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May 14, 2020

We Are the Alaskan Tourists: Feathered Polar Bears at Copenhagen’s ARKEN

Polar bears take on a vibrant aesthetic for Italian artist Paola Pivi’s collection We Are the Alaskan Tourists, showing between February 29 and September 20 at Denmark’s ARKEN museum.

The contemporary art museum is showing a broader exhibition of Animals in Art, featuring artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Bharti Kher, and Lisa Strömbeck alongside Pivi, but we at Casper & Casper are fascinated by the fusion of realism and fantasy found in Pivi’s bears. The life-sized animals are striking and bizarre, calling to mind questions of evolution, anthropomorphism, and the nature of animals.

Pivi’s tourists are fifteen bears all covered in bright feathers, some of whom are in the middle of distinctly human activities. From standing mid-conversation to enacting yoga and dance, the bears strike poses oddly familiar to us, though doubly out of place: the bears’ forms, features, and size are realistic to their wildlife counterparts, while the vivid pinks, greens, blues, and yellows are decidedly artificial. The interplay here between nature, artificiality, and humanity is beautifully expressed, asking us to consider what precisely is so odd in this intertwined embodiment. What is more like the other: the bears or the humans they imitate? The comparisons become stark in person as visitors can approach each bear and find that they tower above them. Is the predatory nature of the bear diminished or exacerbated by the unnaturally coloured feathers? The sheer size of the polar bear is intimidating; is it better or worse that these bears act like humans? All of the questions that the exhibit raises are unanswered by the artist, who ‘sees no purpose in explaining’ her art.

We Are the Alaskan Tourists is not an anomaly in Paola Pivi’s works: the Italian artist has made animals central to her pieces throughout her career, from photographing a crocodile eating whipped cream to having eighty-four goldfish fly across New Zealand on a passenger plane. The line between fantasy and reality becomes unclear through her explorations of perspectives on animals, as we can see with her polar bears. The relationship between animals and humans is at the core of these works, extracting animals from their natural environment and placing them in situations that are distinctly human, anthropomorphising the animals in ways that force the audience to consider the apparent juxtaposition between people and the natural world. Dancing polar bears sporting bright, gaudy coats of feathers is almost par for the course in Pivi’s world, and what you make of it is up to you.

While ARKEN is currently closed due to the global pandemic, they are offering virtual tours of the Animals in Art exhibit every Wednesday at 4pm and every Sunday at 2pm. Experts at ARKEN will discuss the exhibit’s works, focussing on themes of seeing, talking about, and consuming animals, as well as how we ‘understand ourselves through encounters with other species’. Attendees can ask questions an enter into a dialogue with others about the exhibit, making the tours fully interactive. While attendance is free, places are limited, so registration via email is required: find out the details here. If you don’t want to see the exhibit online, the good news is that ARKEN is reopening on June 9 – so if you’re in Copenhagen, you’re in luck!

Surrealism is a striking way to reflect on the real world through contradictions and inconsistencies. Paola Pivi’s We are the Alaskan Tourists helps us to examine our relationship to polar bears and animals like them, and we at Casper & Casper love the striking way Pivi has opened the conversation.

To learn more about ARKEN or Paola Pivi, visit the ARKEN website here and Pivi’s website here.

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