“HEY THERE, TIGER!” by IRENE FENARA at UNA [from 20210220 to 20210515]

[Photos: UNA]

Tiger’s lampoons

“In front of a tiger there’s no space for name dropping” Moira Orfei stated in an interview in 2008, taking a rather critical position towards the world of cinema back then, a world made of recommendations and favouritisms. Full of pride, the Italian circus diva knew how to hold her nerves in front of an animal whose aggressive character has always been a source of fright, while, at the same time, has never ceased to fascinate us.

In recent years the visual imaginary associated with the tiger has gone global and has become stereotyped: a whole series of pop citations and remediations of the feline is now extending across the boundless territories of the visual realm. Moreover, it should be made clear that the most popular representations and symbols of the tiger in the common imagination all look alike. In the ‘60s, American critic Leo Steinberg would have defined them as “lampoons”: fragments, reductions to the minimum terms of an original masterpiece. “Tigers” are fierce and majestic animals, often associated with an idea of vigour and more or less benign stamina. For instance, this happens to the promotional mascot of Kellogg’s, that stoutly keeps its arms crossed on the front side of the Frosties cereal box, as well as to the Disney character Shere Khan, the archenemy in the misadventures of Mowgli the man-cub, in the animated movie The Jungle Book. Sometimes tigers are summarised in a few lines with a cartoonish flavour, such as in the famous Tiger sweatshirt by fashion brand Kenzo or in the case of Formaggino Tigre (a famous italian brand of mini cheese portions, N.d.T.), or even turned into a comic such as in the acclaimed Calvin & Hobbes , where the co-protagonist is a stuffed tiger. In very rare cases an exotic touch is also superimposed - I am thinking for instance to the logo of the Hampstead herbal tea -, the same one that we casually see on passion fruit ice cream packs, printed with banana leaves and mango graphics (associated to it, who knows why).

Being a paper tiger

An expression that also reappeared in the recent history of Italian politics, “being a paper tiger” has originated from a strange anecdote. In 1946 Mao Zedong, then head of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, issued a statement to American journalist Anna Louise Strong, arguing that every reactionary was nothing but a paper tiger, meaning an only apparent threat.

The nature of this statement seems to have played a dirty trick on this species, thanks to the proliferation of ever more anthropomorphic and human-centered representations in visual culture, far from a faithful and respectful knowledge of the feline. Very recent examples in such direction have appeared in the world of television entertainment, just think of the phenomenon Tiger King, the 2020 Netflix docuseries where the ego of protagonist Joe Exotic seems to embody the split personality of Tiger-Man. The feline superhero had been in turn transformed into a trashed parody during the Mediaset tv show Avanti un altro!, where the presenter Paolo Bonolis sensationalised a man wearing a brindle plush cape.

Few people know that there are just over three thousand tiger specimens left in the wild, yet this endangered animal is in the eyes of everyone. So much so it is the first in the ranking of the most loved animal on the web. Simultaneously a curious and sad circumstance.

Second hand fauna

Reflecting on the relationship between digital and natural, Three Thousand Tigers by Irene Fenara uncovers such background idiosyncrasy. Aiming for a greater awareness of our ecosystem, as well as of the status of images, the project overturns the current media imaginary from within. Fenara collected a dataset of three thousand images found online, corresponding to the number of tigers left in the world. However, “3000” is not a sufficient amount to feed the generative algorithm that the artist had applied to produce the work. Actually, this algorithm requires millions of data to start building an image efficiently: in order to be able to improve, it must first learn and understand (what is technically known as “training”). Therefore, the result is a failure, but only if we look at it from a technological and progressive point of view. In fact, the artificial intelligence that the artist employed has generated a poorly defined image, almost an impressionist one in pictorial terms. An image able to evoke, thanks to the iridescent effect of silk fabric, the very bright and saturated colours of our screens. The image has been in turn transformed into a rug, an object recalling not just the tapestry tradition that often included representations of wild beasts, but also a taste for animal hides which were widespread in the rooms imbued with exoticism during the colonial era (and that are back in fashion since a few years ago).

Consistently revealing the chain of “feline short circuits”, once ascertained that India was the country with the highest tiger population, Fenara has commended the meticulous process of weaving to the craftsmen of Uttar Pradesh, the Indian State where the percentage of male citizens is the highest. Through the creation of tapestries, the artist has chosen to confer to the subject, which appears digitized and pixelated, a physical tangibility (albeit with low resolution). Hence, it has generated full-fledged specimens of a new species. Furthermore, the braiding technique typical of weaving operates in a similar way to the binary code the algorithm is based upon. 

The project Three Thousand Tigers gives birth to a whole new digital fauna. Departing from the idea of generating “new tigers”, it paves the way to a reflection on human-animal relationships. A bond to be entirely deconstructed and re-thought in the era of the economy of presence, today more than ever in a digital sense of the word. In order to describe such phenomena, we should rather start talking of a “second hand fauna”, as the writer Davide Coppo has called it. It would be simplistic to conceive such dichotomy as a plain contrast between nature, culture and human kind: encouraging the concept of an untouched and pure nature sounds now anachronistic. Such vision is also the result of a misunderstanding that arose years ago about what’s natural and what’s not (even our smartphones and computers require silicon for their chips and cobalt for us to type on their keyboards).

Poor images, poor tigers

If these few lines weren’t enough to raise awareness on the importance of an increased perception of the nature of the digital imaginary of the tiger - and of its being interconnected with the concept of nature itself - it will suffice to know that such fascinating animal which “is burning bright” - to put it in William Blake’s words - has been at the center of a macho and linguistic debate in Italy back in 1967. The cause was an advertisement for Esso fuels stating “Metti un tigre nel motore”, using the Italian masculine article “un” before a generally accepted female term, maybe to reinforce its manliness.

In one of the video advertisements available on YouTube, when the engine roars, the tiger’s tail disappears inside the gas tank, to vanish at full speed on the tarmac. As it happens in Three Thousand Tigers the animal dissolves, however its image is endlessly regenerated. A process of spoilage of the “original” species and, at the same time, of constant production of new visual subjects. A process that can be found also in the theory of poor images proposed by artist and theorist Hito Steyerl. As she puts it: “The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is low, its resolution below substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea”. In a similar fashion, the project Three Thousand Tigers discloses the nature of a feline star, that is blinded by digital spotlights thus becoming a ghostly presence. Deprived of its recognisable image – its changing form placed between now and elsewhere – as it appears in its rarefied character it loses its consistency, while simultaneously it reaffirms itself.

Moreover, when we talk about tigers, we usually find ourselves having to deal with cameras, both through the spectacular caricatures of the animal in the context of TV programmes and in the most noble documentaristic intentions of wildlife reportage. A reality that is also part of another strand of Fenara’s project, conceived in parallel with the tapestries through a research methodology that is rather common for the artist, based on the observation of the surrounding reality through surveillance cameras. The artist steals from the mechanical eye some video frames where tigers have been captured across the globe, both in the wild and in captivity. A research process that employs the web and digital technologies, but that ends up finding its roots in the very contact with planet Earth. Natural “life” is reflected and regenerated into the artificial one, and vice versa. Through tapestries with vibrant colours and black and white photographs, the project Three Thousand Tigers seems to suggest the need - nowadays a latent one - of an as-inclusive-aspossible integration of digital data into our natural condition. “What a pity not to be a tiger” fantasises Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges during an afternoon conversation with Alberto Manguel, colleague and author of the memoir With Borges.

Like in a dream, we don’t see the real tiger anymore, but we can feel the bodily presence it has left us.

[Text: Irene Sofia Comi]

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