Landscape Stories: ‘Saved by Science’ is a wonderful series. In Italy it was shown during the ‘After the Crash’ exhibition of the ISWA European Project in the Orto Botanico Museum in Rome. Justine Cooper has captured, for the first time into almost 150 years, the storage areas of the American Museum of Natural History of New York city. She has discovered another world, so more complex than nature. What has been the most exciting discovery?
Justine Cooper: As an artist I was drawn to the odd or unusual objects within the collection, but I think the most exciting discovery was the scale of the collections and the number of individual specimens of a specimen they have. This is what makes a scientific collection so powerful. Its mass.
Landscape Stories: The photos are so absolute, some metaphysical, I’ m thinking about ‘The Rooster’. A stuffed cock in a huge cold hall…
Justine Cooper: Yes, I tried to also have a sense of humor when taking these images. The rooster looks rather proud, maybe even indignant, but certainly out of his habitat.
Landscape Stories: The animals are the protagonists of a journey that discovers and reaches back into the 19° century and across the 4 corners of the Earth. ‘Elephants in the Attic’, ‘Yellow Honeyeaters’, ‘Rhinocerous’, ‘African Lion’… and many others. What is your favourite photo ?
Justine Cooper: African Lion (Panthera leo) was my favorite photo because I identified with him, in terms of being in the collections. He’s got no scientific value because he has no data attached to him. His eye, though made of glass, seems very entreating – “why am I here, what do you want” He was also a surprise to find and feels like such an individual, though the body of work is generally about the multiple.
Landscape Stories: I think the way Linnaeus built up his nomenclature structure, which basically works through comparisons and similarities, didn’t consider the question of where the specific object of study comes from, that is, the difficult and complex concept of landscape. Landscape can be considered to be one of the main genres of photography since its origins. What do you think? Which role does your classification in the series?
Justine Cooper: Well certainly it is interesting to think of the museum itself, as the landscape. In the video Sounds of Science, I think this idea is presented best. The cabinets become the habitat for the specimens post-life value. Linnaeus was a taxonomist but now the classification of the natural world is aided by genetics so the museum bridges the 19th century and the 21st century very well in the way it looks at the collections.
Landscape Stories: Usually you don’t employ the photographic medium. What technical means have you used to realize the series?
Justine Cooper: Actually, I trained as a photographer so photography is a very natural medium for me to use. I used a 4×5 camera, which is a 19th century invention, and the specific camera I used came from the collecitons of the museum, so I like the reflexivity of using a camera from the collections to photograph the collections. I shot on film and each image was the product of research and conversation with the different curators and collection managers of each department within the museum.
Landscape Stories: In the history of art there has been great attention to science. I’m thinking about authors of the Renaissance depicting fantastic hybrids animals, from Albrech Durer, to the anatomy of the revolutionary work of the Flemish physician Andrea Vasalio, and the monsters of the sea of Collaert, the griffin of Van Mekenem, showing the beginnings of the biotechnology and the genetic engineering. What is the relationship between artists and scientists?
Justine Cooper: It can be collaborative, illustrative or exploitative, but foremost you have to enjoy the alternate perspective and be willing to engage in what the other does.
Landscape Stories: Tell me about your art research with the Science: from the Fine Art cell renewal, the culture of science, to medicine, the scientific collections, the biodiversity and the conservation.
Justine Cooper: Science and medicine are very strong ways of looking at ourselves and world. To me, this makes them very interesting subjects for art. They seek to answer questions about nature and what it means to be human. Art can process that in to another level of experience.
Landscape Stories: Next projects?
Justine Cooper: I will do more photographs of collections at other museums. Although at the moment I am working on a project that is mixed media where I create kits for people to perform their own medical procedures on themselves. This is not that unrealistic in the United States b/c health care is so expensive it is not an option for everyone. So it is a satirical work.
Interview curated by Camilla Boemio