by Seán Vicary
music and sound design: Richard Lewis
1. the practice and science (study) of classification of things or concepts, including the principles that underlie such classification
2. a field of science that encompasses the description, identification, nomenclature, and classification of organisms
Taxonomy is a fictive exploration of the life and works of Victorian naturalist Edmund Selous that questions our human-centric viewpoint and continued valuing of the quantifiable above the subjective when dealing with the natural world.
The animation takes place within an imagined museum display case, and a succession of evolving specimens embody different aspects of the Selous story, representing: pioneering ethological naturalist Edmund, his famous big-game hunting brother Frederick and their shared love interest Fanny Maxwell.
This triangle of courtship, love and opposing attitudes to nature is played out through the digital collaging and animating of 19th Century engravings, including illustrations from works by both Selous brothers.
Edmund Selous (1857 -1934) was a key pioneer in the ethological study of animals, specifically of bird behavior, introducing the term ‘bird-watching’ into the English language. Valuing “fresh observation” over dissection he actively corroborated Darwin’s controversial theories of sexual selection and female choice. He urged his colleagues to “lay down the gun and take up the glasses”; this outspoken approach earned him the enmity of his peers and also set him up in direct opposition to his elder brother Frederick.
Frederick Courtney Selous was a big-game hunter, explorer, army officer and celebrated Victorian pin-up. A friend of Cecil Rhodes and Theodore Roosevelt, he played an important role in the exploration and colonisation of Africa, inspiring author Rider Haggard’s character of Alan Quartermain. His bronze bust stands in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London, the collection housing 524 mammals shot by Frederick, including 19 lions. His tally of 106 Elephant kills was described as ‘modest’ when judged by the standards of his day.
Both brothers shared an early passion for collecting bird eggs, and also a later passion for the same women; Fanny Maxwell.
Although Fanny admitted that Frederick was the more attractive of the two brothers she chose to marry Edmund. Perhaps this was a pay off for the many months Edmund spent in site-specific observation of sexual selection and courtship display.
I’m fascinated by how the stories we tell ourselves have the power to shape our lives and wider society. Taxonomy reflects this through its appropriation and re-purposing of historical material to create a new cyclic narrative of observation and industrialised violence.