An examination of contemporary zoological gardens and their visual environment, Valeria Scrilatti’s series ‘Almost Wild’ puts on evidence the artificial and contradictory nature of these institutions.
Text by Stefano Simoncini
Reducing the unknown to the known is the aim of every act of knowledge and every experience, from mythology to science and the various forms of exploration of our world, but it is also typical of Western civilization to perform this kind of reductive operation by distorting and weakening the object of our attention, absorbing and misrepresenting it, so that it is often reduced to the level of a commodity or mere entertainment. This has been done to oriental and indigenous cultures all around the world, but it has also happened with the physical and cultural diversity of various ethnic minorities and social groups, as well as with Communists, Jews and “freaks” in general. But this tendency has perhaps been exercised the most in relation to the element that embodies the very concept of otherness and of the unknown: that of nature and the wild. The efforts of men to reduce the threatening aspects of this dimension that encircles and surrounds him, in order to put it at a safe distance and contemplate it with an objectivity and detachment that is in fact impossible, can be seen in science and science fiction, the fairy tale, bullfighting, falconry, the circus, and of course the zoo.
The zoo is certainly not exclusive to Western culture, nor is it the result of the consumer society. Men have always had the urge to “capture” and “tame” wild beasts, removing them from their native habitats and putting them on display in other places, just as men have also done with “savage” humans who lived in the wild. The Renaissance popes brought elephants and rhinos to Rome, where they lived in the Vatican gardens… But industrial society did something more and it created a sort of “total institution” that is a parallel universe and a world unto itself. The zoo is in fact a kind of theme park where life, with its dimension of the unusual and the marvellous, is taken away from our everyday experience and is hermetically closed off and vacuum-packed inside the box of a vulgar and low-quality spectacle.
Valeria immerges herself in this phony universe that is rooted in the childhood memories of us all, with its strange mixture of the menacing power of wild nature and the humiliating fiction of fairground papier-mâché scenarios. The eyes of children, without bothering with questions of ethics or aesthetics, focus feverishly on these incongruous presences; on the animals that, heedless of the spectacle of which they are the protagonists, give us brief glimpses and inglorious fragments of their “real” existence. With the merging of the “natural” into such an “unnatural” context the false and artificial scenario is totally dominant, and it has the sweet and cloying taste of an obscure and clichéd art-house film, emerging grotesquely from an indecorous and tasteless trivialization of uncontaminated nature.
But in this scenario there is also an element of attraction which is almost nostalgic, because in its failed or unrealized purpose of building a bridge between civilization and nature the zoo accentuates the immense distance that now exists between them. With the animal as the central “punctum” or perceptual pivot it suddenly brings home to us the full extent of this irreparable loss, while at the same time reassuring us of the safely controlled banality of our world.
Valeria Scrilatti studied Photography and Visual Arts at Florence Libera Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. Her research focuses primarily on landscape, and each project aims to investigate the relationship between territory and individual identity, from which inner stories of contemporary can surface. Her series Almost wild has been exhibited during the 12th International Photography Festival in Rome and published in Italy and abroad. In 2015 she got the third place at Fotoleggendo Award with Est, a long-term reportage on Eastern margins of consolidated urban areas of Rome. She currently lives in Rome and she is represented by Contrasto agency. You can find more about here work here.
All Rights Reserved. © Images: Valeria Scrilatti. Words: Stefano Simoncini