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April 10 - May 15, 2004 at the Bank, Downtown

by Anne Martens

“Elephants/Rhinoceri, Stuttgart,"
2000, c-print, 48 x 60”.

“Giraffes, Berlin," 2002,
c-print, 48 x 60".

“Big Cats, Stuttgart," 2001,
c-print, 48 x 60".

"Elephants, Basel," 2001,
c-print, 48 x 60"

“Big Cats, Karlsruhe,"
2001, c-print, 48 x 60".
German photographer Michael Schnabel’s large-format images of zoo interiors in Germany and Switzerland resonate with a minimalist beauty, which oddly emphasizes their mid-century modernist architecture.

The photograph entitled Elephants/Rhinoceri, Stuttgart is one of the most striking examples of Schnabel’s eye for symmetry, light and color. An aqua wading pool patinaed by algae takes up the bottom half of the image. Cool light from windows high up floods the top half, washing the concrete walls in pale blue. Centered in the composition is a tan-colored observation deck that overlooks the pool.

Like Elephants/Rhinoceri, Stuttgart, some of the spaces Schnabel photographed resemble indoor spas rather than cages. Some even have elements that suggest a posh lifestyle, such as an ornately tiled floor or wood slatted ceiling. In other pictures, even the metal bars form appealing, grid-like patterns.

Schnabel’s design sensibility is well supported by his technical competence, honed through his profession as a commercial photographer and artist working in Europe. Like The Cage Series some of his earlier work masterfully suggests mood, like a series in which he focused on mountains viewed from above at night. Schnabel’s formalist aesthetic is so visually seductive that one is tempted to simply overlook any meanings associated with the subject matter. In the Cage Series, fortunately there are plenty of poignant clues.

For one thing, there’s an overwhelming feeling of empty space, leading one to notice the conspicuous absence of the animals that are supposed to be living there. There are traces indicative of their presence--food troughs, bales of hay, wading pools, simulated habitats with logs and foliage. The photographs’ titles don’t give away what types of animals inhabit these spaces; one can only guess. Schnabel photographed in the early daylight hours when they were asleep. The stillness is soothing but unnatural, so you begin to wonder what it would be like to live there.

Many species of animals in zoos--especially in antiquated, traditional ones--are adversely affected by confinement. Research has pointed to boredom, loneliness, frustration, and agitation as major problems. The pictures show that there isn’t much to stimulate activity--a few listless logs form a gym; shallow stairs lead to puddles of water. There is barely enough space to pace back and forth. Apparently animals don’t like their privacy invaded any more than humans do because anxiety levels increase with greater exposure.

In Schnabel’s images, the feeling of being observed is palpable--the architecture is designed so that animals are constantly on display: Note the floor-to-ceiling window, cages on platforms several feet high, observation decks. The many bars and trap doors underscore a prison-like atmosphere. Even pastel colors and stainless steel can conjure a hospital or psych ward setting. It is ironic that Visitors, Stuttgart appears to show the opposite side of the same room depicted in Elephants/Rhinoceri, Stuttgart, offering not the promise of freedom suggested by windows, but the reality of confinement behind bars.

You notice such things more, though, when you actively look for them. Because the photographs are so design-conscious, Schnabel doesn’t seem to be making a political statement. Yet it’s that ambiguity between visual formalism and implied meaning that makes them powerful. What’s most fascinating is a perspective that is simultaneously that of a caged animal and a human observer.