The Zoo Enclosure and the Human Gaze

by Ben Flatman


This article on the photographic work of Richard Billingham and the architecture of Berthold Lubetkin was commissioned by VIVID for inclusion in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition Zoo in 2006.







Artist Richard Billingham’s recent touring exhibition Zoo, invites the viewer to enter into an investigation of the conceptual and historical relationships between the images he has captured on film and video, and the actual traditions of designing and visiting zoos in the West. In particular, the artist suggests that we see the zoo as an institution through which we can better understand the evolution of our own relationship with the animal world and our place within a global environment that is increasingly dominated and controlled by human beings. Zoos have been powerful symbols of Western colonialism and cultural hegemony since the 19th century. Their existence has been justified as contributing to scientific research, education and conservation and yet the vast majority of people have most commonly experienced the zoo as a form of entertainment and spectacle. In this, modern audiences experience the zoo in a way not far removed from the 18th century courtly menageries or the travelling circuses and sideshows that belong to an even older European tradition. The history of zoo design has followed a similarly confused and convoluted path, verging between a kind of pseudo-laboratory aesthetic at one extreme and theme park kitsch on the other. Billingham’s videos and photographs, taken in a number of zoos from around the globe, are a metonym for the constraints experienced by animals in the confinement of the zoo enclosure. They capture this odd and often disturbing world of sterile rooms and rock-effect concrete bear pits so as to force us to address what lies behind our desire to keep and observe wild animals in captivity.  

Zoos and menageries have existed in many cultures and their history spans millennia, but Billingham’s interest is expressly directed at the zoo as a Western phenomenon. The zoological garden is historically one of the most potent symbols of Western cultural and economic imperialism. It stands as an overt expression of the acquisitive and consumption-driven societies that emerged in 19th century Europe and North America. There was a point in the late 19th century when acquiring a zoo was considered as important for an aspiring city as having an art gallery or university. Zoos were a means by which to display the fruits and plunder of colonial possessions that spanned the globe. In this 19th century view, the natural world was a huge, limitless resource, abundant with fascination, but also ripe for exploitation. But zoos also stepped into the growing void that was emerging between an urbanised population and their half-remembered rural hinterland. For many, zoos increasingly became a sole point of contact with animals. The zoos that sprang up across Germany, France and elsewhere during this period were therefore not only born out of a celebration of colonial exploitation, but also of an increased separation between humans and nature and a deep rooted desire to look at animals. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, German zoos in particular attempted to satisfy this desire to see animals unrestrained by cages and bars by designing enclosures that were hyper-realist recreations of the animal’s original habitats. The intention was allegedly to promote ‘normal’ behaviour in the animals, but the zoos themselves increasingly came to resemble themed landscapes, forebears of today’s theme parks. In 1907, circus impresario Carl Hagenbeck set about transforming the way in which visitors experienced zoos and viewed the animals. In particular, Hagenbeck sought to remove visible signs of captivity, replacing cages and bars with moats and deep trenches to create an illusion of closeness and a sense that these were wild animals, roaming freely in their natural habitats. The fantastical, rocky backdrops at his Tierpark in Stellingen had an immediate influence upon zoos elsewhere, with the emphasis increasingly placed on the simulation of the wild. Posters for Stellingen and other contemporary zoos used close-up photographs of the animals in these hyper-naturalistic settings to suggest a simulacrum of a natural wilderness.1 Even at the time, Stellingen was criticised for abandoning what was perceived by many as the central, scientific role of the zoo and it is clear that these enclosures had less to do with consideration of the animals’ needs and more to do with allowing for the uninhibited gaze of the human viewer.

The zoo became a central institution in the lives of many millions of people throughout the West during the 19th and 20th centuries, shaping their understanding of the natural world, and defining the way in which they viewed animals. Removed from their natural habitats and placed within carefully contrived enclosures that mimicked or re-imagined their original environments, the animals were expressly displayed for the satisfaction and entertainment of the human viewer. Billingham has stated that part of the inspiration for his current work comes from the visits he himself made to Dudley Zoo with his mother as a child, acknowledging the significant place that zoos occupy within our collective memories. Dudley is of particular historical interest, as it represents a unique example of an entire early modernist zoo by the influential Russian avant-garde architect, Berthold Lubetkin. The decision to appoint Lubetkin as architect for Dudley Zoo had followed closely on the heels of his work at London Zoo and Whipsnade, where he had been appointed by the Director, Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell to design a new Gorilla House and Penguin Pool. Lubetkin’s practice, Tecton, was appointed in 1936, less than two years before the zoo opened in November 1937. The design process and construction period were extremely rapid. What is fascinating about Lubetkin’s architecture is that it captures a particular, modernist view, of the natural world at a point in time. The modernist ‘frame’ that Lubetkin seeks to construct is supposedly neutral and rationale, a frame through through which, it is assumed, humanity will both be enlightened and entertained. Upon opening, Dudley Zoo was described as being:

at once a scientific centre, an example of an ultra-modern town plan in miniature, and a source of entertainment for a huge industrial population…(The zoo contains) over 3000 birds and animals, shown not against naturalistic backgrounds but in open buildings cunningly arranged to provide the maximum of viewpoints with a minimum of interference with their occupants’ natural habits.2

But Lubetkin’s concern was less with the simulation of ‘freedom’ or the suggestion that these animals were behaving normally in naturalistic settings and more with the experience of the visitor. His designs assert the modernist desire to impose human control and the primacy of the human gaze as the unashamed objectives of the zoo. ‘(Architecture’s) compelling geometrical regularities affirm man’s hope to understand, to explain and to control his surroundings,’ wrote Lubetkin in 1947.3 Like Carl Hagenbeck, he also had a strong appreciation of the theatricality of zoos and believed that one of their primary purposes was to entertain. On travelling through the Midlands in the early 1930s, Lubetkin had observed how few popular entertainments there were, and he clearly saw Dudley Zoo as a means of making up for this perceived lack.
The huge industrial population of these Midland districts, known collectively as the Black Country, lives a far duller life than southern workers; for amusement, the choice is more or less limited to the public house, the rather rare cinema, and the Saturday football match. Opportunities for outdoor recreation are almost non-existent.4

At Dudley, several of the enclosures are notable for the theatricality of their design and the ways in which they orchestrate the views of the animals. The Bear Ravine is arguably the most dramatic, utilising an abandoned quarry at the foot of the castle mound to maximum effect, with multilayered and projecting viewing terraces allowing the visitors a variety of views from a carefully choreographed series of vantage points. Where Dudley Zoo most clearly diverges from Stellingen and the 19th century zoos, is that it makes no attempt to simulate the animals’ natural habitats. The buildings at Dudley are constructed of crisply detailed concrete, with the juxtaposition of the animals against the expressive and ‘rational’ enclosures intended to heighten the spectacle of their antics. As with his earlier and highly acclaimed Gorilla House and Penguin Pool at London Zoo, he sought to create enclosures that would bring out the most extrovert and entertaining traits in each specie’s behaviour. This design objective was pursued without recourse to simulated wildernesses or the pretence of free-roaming wildlife. For Lubetkin, Dudley was to be an unashamed celebration of the zoo as spectacle and as articulation of a deeply held belief regarding human superiority.

In contrast, Billingham approaches the zoo enclosures as a literal and metaphorical ‘frame’ through which to view not just the animals themselves, but also the interactions of humans and animals in a modern, artificial environment. While the videos are the most overtly critical pieces in the exhibition, focusing on the repetitive behavioural traits to which many captive animals are susceptible, the works cannot be reduced to a simple statement. For the first public showing of the video works at Compton Verney in October 2006, Billingham selected a single photograph to accompany the series of video installations for the exhibition. This was Bear Pit, an image that is notable for the absence of an animal subject. The empty zoo enclosure seems perverse - shocking us into a realisation that this absence represents an affront to our expectation of spectacle. Our scopophilic gaze goes ungratified as the incompliant animal remains hidden or removed from view. The painstakingly realised fake rock face becomes the subject of the photograph, as much as the absent bear, a reminder of the physical manifestation of the zoo as contrived backdrop and scenery. It is notable that, the design of Lubetkin’s Gorilla House at London Zoo also makes express acknowledgement of this desire for spectacle, with the floor of the enclosure designed in such as way as to force the gorillas to move forwards, closer to the assembled viewers. But what Billingham’s images most often express is a sense of loss. We cannot help seeing these captive animals as reminders of a threatened and rapidly diminishing wilderness. The animals are cowed by their manmade environments and the incessant gazes of their spectators. To the contemporary viewer, to view captive animals through the frame of Lubetkin’s modernist enclosures is not to ‘affirm man’s hope to understand, to explain and to control his surroundings,’ but to bear witness to human hubris and short-sightedness.

Billingham’s work often conveys this strong sense of melancholy and his photographs of zoos present these institutions as strange anachronisms. These little-loved and sometimes reviled places appear as leftovers from another era, in which the acquisition and confinement of exotic animals in small man-made enclosures seemed not only normal but desirable. Billingham is expressing an instinctive and very contemporary disquiet about our relationship with animals and the natural world which zoos simply make more explicit. He identifies his own interest in this area as originating in a childhood fascination with natural history, developed through library books and television programmes and later on at university, through the reading and questioning of John Berger’s essay, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ The essay is a critique of what Berger perceives as the impetuses in a late capitalist society towards the marginalisation of animals and the natural world - corporate capitalism’s tendency to break ‘every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature’,5  Berger’s assumptions about the relationship between humans and animals in a pre-industrial society can seem nostalgic and problematic. Billingham openly expresses his reservations about Berger’s conclusions6 and despite the critical subtexts in his own work, Billingham often chooses to pull back to preoccupations with the formal aesthetic organisation of the picture. Like Lubetkin, the intention is – on a purely visual level - to use the enclosure to enhance the visual composition and “psychological charge” 7 experienced by the viewer. Billingham has repeatedly compared his compositional approach to that of the painter and uses this self-consciously mediating approach in some of his photographs to accentuate the sense of the animals as another incidental element within the image. In Lion II the enclosure is used as a compositional device that places the lion in a formal and painterly relationship with its surroundings. Billingham uses the stark visual contrast of the lion with its enclosure as a means of enriching his image. The implication is that the animal is secondary to the overall image and therefore, in line with Berger’s analysis, only half observed.

Although questioning the institution of the zoo, Billingham shares the viewer/audience’s fascination with the animals themselves and is at once enthralled and disturbed by their behaviour. But unlike Lubetkin, Billingham’s intention is to suggest a gaze that is neither exploitative, nor affects a rational neutrality. His images remind us of the loss of a world in which animals and humans are free to mutually regard each other and they also confront us with our own personal and collective attitudes to animals and nature. Zoo reassesses zoo enclosures using them as a critical frame, through which we are able to contemplate ways in which animal behaviour is altered by confinement and by subjection to an all-controlling and privileged total view. As the debate has moved away from ethological studies of animal behaviour, so the zoo’s significance as an institution through which we can illuminate our own understanding of our place in the world grows. The zoo is a relic of our colonial past, whose survival confronts us with unaddressed questions about our assumptions of superiority over the animal world. The examination of the power of mankind’s controlling gaze makes Billingham’s project a powerful contribution to a growing debate about the role of zoos in western, urban civilisation.

1 Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, Reacktion Books, London, 2004, p.246

2 News Chronicle, 16 November 1937

3 B. Lubetkin, from a letter to Dr. Monica Felton, 13 July 1947

4 From unpublished manuscript, ‘Dudley Zoo’, by Berthold Lubetkin

5 John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals’, in About Looking, Writers and Readers, London, 1984, pp 1-26

6 In conversation with the author, November 2006

7 In conversation with the author, November 2006.

Ben Flatman