They Usually Lie Around the Grotto

Exhibition: Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
Book: ‘Seeds From the Zoo’
Artist-photographer: Bryony Dunne
Review By: Ronnie Close

Zoos are haunted places, laden with happy childhood memories, but when encountered as an adult they can bring out conflicting feelings of identification and disidentification. A new project by Irish-born artist Bryony Dunne is an imaginative visual exploration of one such zoo, the antiquated Giza Zoo near the shores of the Nile in Cairo. The original zoo was opened in 1891 and designed under the Khedive Ismail regime with imported plants and animals from India, Africa, and South America. Dunne’s photographic project can be seen at Townhouse until November 9 and in a beautiful artist’s book format, which is on display in the gallery.

The exhibition presents a series of color and black-and-white photographic print images presented in a range of sizes and shapes, showing diverse views onto the Giza Zoo gardens. Small square images of striking plant seeds photographed against black backgrounds punctuate the zoo sequence. These matching archive-like images compliment the zoo views, which vary in quality, approach and tempo. The combined visual affect appears as if multiple authors or narratives have come together to make this project work. Beside the photographs on the wall are surprisingly large colorful plant seeds, real but painted by the artist and placed individually on white plinths, as if in a museum. These seeds are the same objects seen in the photographs on the wall. The exhibition also includes a film work made up of archival footage and contemporary shots of the mythical northern white rhino species, filmed in a game reserve in Kenya by the artist. The historical footage includes scenes from the Suez Canal which enabled the transportation of seeds and plants used in the Giza Zoo, and other places on the British colonial network.

Positioned near the seeds installation area in the exhibition is Dunne’s artist book Seeds from the Zoo, as a different presentation of this intimate project. The original publication combines the varying images in an alternative way in order to place emphasis on the formal relationships between the images. It offers more background context, through an interview between a journalist and a photojournalist reflecting on Dunne’s photo project in a questioning manner.

The exhibition provides three elements for the visitor: photographic prints, small objects on plinths and a film work. Although all three interlink in curious ways, within this configuration one of the most remarkable relationships is between the seed object on the plinth and its image on the wall. This doubling is a rare occurrence in photography exhibitions and the interaction between the two appears to question the representation of the object. How are we to understand the role of the object and the image of the object when both are available to see?

Much of photography praises the experience, the capacity of the photographer to be present and to record their witnessing. In contrast, Dunne’s work provides an encounter with both the object itself and the image of it. In real life, the hand-painted colorful seeds look less mysterious as signs of the artist’s hand are legible. The luscious, studio-lit images of the seeds, on the other hand, preserve them in time and elevate them through the photographic process.

The other photographs of the Giza Zoo are open views of spaces and activities. The zoo has a worn-out atmosphere of past glories, but it appears to survive on its own terms. The photographs’ visual feel may seem unorthodox as the perspectives are skewed without many horizon lines to inform you that this is Giza you are staring at. There is a looseness in the image-making due to mixing formats, colors, cameras and film types to tell us about life in Cairo’s main zoo complex. There is also an autonomy of visual approach toward a more playful and imaginative way to represent and experiment with experience. Much contemporary photography obsesses with the style of representation in set visual languages. Photography culture, especially in amateur varieties, screams for attention by following set rules of composition and professional photographic conventions. Now computer algorithms can correct photographic composition through a US$2 app, as photography feeds into the neoliberal spectacle. There is merit in Dunne’s use of the medium of photography to remind us of the diversity and mystery in the camera and the rich dialogue between image, object and film representation in a single body of work.

Both versions of this project, book and exhibition, emerge from the pregnant moment that was the artist’s discovery of fallen seeds during one of her regular visits to the Giza Zoo. The metaphor of the seed, latent with the DNA of life itself, parallels the artist’s own unique approach and vision. Like the potentiality of the plant seeds, the artworks come from the imagination and spark our memories in a personal fashion. The project offers another way to look through a camera, to frame the hyper-real nature of a zoo.

Artist Ed Ruscha famously once said that bad art makes you go “Wow! Huh?” while good art makes you go, “Huh? Wow!” The subtle quality of Dunne’s project is the understated — its desire not to impress directly in straight photographic terms but rather to frame a contemplative stillness.

Giza Zoo

Bryony Dunne 
Ronnie Close 
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