Slate's artist of the month.
Welcome to Slate's "Gallery." To supplement our regular art criticism, Slate offers this monthly feature that showcases art we think is worth taking a look at. The slide show is selected by Mia Fineman, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who writes regularly for Slate. (We'll have some guest curators, too.) Slate "Galleries" are wide-ranging, with an emphasis on exciting new video and digital art—the kind of art that is hard to reproduce in print magazines.
There's something appealingly odd about Harri Kallio's color photographs of dodos in their lush natural habitat, beginning with the fact that they depict a species that went extinct about 150 years before photography was invented. Kallio, a Finnish artist whose previous work includes photographic portraits of moths, first started thinking about the dodo when he reread Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and noticed John Tenniel's famous drawings of the brawny bird with its tiny wings and enormous hooked beak. "I couldn't help but laugh," Kallio recalls in the introduction to his own book, The Dodo and Mauritius Island: Imaginary Encounters. "Somehow it was hard to believe that once upon a time there really had been something like the Dodo out there in the world."
The dodo was a large, flightless bird driven to extinction after the Dutch settled its native Mauritius, a previously uninhabited island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in 1598. With no natural predators, the dodo was not only flightless but fearless, and this made it easy prey for hunters, who unfairly mocked the bird's obtuseness. (The word dodo comes from the Portuguese doudo, * meaning stupid. Nowadays, we would call it "ecologically naive.") Contributing to the dodo's demise were the invasive species the Dutch brought with them—dogs, pigs, rats, and monkeys—who plundered the land-dwelling bird's nests while the settlers destroyed its forest habitat. By 1693, less than 100 years after the Dutch arrived, the dodo had completely disappeared.
Kallio's curiosity about this long-extinct bird led him to Oxford University's libraries and the Natural History Museum in London, where he discovered that nobody could agree on what the dodo actually looked like. The anatomical and fossil remains are scant, eye-witness accounts are vague and contradictory, and few of the painters who depicted the dodo from the 17th century onward ever saw a live specimen. Though several dodos were shipped to Europe, they arrived in terrible shape—awkward and overweight from an unnatural diet and long confinement in cramped cages—and this cemented the bird's reputation as a fat, clumsy oddity. The decaying remains of the last complete stuffed dodo burned in a fire at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum in 1755.
Fascinated by this mysterious creature, Kallio decided to create his own visual reconstruction of the dodo in its natural habitat. "My idea," he writes, "was not so much to carry out a scientific reconstruction, but rather to place back into the landscape of Mauritius the Dodo of Alice in Wonderland—a character faithful to its appearances in art history, a character that is part myth and part real."
Kallio constructed two life-sized sculptural models of the dodo—a male and a female—with adjustable aluminum skeletons, silicon rubber heads, and bodies covered in swan and goose feathers. With the two models stuffed into a large backpack, he traveled around Mauritius and photographed the birds in various remote locations where the landscape still looks more or less the way it did in the 17th century.
In the photographs, the dodos stand alone or in pairs, often gazing out at the viewer as if surprised by the sudden appearance of a strange creature from another world. Since there were only two models, Kallio had to construct group scenes by making multiple exposures and stitching them together in seamless digital montages. Nonetheless, the photographs feel closer to the low-fi fakery of natural-history dioramas than to the slick illusionism of Jurassic Park. With their stubby wings, masklike faces, and bright orange legs and beaks, Kallio's dodos look sad, silly, and provisional, like bad copies of a lost original.
Thanks to the recent discovery of the preserved bones of about 20 dodos buried in a swamp in Mauritius, science may soon give us a much more accurate picture of what the dodo looked like. But we may still turn to the consolations of art like Kallio's when we remember that this strange and wonderful creature is never coming back.
Mia Fineman is a writer and curator in New York.