whose center would be an absence—the noses of many species share a lot of overlap, but no two noses will ever be the same. Maybe we could say something about the “noseness” that all noses share, but that’s pretty metaphysical. Rather, the meaning of “nose” is its relationship to other features, its context. “Nose” is an analogy that reveals connections, relationships, rather than a set of characters.

(Bateson is also suggesting that this is more than a language matter: that the way we acquire our knowledge of the nose bears a relationship to how the nose acquires its knowledge of itself from its genetic instruction. The nose knows, indeed.)

Richard Owen's vertebrate pattern

Richard Owen’s vertebrate pattern

The unicorn is like the nose—it does not exist except in the form of relationships, homologies or samenesses among things. Caesar and Pliny, with their primitive, ready-to-hand, folk categories (ox, stag, horn, etc.), scanned the world for relationships and patterns that connect. Sure such a map can be wrong, because based on the wrong kinds of coordinates (observable and superficial, versus underlying and fundamental, for instance), or the misidentification of coordinates (the single horn is most likely a double). But it is surely the right kind of wrong—a wrong that reveals the mind that connects, that sees patterns. It might not be a stretch to say that the same pattern recognition that went into identifying the unicorn went into the nineteenth-century English naturalist Richard Owen’s identification of the pattern of all vertebrate life in the spine of a fish. Beyond the pattern, everything else is just fill-in-the-blanks, “know-how,” says Bateson.

But we lose the mind in common between Pliny and Owen when we, like Hyde or even Sir Thomas Browne, apply to them only our ham-fisted divisions between the real and the unreal, between waking and dream-life. When Hyde invents “unknown scribes” to rescue Caesar from his naivety, he may only be revealing his own—his inability to think past details to the patterns that connect. If there is a key difference between Classical and Modern thinking when it comes to science, as Hyde or Browne want to suggest, it is in those early naturalists’ willingness to base their knowledge on something other than empirical observation—namely, on imaginary categories (inventions) to be later filled with things (discovered). Men like Ctesias or Pliny dreamed first, and they dreamt in analogies.

In the case of the unicorn, the dream proved both more powerful and more elusive than the reality. To our better-informed modern eyes, these accounts reveal that the unicorn is likely not a single imaginary beast, but a collection or composite of many actual ones—a bestiary, a compendia, of creatures distilled into a single account.

Subsequent natural historians have spent a lot of time trying without success to parse the unicorn into its various components. Eighteenth-century French naturalist Georges Cuvier tried in his own way to put an end to the unicorn as a heuristic, hitching it to a single animal: the rhinoceros (Latin for rhino (nose) + ceros (horn)). This would certainly explain the single-horned appearance, the deep lowing noise, and the fact that the animal would have been hard to take alive. It would also explain the speed of the animal, given that a rhino gains in speed the farther it run due to its bulk. Likewise the ox. Moreover, rhinos are solid-hoofed, like the elephant, not cloven-hoofed, like many other ungulates.

Other features, though, are not accounted for: the 1 1/2 – 2 cubit-length horn; the animal’s color (white); its relative shape (ass- or possibly stag-like). The stag, the ox, the oryx, and the ass would also seem to be likely contenders, but again, these explain some but not all of the characters of the unicorn. It might point to a gazelle-like creature, like the scimitar oryx (Oryx dammah) of north Africa.

Arabian oryx. Getty images. Photo by Joe & Clair Carnegie/Libyan Soup.

Arabian oryx. Getty images. Photo by Joe & Clair Carnegie/ Libyan Soup.

But an oryx, like a stag, has two horns–unless of course you’re looking at one in profile and from a great way off. Further, the oryx is cloven-hoofed, meaning that the “feet like an elephant” (or, solid-hoofed) descriptor would rule out this animal. As Aristotle wrote, “Most of the horned ones are cloven-hoofed, e.g., the ox, the deer, and the goat; we have no solid-hoofed animal with a pair of horns.” Cloven-hoofed creatures can’t grow horns in the middle of their forehead because their skulls are divided down the middle, not solid. Finally, the geography is all wrong: north Africa is a ways off from India, and neither of which are close to the forests of Germany.

This is but a partial list of likely candidates for the unicorn. Chris Lavers, in his The Natural History of Unicorns, puts together a comprehensive history of this composite creature that includes even more animals archived within Ctesias’s and Pliny’s descriptions. These include the Tibetan kiang, a fleet animal that can outrun a greyhound, the Tibetan chiru, a notoriously elusive type of goat with long black horns, and the yak, a fierce and unpredictable type of cow.

The “discovery” of the unicorn, we might say, predicted, or at least anticipated, our knowledge of these other creatures whose existence was, at the time, equally unimaginable. In a sense, the invention—the dream—of the unicorn anticipates the existence of things that would only later emerge as real. We could say the early naturalists helped draw a map that led, maybe not to the destination they sought, but to a lot of other places.

This much is certain: someone somewhere saw something(s) they’d never seen before, which they framed, described, using the fragments of things they had seen. In doing so, they invented a known unknown. Call it a map, or maybe the first field guide into nature. Their analogies produced that venn diagram of overlapping circles, and at the center we expected the ding an sich, the thing itself. But instead, we found a pattern that revealed, and modeled, the existence of other unknowns in other contexts—rhino, oryx, kiang, chiru, yak. But some–men like Browne, Cuvier, or Hyde–mistook the pattern for an absence, a yawning emptiness that they called, somewhat angrily, a fable, a dream. Perhaps  they were just really disappointed: they were promised a unicorn. Perhaps they weren’t as taken with the ark of creatures we found instead.

Hercynian UnicornIn find it, if not analogous, at least metaphorical of this disappointment that Actaeon, the hunter-turned-stag, is, in a bit of unfortunate turnabout, torn to pieces by the dogs that once were his hunting companions.

The unicorn fared little better. It would eventually be destroyed by the very tools of science that it helped to fashion. More on that later. But unlike poor Actaeon, the unicorn did manage to live on, at least for a while, because a pattern is more powerful than a data point. Its unknown destination gave the idea of the unicorn legs, literally and figuratively, and on these it traveled from North Africa to India to Germany, and from the ancient world to the modern. How long those legs were will be the subject of my next post.


  1. Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Cambridge, 2000. 
  2. I borrow this one from Thomas Nagel’s classic essay on the philosophy of mind, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review. 83:4 (1974). 435-50.
  3. And some say this kind of analogizing and model-making form the basis of how we think. See for example Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities (Basic, 2003) and Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fire and Fuel of Thinking (Basic, 2013).
  4. Pliny, Natural History. Trans. John F. Healy. Penguin, 2004. 281.
  5. Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War. Trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. New York: Harper, 1869. 27.
  6. Walter Woodburn Hyde, “The Curious Animals of the Hercynian Forest.” The Classical Journal 13. Jan. 1918.
  7. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. 1979. Hampton Press, 2002. 14.

Icons of Loss: The Natural History Dioramas of Hiroshi Sugimoto


Sugimoto's Wapiti

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wapiti, 1980. Gelatin-silver print, 19″ x 24″ (sheet).

 Unnatural Nature

There’s a lot to love about the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine an experience more distant from nature. Perched serenely atop a mountain that overlooks exclusive Brentwood more exclusive Bel Air, its sculpted panoramic views integrating city and surrounding mountains are deceptive. It’s just off the 405 freeway, that triumphant memorial to the auto-industry’s victory over nature which slices through the Santa Monica mountain range and divides natural habitats, most notably of the mountain lion. Accessible by futuristic Disney-style tram that slowly lifts visitors to a condor’s eye view, it’s a constructed haven from urban ecology and ecosystem alike. It’s a place where the garden tour docent claims proudly reiterates installation artist Robert Irwin’s staunch description of his garden as an art and not a botanical garden, and notes all the ways in which its “natural” features—ravine, river, flowers—were designed and displayed with tightly controlled aeshetics in mind: their river rocks hewn from the slopes of the eastern Sierra Nevada; their imported South American bougainvillea trellised on massive rebar columns.

So, too, with a recent special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of American Natural History Museum wildlife dioramas. Hanging on the walls as part of an exhibit devoted to the history of photography, we’re asked to view Sugimoto’s photographs of the reconstructed habitats of wildlife through the lens of the camera lens, not as artifacts in the history of natural history.

But it’s curious to think about the role of nature in this unnatural place, and through the technological mediation of photography. Or, rather, through the photographs of an earlier medium for viewing nature, the diorama. What strikes me as especially odd about Sugimoto’s diorama photographs is that while they are commentaries on the weirdness of museums, invoking and exhibiting contradictions and strange loops in the history of museums and museum display, these contradictions can be productively repurposed in the service of nature: the very thing these images, and this museum, remind us that we are not part of.

Illusions of Life

Natural history is made from dead things. Collecting and preserving specimens caught—killed—in the field is the bread and butter of the museum display. Naturalists of the nineteenth century invented dioramas as a way to resurrect, not just the specimens themselves, but the ecological scenes from which they came “at a time when the average person could not travel to visit wild places far from home” 1. Before dioramas, such places were recreated in text, through the word-paintings of explorers like the eighteenth-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt, himself inspired by the Romantic visions of Goethe, awed readers with descriptions of natural wonders in the Americas, inspiring the likes of Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and setting off an era of natural exploration. Natural history museums emerged to preserve, catalogue, and classify the specimens brought back from such voyages, forming the core of museum collections to this day. Museums also used them to recreate whole scenes from nature, inaugurating a new, visual way to encounter nature and educate a public tantalized by narratives of discovery.


Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1810. Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo Volcano.


Louis Daguerre

Sugimoto’s photographs belong to this tradition. It’s no coincidence that photography and the diorama emerged at the same moment: The French artist Louis Daguerre invented photography with his Daguerreotype, a process of fixing images onto silver plates through chemical treatment. Daguerre patented the diorama in 1822, and his first Daguerreotypes were of them. Daguerre’s early dioramas presented huge scenes painted on curtains and illuminated by clever methods in darkened theaters to produce a kind of “reality effect.” Later, he would arrange objects, and people, in the foreground of these scenes. Daguerre would photograph these scenes, which helped produce the illusion of depth where there was none: the backgrounds took on three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional image. The black and white image helped complete the illusion of reality and and atmospheric sense of ‘being there’ by playing up the contrasts in light and shadow. The strange lifelikeness of these scenes appealed to visitors who could not afford to travel to such real historical places, but I imagine they would also have appealed to those who had been there and wanted to resurrect their memory and feel again the sense of immersion and presence.

Daguerre, Holyrood Chapel

Daguerre, painting from the diorama installation, Ruins of Holyrood Chapel, 1824

Ruins of Hollyrood Chapel, black and white.

Ruins of Holyrood Chapel, black and white

The image above of Holyrood Chapel is a painting Daguerre made of the diorama. He may have achieved its lifelike lighting by looking at his painted screen first to see how the light and shadow played on it. The black and white version gives some sense of how a Daguerreotype may have reproduced the diorama to achieve the same illusion.

Early on, dioramas were meant to be photographed and painted. But pretty soon the diorama gained its own life as a means of staging lifelike habitat scenes for a viewing public, thanks to Carl Akely (1864-1926), naturalist, taxidermist, and dioramist of the American Natural History Museum in 1889 2. Akely resurrected Renaissance methods of painting on curved backgrounds to accompany Daguerre’s earlier technique of using creative light and shadow to reinforce a lifelikeness. The effects were—and still are—sublime. Writes, Stephen Quinn, “Crossing the threshold of the Akely Hall [of African mammals] one enters a hushed, darkened theater of the vanishing natural Eden of Africa. The looming profiles of a herd of African elephants gradually take form in the dim light. Surrounding this imposing central elephant group are twenty-eight luminous ‘windows’ to the natural world.” 3

Wapiti, AMNH

Wapiti, AMNH

Through lighting design and subtle spatial illusions, and through modern techniques in taxidermy, dioramas brought to life the long-dead specimens of nineteenth-century explorers, re-placing them in their “natural” habitats—many of which were not simply invented, but exhaustively researched by painters who visited actual places and painted on site, like new Humboldts returning to the primal scenes of nature’s gestalt. 4

Rams, AMNH

Mountain rams, AMNH

AMNH Manatee

Manatee, AMNH.

Dioramas also left behind the narrative text of earlier explorers: they were presented with minimal apparatus. The educational value of these diorama scenes was not in learning about ecology or ethology, but in the unmediated, affective encounter with lifelike scenes. Dioramas aimed to provoke wonder and awe as a means to understanding the fragility and finiteness of a natural world that was rapidly becoming an exploitable resource. “They were created to promote the love and concern or nature and its wise stewardship.” 5

Postmodern Illusions

Sugimoto's manatee

Sugimoto, Manatee, 1994. Gelatin-silver print, 20″ x 24″ (sheet)

Sugimoto bongos

Sugimoto, Bongos.

From a postmodern perspective, there is of course a weird irony in the very idea of “lifelikeness”—of creating the illusion of life from dead things as a way to connect the viewer with a really living nature. And indeed Sugimoto’s photographs belong to this postmodern tradition as well, taking scenes of nature that were first transformed by design and taxidermy to promote natural awareness and transforming them again by photography back into the two dimensional image that, ironically, seems more “real” than the diorama. They do this by reversing the three-dimensional process the diorama: unlike that process, which was additive, Sugimoto’s is subtractive: instead of adding depth, he removes it through photography. Instead of creating color, he renders the scenes in black and white. Instead of mimicking scale, he reduces it to the size of a portrait. Instead of including even the minimal textual accompaniment of dioramas, he eliminates it altogether. (Indeed, Sugimoto likes to play with perspective—photographing movie theater interiors flooded with light, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum historical personages as massive black and white portraits.)

On display are not scenes of nature, but the transformative power of the camera to turn one representation of nature—the diorama—into another—the landscape portrait, resurrecting that earlier medium as art to put on view as conceptually far as possible from the scene of its first taking. Like a diorama, his images trick our perspective, but the trick shows us the aesthetic quality of the scene, rather than its authenticity.

The Lost Museum Found

But Sugimoto’s dioramas may also recover certain pre-modern sensibilities. Sugimoto says on his website that when he first spied the dioramas at the museum in 1974, they seemed “utterly fake.” Only by closing one eye and removing depth did they appear real again. His remark speaks to our own era’s sensibility, which is no longer convinced by the naivety of the diorama, and which only preserves them as quaint reminders of earlier episodes in the history of science, when art hadn’t left these museums to set up shop in museums of its own. 6

Before our modern museums separated art from nature, the logic of display was to bring all the universe under one roof. Naturalia (objects from nature, like specimens), scientifica (instruments for transforming nature, like photography), and artificialia (man-made objects, like diorama paintings) enjoyed a certain camaraderie. Those early museums—cabinets of curiosity, Wunderkammern—aimed to promote wonder as a means to connect the observer with the universe. The feeling of awe was supposed to be transformative, just as the nineteenth-century natural history dioramas aimed to promote affection for nature and the politics of conservation through re-staging the scenes of our first encounter with the natural world. Art and science and nature bound up in a window display.


North American Mammal Hall, AMNH

Teylers Museum

Gallery, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Whitney Bird Hall

Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Bird Life, AMNH

The creators of museum diorama halls tried to recover some of this unified, cosmological significance when they arranged their dioramas like paintings in a portrait gallery. The great ovular space of the Whitney Memorial Hall of Pacific Birds at the American Museum of Natural History invokes the galleries of the first formal public museums, places like the eighteenth-century Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, dedicated to preserving its historical connection between science and art, and which itself had formalized the apparent hodgepodge of “stuff” in Renaissance curiosity cabinets. The Whitney Hall’s individual dioramas “hang” like paintings arranged on the walls, as if the artworks themselves are creatures in a habitat. Its roof, curved and painted with clouds, is the backdrop that gives the illusion to this room-scale diorama that we are outdoors. Benches in the middle, as in an art museum, let one sit and feel the pleasure of this illusion of immersion, and contemplate the great diorama that is nature.


Rotunda, Mineral Room, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. The Teylers is lighted entirely by natural light, as it was in the 18th century.

Recovering Wonder?

The nature invoked by those diorama halls is harder to imagine now that it was then. But this is the promise of Sugimoto’s photographs—to resurrect the wonder of the diorama that has been lost to a more knowing sensibility. Sugimoto’s dioramas resurrect, through mechanical process and tricks of light and depth, both specimen and art form. Natural history specimens from two centuries ago get a new purchase in photographs, but so does the diorama itself as another way of looking at nature: when we look at these photographs, we are looking, too, at the ways naturalists more than a century ago were looking at the natural world. But it’s a way of looking that oddly we cannot see when we look at dioramas without photography. The sensibility that allowed us to see through the diorama to nature, as “windows,” has been lost to time. We can only see those scenes now as images. And so in Sugimoto’s photos, their sensibilities are preserved as much as their specimens.

By reuniting the diorama with its early partner, photography, Sugimoto reunites two kinds of museums and two sensibilities—science and art—that went their separate ways long ago. Just as dioramas resurrect specimens in lifelike environments, the photographs resurrect that old museum art form in the lifelike environment of the Getty, a diorama in the larger diorama of Los Angeles. Sugimoto makes us wonder whether any object—any art form—is really ever dead. His images are like those taxidermied specimens, animals that are  only “dead” in one sense, in one context. In another, like the museum diorama, they belongs to a thriving ecology (despite that the ecology itself might have long ago succumbed to human exploitation).

Perhaps it speaks to the tragedy of our detachment from nature that the artist must resort to such elaborate means to recover a connection. And these are indeed pretty postmodern means. They acknowledge that we can’t see this connection until someone shows us an image of what we’re looking at—and that we’re looking. The camera stages for us something that is hard to recover, namely that someone—us—is doing, or once did, the looking and thus involved in the drama of the experience of the natural world. By looking at images of an artist looking at models of naturalists looking at the natural world, the images reveal that we’ve lost the sense of those early visitors to dioramas who saw through the diorama and experienced the awe of nature. Sugimoto replaces—I won’t say recovers—that awe with the sense that, through the act of looking, we belong to that scene, we are involved in its construction. This feeling, if not the unrecoverable feeling of direct experience, is an immediate one, recreated through thickly mediated conventions by which the act of looking itself becomes part of the experience.

Sugimoto, Gemsboks

Sugimoto, Gemsboks, 1980. (Oryx gazella)

The effect—spooky, eerie—is compounded by those diorama photographs in which animals look back at us viewers, as is the case with the troop of gemsboks, the Oryx gazellae, which seem to hover before us, caught in a moment of perpetual surprise and attention, as if we had just stumbled on them in the Kalahari Desert plains of Botswana. Their fleeting, ghostly quality suggests impermanence. Their uncannily lifelike look makes direct appeal, reaching out to observers where they feel least connected to nature, in an unlikely L.A. art museum. (It’s amusing to me, too, that the oryx is responsible for a wondrous illusion of its own—when viewed from the side and from a distance, as very early Greek explorers did when they visited India in the fourth century BCE, in two-dimensions as it were, its two horns became one and a bicorn animal became a unicorn.)

I want to say that there is a message of conservation embedded in this strange encounter with nature many times removed, perhaps a commentary on our distance from nature. Nature dioramas emerged at the same time that people gained a sense for the finiteness and fragility of nature. As our nagging sense of this finiteness and fragility increases, so too does our means of representing that sense become ironical. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between proximity and awareness: the more distanced we are from nature, the more acute our awareness of the fragility. And the more ironical our means of capturing this awareness, the more perilous our relationship to the thing itself.

Iconography of Loss

Magritte, Trahison des Images

René Magritte, Trahisons des Images (The Treachery of Images), 1929. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When talking about images, it’s useful to think in terms of signs—of indexes and icons. Early dioramas are an index of nature, that is, they point to (index) nature, like Adam pointed to animals in Eden and gave them names. An index references something, a presence. In natural history museums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, word and thing were connected intimately, and this intimacy produced awe.

Icons, on the other hand, are images without a referent: they point at nothing. They signify absence, not presence. Perhaps the most famous icon is René Magritte’s La trahison des image (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) from 1929—a painting of a pipe with the line “this is not a pipe.” What is Magritte painting? A pipe? In which case the painting is an index. Or the image of a pipe? In which case it’s an icon: the painting’s lifelikeness is a trick that reveals the reality of absence. It negates the pipe even as it invokes it.

A lot hangs on whether Sugimoto’s photographs index nature or make an icon of it. If they are an index, they point to something, to nature. Perhaps they do this by indexing another’s index, another time’s way of referring to nature. We’re once removed from another’s remove, but still there is something at the end of all this mediation. But what if they are icons, images without a referent? What if they point to an absence, and the ghostly gemsboks are merely the residue, the after-image, of nature, standing in spookily, enigmatically, for something we’ve lost? If they are indexes, they index our awareness. They mean that we’re not children in the garden anymore: we’re all grown up. We cannot afford to be unaware of our relationship, our connection, to nature. They are a desperate plea. But if they are icons, all is lost.

pas des oryx



  1. Stephen Quinn, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: Abrams, 2006), 6
  2. Quinn, Windows, 13.
  3. Quinn, Windows, 18.
  4. See the online biography of dioramist James Wilson Perry, Painting Actuality: Diorama Art of James Wilson Perry, Yale Peabody Archive:
  5. Quinn, Windows, 10.

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