A Matter of National Import: Who is in charge of the reptile exhibits at the ZSL?
Honestly, who is in charge of this famous London Zoo’s exhibits? Is it Banksy? Camus? Russian hackers? Take this educational avant garde near the entrance to start. Part zoological study, part existentialist suicide note.
A Zoological Study/Existentialist Suicide Note
Can you find the snake? It lays listless right below the noose (we’ll get back to that later). The snake is set in it’s natural habitat, the film set of a 1975 Western. As we know, snakes originated in mid 1800s Texas towns like this. Although the noose seems more threatening to us, its probably less intimidating to serpents whereas the shovel would surely have killed many of this creature’s ancestors. The make shift reptilian gallows ads a light hearted note of mirth to what must have been a harrowing life on the frontier. Or perhaps it is a comment on the ennui of a pointless existence marching inevitably towards death. Is it a sermon in a diorama, as it were, to our existentialist crisis or a bit of gallows humor? In the work’s ambiguity lies it’s power. The snake, itself deadly, surrounded by instruments of death both human and reptilian is a nihilistic tour de force. Notice the dead rattler skin hanging top center frame, not shed but skinned — soprano note in this symphony of pain, suffering, death & boredom. Children receive discounted admission to the ZSL.
Home Sweet Home
What could be a more natural habitat than a spaghetti Western? A dilapidated toilet. The message of this exhibit is more veiled. Although snakes coming out of the toilet is a fantastic trope, and perhaps a missed opportunity here, this is an amphibian exhibit. The subtext is subtly hid in the background. Notice the “Aussie” shampoo in the corner, which might be a coincidence if not for the Australian flagged flip flops by the toilet. This doubles both as further comment on the futility of modern life and on the crisis posed by immigration. An ironic “Home Sweet Home” scrawled above these interlopers so far from their native land.
Danger Men Working
Here the rat exhibit is made to look like a disused tube station complete with train tracks. This is, of course, totally accurate. Detritus left by the crashing waves of industry and a commercialization provides a home to these hopeless scavengers. Are we who ride hoveled together on our way to work any different? Danger scavengers of a different sort, humans, working.
This is, of course, all but preamble to the pièce de résistance back at the reptile house.
The Annam Leaf Turtle Exhibit.
This begs the unanswerable question: Where to start? This is an exhibit of annam leaf turtles in a butcher’s shop killing annam leaf turtles for soup. Does one start with the menu in the foreground (complete with prices), the literally steaming cauldron in the back ground, or the simmering turtle in a bowl (perhaps dead, but left to the imagination of the viewer)? If turtles sleep, they certainly don’t sleep well here. Whereas serpents are capable of subtlety, turtles must be confronted directly, bluntly, and repeatedly with the evidence of their futile mortality. One lounges near a meat cleaver stuck in a carving block to represent the finality of death, surrounded by various instruments of her demise: a wok, bamboo steamers, & boiling water representing the myriad ways she might slip from existence at a moment’s notice. A plank is offered for their “escape,” but it leads only to the butcher’s sink where they are kept fresh for future slaughter. How like our absurd existence where we walk the pointless plank between the verge of meaningless death and the lukewarm, mundane tedium of “life.” The ZSL teaches us much about animals, but it teaches us even more about ourselves.
The Parisian Sartre Society will be holding it’s annual picnic on the cold, dark concrete floor of the reptile house next week. Why not bring your family?