The Lost Rhino audio description and transcript
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The Lost Rhino: An Art Installation with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
In this installation, the artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg brings together four depictions of the rhinoceros. Together, these explore what it means for an animal to exist when it is on the verge of extinction and begins to live only in our imagination.
In 2018, the last male northern white rhino died. With just two females left behind, this subspecies, a subcategory of animals within a species, was condemned to extinction. In the hope that future technologies can bring the subspecies back, scientists have preserved cells from northern white rhinos. However, even if this becomes possible, it would pose ethical and philosophical questions. For example, would a northern white rhino that was created using technology and raised without its natural environment and social context be a genuine example of the animal? And would we value this constructed animal more than its ancestors, which humans hunted to extinction?
This installation contains beating heart cells grown from a dead northern white rhino and a widely reproduced yet inaccurate print of a rhino by artist Albrecht Dürer. These are followed by a digital recreation by the artist of a northern white rhino and a taxidermy rhino from the Museum’s scientific collections. These very different rhinos are all incomplete copies of the animal, created by humans. They ask if we value the idea of the rhino more than the animal itself, and are an urgent call to preserve the incredible diversity of life on our planet, before it is lost.
The installation is presented in the Jerwood gallery, which is one of the main galleries at the Natural History Museum. You enter the gallery through one of three sets of glass doors at the front. It’s a very large space, the length of around five buses from front to back, and roughly a third as wide as it is long. It has pale terracotta pillars, which are the colour of yellow-orange sand, lining the walls, and a panelled, arched ceiling stretching high overhead.
If you enter through the door on the left-hand side, the first part of the installation sits around seven metres in front of you once you step inside the gallery. It is a film projected onto a cloth screen, which is set within a larger rectangular structure made of scaffolding and covered with white fabric. The overall structure is roughly four metres high and nearly twice as wide. The film shows beating heart cells grown from one of the last northern white rhinos, Angalifu, who died in 2014. Scientists have preserved cells from northern white rhinos since 1979. Their ambition is to find a way to transform the stem cells into sperm and eggs. In the film, a translucent layer of small, irregular-shaped ovals ripples from right to left repeatedly, as if to the rhythm of a beating heart. Some parts are a dull shade of purple, and there are smaller patches that shine brightly, as if illuminated from within. The film is played on a loop, so that it never seems to begin or end.
If you move to the right side of the structure, the next structure is just over seven metres in front of you. The front is covered with grey fabric the colour of rainclouds. A long, wide display case, the length of two and a half beds, is set within it. Inside the display case, on the far left, is a copy of a famous print of a greater one-horned rhinoceros, which is also known as an Indian rhinoceros, by the artist Albrecht Dürer. The print is roughly the size of an A4 page and the original was made in 1515. Dürer created the image after reading a letter describing a rhino and possibly seeing a sketch, but had never seen one in the flesh, and so his version has inaccuracies. The animal has an extra horn on its back and is covered in armour, perhaps inspired by the decorative armour it was dressed in. Despite this, it was reproduced continually, fixing an idea of the rhino in people’s imagination, even as more became known about its appearance.
In the print, a rhino set within a rectangle takes up most of the page. There are five lines of small German text in a curling script set above, which describe the animal. The rhino is made up of black lines on a white background and is set side-on, facing to the right, with its head pointing to the ground. It has a mournful, downcast expression and stands upon bare stony ground, with very little of its surroundings visible. It is covered in plated armour shaped to its body, decorated with many tiny ovals set within larger shapes, and a pointed breastplate sits under its neck. Four scaly legs protrude from underneath and a large, curved horn emerges from its nose, with a much smaller horn spiralling up from where its neck joins its back. The animal is clearly recognisable as a rhino, despite the inaccuracies.
The rest of the display case contains four similar images of rhinos set within historical books. These prints, from the next 200 years, are examples of the legacy of Dürer’s print. Moving left to right, the first book is from an encyclopaedia of natural history and shows an image of a rhino identical to Dürer’s, except it is facing the other way. The second book shows a similar but less detailed and much smaller rhino in a barren desert landscape alongside several other animals, including an elephant and a crocodile. The third book shows a simplified version, with the rhino standing to the right of a wild boar, within a much smaller book. Finally, at the top of the page of the final book is an even more simplified version of the animal in a smaller scale. This is sketched out with rougher lines and the animal has a more abstract face.
If you move to the left-hand side of the structure, there is a bench just over five metres in front of you. An additional three and a half metres beyond the bench is the next component of the installation, which is the main artwork. It is called The Substitute and is a film created by artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Here, the film is projected onto a fabric screen over three metres high and five metres wide, set towards the back of a larger structure made of black fabric and white scaffolding. It shows a rhino-like, rhino-sized form made up of large, rapidly moving pixels that materialise into an empty, white room. Its distorted noises can be heard as it walks in circles around the limited space. Gradually the pixels become smaller, and the animal takes on a more lifelike appearance, eventually resolving into a crystal-clear image of a northern white rhino. Leathery, mud-coloured skin creases down its body and two pointed horns sit on its face, one roughly the length of one of its legs, and the other much shorter. By this point, its noises have become clear and realistic. Towards the end of the film, the rhino faces the viewer, lowers its head, stamps and snorts, before continuing to turn, as if searching for a way out. Finally, it disappears, leaving only an empty room.
With the subspecies nearing extinction, Ginsberg brought the animal to life digitally, informed by developments in artificial intelligence and rare research footage capturing the rhino’s sounds and behaviours. An artificial being created using technology, this rhino is a substitute for those that existed in the real world from a soon-to-disappear subspecies. But alone and away from its natural context, it does not look or behave like the original. Instead of representing human knowledge and power, like the rhinos in the previous display case, this version reveals all that has been lost through the destruction of nature.
Now move forward around three and a half metres, and find yourself at a corner of the structure. If you move around thirteen and a half metres forward and around two metres to the right from here, you will find yourself at the final part of the installation. This is a taxidermy southern white rhino, set inside a glass display case lined with deep pink fabric at the back, top and sides. The rhino is around one and a half metres tall and three metres long, and is the pale grey colour you might expect a rhino to be. Its side and profile are visible through the front wall of the display case, and it stands with its head lowered. It has several deep wrinkles creasing vertically along its body, and many more shallow ones on its face and around its eyes. Like the rhino in The Substitute, it has a long, curving horn on the end of its nose, almost as long as one of its legs, and a shorter, straight horn just behind.
This taxidermy southern white rhino is many things. It is a member of the subspecies of rhino most closely related to the northern white, which this installation focuses on. The southern white may perform a role in possible future ‘de-extinction’ attempts, as a surrogate parent. It is a specimen in this Museum’s collections, used in research for the scientific value of its skin and physical form. It is a dead animal, killed by a British man and his assistant in Zimbabwe more than 100 years ago, to be displayed in a museum. It is an artefact, usually on display in our Mammals gallery. Its skin and shape may make it appear more like a rhino than the other objects in the room, but in its current lifeless, context-less state, it is yet another incomplete picture created by humans.
Finally, move to the back of the display case and then forward around two and a half metres, to reach the doors at the back of the gallery. You can exit through these.
The Lost Rhino: an Art Installation with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
The Lost Rhino is a free display that explores extinction, conservation and technology. Focused around three depictions of a rhino, each of them imperfect in their own way, the display examines our relationship with endangered species.
Opens 16 December