Eco-Visionaries at the Royal Academy – The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg


The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Dear Readers, last week I visited the Royal Academy to see their Eco-Visionaries exhibition. Although there were several installations that piqued my interest, I was drawn to one room by the sound of snorting and the thunder of feet. What was going on? When I arrived, there was just a huge white room, taking up a whole wall.

And then, there was this.

I watched, spellbound, as a mass of pixellated bricks fizzed and vibrated until they formed the shape of a large animal.

And when it finally settled, a life-sized Northern White Rhino looked out into the room.

He shook himself and started to explore his environment, snuffling and huffing as he went. Although I knew that he wasn’t ‘real’, I was intimidated by his size and physicality. He came to a wall, backed up, stamped, whinnied. This was not an animal that was happy to be contained.

And then, he disappeared.

The piece is a great illustration of the way that we bring ourselves to everything. On one level, I read this as being about the millenia of evolution  that went into creating an animal as extraordinary as a northern white rhino, and how it has been snuffed out by us in the blink of an eye. But how could I not also see it as a metaphor for a human life: all the richness of experience and learning that goes into making an individual, and how abruptly it ends?

It turns out that Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, the artist who made this piece (called ‘The Substitute’) had quite a different theme in mind. Her work often explores the links between bio-technology and the natural world. She is intrigued by the way that human beings are constantly seeking to ‘better’ the world, and in ‘The Substitute’ she is examining the possibility of bringing the northern white rhino back to life using genetic implantation into a different subspecies. I was moved to hear that the sounds were taken from the only known recording of a northern white rhino herd. As she says on her website, 

On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real? 

The Substitute explores a paradox: our preoccupation with creating new life forms, while neglecting existing ones.

When I hear about people hoping to resurrect the mammoth by implanting DNA extracted from corpses found in the Siberian permafrost into the wombs of Asian elephants I shake my head in disbelief. All this effort and money spent on bringing a creature back from the dead when we could be using our resources to preserve the species that we do have! It feels like hubris to me, of which we humans have an abundance. When I saw this lone creature, bemused by finding himself alone, in a white box, it touched me so deeply that I have to admit that I cried. There is not better way to get a whole exhibit to yourself than to openly display emotion.

If you want to see the whole video, you can watch it here. I would love to know what you think.

Art should make us think and feel, and this does both. I find myself pondering on its significance even now, a week later. The white room at the beginning and the end of the film is objectively the same thing, but how different they feel! At the start, viewing that emptiness filled me with excitement and a little apprehension – what was going on here? But the emptiness at the end of the film, when the rhino is gone, has a completely different feeling, of enormous loss and sadness. However, it is also filled with the memory of what was there before, and it inspired in me a feeling that that which is lost should not have died for nothing. As we enter a new world in the UK following the results of the election, it occurs to me that there is still much  to fight for, to protect and to preserve.The empty room is waiting. It is up to us to choose what to put into it.

You can read more about the Eco-Visionaries exhibition at the Royal Academy here.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s website is here, and I find her work most intriguing. I particularly like her work on the Wilding of Mars, which is currently on at the ‘Moving to Mars‘ exhibition at the Design Museum in London.


9 thoughts on “Eco-Visionaries at the Royal Academy – The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

  1. Anne

    Thank you for exposing me to this exhibition. It resonates with me as our white rhino are under tremendous pressure from poaching – resulting in the loss of lives of both animals and people and using enormous financial and other resources for protection.


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