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A Headless Polar Bear Walks into a Bar

August 9, 2012

(part one, part two, part three)

While looking for more information about Gary Hume’s painting, “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear,” I came across a blog that I knew, right away, I should not visit. But I’ve never been able to back down once curiosity is engaged despite the possibility of inflicted damage (what one might call the masochistic addiction of research, maybe?). I knew from the brief Google search description of this site that I would vehemently disagree with the writer and the intensity of the already rising antipathy took me aback. I decided I needed to figure out why I was so against her position and, moreover, what exactly my position was or if I even had a position and wasn’t just reacting to poor writing.

I will write my response in three posts: the first on the art of the picture in question, the second on the science of what the picture represents and the third on the picture’s wider cultural context in relation to the Arctic.

This is the painting that caught both our attention:

Following this picture, this is what the blogger comments:

A few things immediately leap to mind, one of which is exactly how he managed to gain that unique perspective of a polar bears [sic] nether regions, and the other is how pseudohermaphroditism in polar bears has a relation to climate change? Last time I checked we were all getting freaked out by endocrine disruptors condensing over the poles then concentrating up the food chain. We can’t decide on exactly which endocrine disrupting chemical pollutant is the big nasty (it depends on whats [sic] trendy in the research community at a given time) and don’t exactly have comparative data going back very far, but no matter! Either way I’m pretty sure that only the truly die-hard hysterics have somehow tried to pin this on climate change.

In a future post I’ll look at the research into the effects of endocrine disruptors in the Arctic (that blog’s motivation, after all, is “The thoughts of a medical student cranky about bad science, especially that of Anthropogenic Global Warming”), but here I want to address the painting itself, because I think at least part of the blogger’s reaction isn’t to what she might term “bad science”—it is a piece of art that does not directly reference any scientific study—but to the piece itself.

The painting is shocking. It graphically portrays an exposed vagina with what appear to be testes alongside. We see the underside of the bear’s paws but her head is missing. The blogger’s first thought was “how [Hume] managed to gain that unique perspective of a polar bears [sic] nether regions,” but we can invert the spatial relation implied here. The viewer isn’t looking up at a polar bear’s genitalia, but down at them. The artist invokes two common tropes in science and art. The first is found in photographs of scientists and polar bears—the bear is spread-eagle on her front or back and the researchers are clustered around looking down on her, measuring the length of her vulva, clitoris, pseudo-penis or taking tissue, blood and fat samples. The bear is dead or tranquilized—inert, passive, controlled. This is a position of complete submission in the face of a dominant order that the research subject has no control to change.

The second trope is the representation of “headless women” in art. While it is rather novel to see a polar bear depicted in this manner, it is not a new way to represent women. I did not care to delve too deeply into pornographic pictures of women taken from a low angle to emphasize their sex (feel free to do your own research here), but a cursory look for this trope in art did not come back with slim pickings. The surrealists loved headless women—Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp to name just two—but headless women were found in art long before them. An iconic statue of a headless woman is a progenitor to these artists—the Nike of Samothrace. On her Wikipedia page, it states: “Nike of Samothrace is seen as an iconic depiction of triumphant spirit and of the divine momentarily coming face to face with man. It is possible, however, that the power of the work is enhanced by the very fact that the head and arms are missing.” In a recent article on gender, markets and consumption, Jonathan E. Schroeder and Janet L. Borgerson take up this propensity to portray women without their heads:

In a recent Burberrys ad…a headless woman is shown modeling a kilt. Her body inexplicably ends at her neck, resembling a headless mannequin. Although the technique is useful to advertisers because it allows the consumer to project her own identity onto the model, it has serious implications in the larger context of female cultural identity. The woman’s image has been chopped up, decapitated, dismembered. Women who are portrayed without heads not only suffer actual violence implied by the act of decapitation, but also symbolic violence by erasure of identity and intelligence. Intelligence, personality, and individuality are central aspects of human identity, and when women are denied these through representational practice they become less human.

While their end point comes perhaps a little too swiftly and heavy handedly, take these three following pictures, the first mannequins for sale, the second a supposedly “artistic” endeavor, the third an advertisement:

  

Headless women as art is not in the past, it is not old news. It continues in advertising and shows up in a recent photography exhibit that pays express homage to Max Ernst’s “100 Headless Women” (Max Snow’s exhibit of the same name opened at the Kathleen Cullen Gallery in New York in February and depicts topless women with their heads covered in black “censor” bars). Headless women are considered erotic and feature in many pornographic films and photographs. Women who take pictures of themselves nude or semi-nude and post them to photo-sharing websites often keep their heads out of the frame or obscured in some manner (while this might have to do with privacy or feelings of shame, it could also be argued that it has become a generic staple to female erotic pictures).

Why go into a brief and somewhat schematic history of women in art to discuss a picture of a polar bear? Because intentionally or not, Gary Hume explicitly references this history in how he displays the polar bear for consumption by a viewing public. I bring up intentionality only to say that outside of an artist statement about what was going through his head as he drew the polar bear, we can only infer that he either meant to reference this history or the history is so resonant that this was the most powerful position from which to realize his vision. Either way, it really doesn’t matter.

Although I have to admit, I really would love to know the intentionality here (a dress made from fabric featuring the “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear”):

It is a shocking picture (the original one of the polar bear, not the dress) because it is explicitly pornographic. We are voyeurs in a position of dominance gazing at a passive female and the picture elicits a reaction: discomfort, titillation, horror, fascination, disgust, desire.

But there is something wrong about the picture and it is not that it is a polar bear instead of a human woman (in the third installment, I will discuss the close ties between humans and bears). It is because this female has testicles. This female might not actually be female, we may be viewing a male in the position of submission—we, the viewers, are more confused than the artist, our understanding of art and science best exemplified in representations of passive women by active men (or passive polar bears encircled by active scientists), is suddenly undermined, turned over, thrown back at us. In our confusion and dismay at the failure of conventions, which allow us to know what something means, we may lash out at the artist, the painting, the art world, the often ambiguous complexity of competing scientific research, or the group that allowed such a painting to come into existence, The Cape Farewell Project (which is the target of the blog in question).

I don’t always or readily understand many of the art projects that come out of Cape Farewell expeditions. I am puzzled, indifferent or skeptical—I often don’t get what exactly the artist or the project hopes to accomplish and the essays written to this effect seem to be, more often than not, at odds with the artistic outcomes. That said, I fully recognize that it is the limits of my imagination combined with a point at which my critical thinking becomes lazy—I have yet to go through the rigorous and strenuous task of actual engagement. But I will not dismiss David Buckland’s project of projecting phrases from Gretel Ehrlich’s book, The Future of Ice (a member of the first Cape Farewell expedition), onto ice walls and glaciers. For Buckland, the act of projecting the lighted words is a moment of discovery, an awakening to new knowledge, to becoming something other than what he was before: “The projections pierced the icy surface of the glacier. At times the projection disappeared into the glacier and at others it reflected clearly, it was amazing to discover so many different kinds of ice.”

This is art—it changes the artist in the practice and it asks the viewer to be changed in the experience of the final piece. Change can be frightening, it is difficult and the outcomes uncertain. Necessarily there are no blueprints, conventions, or genre frameworks to see us to the other side. Adaptation is never easy and free of cost, for polar bears or humans.

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