Friday, November 24, 2006 News - Latest News - Artists track every stuffed polar bear in UK

Artists track every stuffed polar bear in UK

By Paul Majendie

LONDON, Nov 24 (Reuters Life!) - Two artists prowled the country in search of stuffed polar bears -- and uncovered 34 of the proud Arctic icons discarded in stockrooms or languishing in stately homes.

The result is "Great White Bear" -- a new photo exhibition that explores mankind's fascination with the magnificent creatures and underlines the fragility of their future.

Mark Wilson and his Icelandic partner Bryndis Snaebjornsdottir -- her name means Snow Bear's Daughter --- spent three years tracking down and photographing their elusive quarry everywhere from dusty museum basements to a hotel's glass showcase.

Depending on the whim of the taxidermist, some stand proud, reared up to their full height, snarling in fury. One poses with a seal pup between his paws, another even gets used as a lampstand.

They were brought to Britain by aristocratic explorers, mapping expeditions and whalers who had no compunction about killing up to 50 bears on a hunt.

Today the Polar Bear faces an even more perilous future in a melting sea that is being inexorably diminished by global warming across the Arctic, with environmentalists petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the bears as threatened because of the new difficulties they face.

"They are used to swimming 60 miles a day. Now they have to swim so much further to find sea ice from which they are able to hunt. So, as a result, many of them drown," Wilson said.

"We felt as many responses photographing the bears as viewers feel looking at the pictures," he told Reuters in an interview to mark the exhibition at London's Horniman Museum.

"There is very real pathos when you think how many were shot on a single expedition. Some were just shot and left there," he said.

"The settings for the stuffed bears are cluttered and decrepit, sometimes farcical. They set off uncomfortable little triggers when you look at the photos."

But are there any more stuffed polar bears languishing out there in some forgotten corner of a musty attic?

"The show has had a massive amount of publicity in the newspapers and we have had a couple of contacts by e-mail. Two more have come to light," Wilson said.

The photos lining two walls of the Horniman certainly do stir strong emotions -- and above all a poignant sense of regret over the cavalier way mankind can treat marvels of nature.

The Times, reviewing the exhibition, said: "The images send a chilling premonitory frisson down the spine. This is a species in the process of being junked."

And Wilson agreed: "The Polar Bear is in dire danger. There is no doubt of that. It is very iconic and acts as a kind of barometer for the Arctic itself."

(c) Reuters 2006

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