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Metropolis / Snapshots from the Center of the Universe

Into the Wild

March 28, 2004|MARK EDWARD HARRIS

Peter Beard describes his career as "escapism through collage, books, diaries and anthropology." The photographer, artist and environmentalist might add "travel" to the list, having spent more than half of his 66 years traveling between New York and Africa, the inspiration for many of his controversial artworks. Following his graduation from Yale in 1961, Beard moved to Kenya, where he began a working relationship with Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote "Out of Africa" and other works. Soon he was focusing his camera on the devastation of Africa's wildlife. While he has done fashion spreads and glamour portraits, Beard is best known for his stunning, often horrific photo polemics against the destruction of the natural world. His exhibition, "Living Sculpture," runs through April 17 at the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles.

What about Africa exerts such a pull on you?

How about no underwear, no socks, no cellphones, no undershirts, no tragic accouterments of the galloping rot? I still have a house in Kenya and will keep going back until I die.

Your apocalyptic 1965 work "The End of the Game" documented the destruction of thousands of Kenyan elephants and predicted a dire fate for wildlife as well as humans. How have those arguments fared?

Everything was absolutely accurate. The evidence is in on the elephant. We are next in line. We are obliterating the global habitat with our fecundity. Every single species expands until limiting factors are required. AIDS is a classic density-related disease. SARS, Ebola, there are going to be many more. All the signs are there, the fall-off in behavior, the competition for diminishing resources, the overwhelming disregard for population dynamics, the animals we squeeze, the diversity we destroy, the franchise mania, the disrespect for the laws of nature. Everybody thinks I'm a conservationist. All my work is trying to show the mismanagement, the lack of conservation. The whole idea of "human nature" makes me want to barf. The oxymoron of the century, human nature.

But what could be done about devastation of that magnitude?

Education. It took us millions of years to get a population of 1 billion in about 1850, give or take 10 years, and we're now adding [close to] a billion every decade, and no one is even talking about it. We're not teaching biology. We're not educating ourselves to survive. Nothing to do with evolution, Darwin population dynamics, population management, long-term thinking or anything.

Like your diaries, your photos are often decorated with collages, drawings, writing, found objects and painting in materials that include animal blood. Where do you get your scrapbook approach to creativity?

I'm not an artist, I'm an escapist. Nobody in art school is artistic; they're all doing art homework. They're always copying somebody. There is no originality, no development of one's own nervous system. So I started developing [my diaries]. I've done them since my school days. I guess it's just an awareness of the pettiness and futility of each day. You sometimes wonder where the hell you're going. It clarifies thought. It's life-thickening.

What about the blood?

Everybody always says, 'Why do you use blood?' To me it's so much richer and so much more beautiful than paint or ink.

Your current photo show, "Living Sculpture," sounds like a departure from 1999's "Stress and Density," which exuded ecological outrage. Does environmental destruction remain a preoccupation?

It relates to my show in this way. Karen Blixen said, "Once the wildlife is gone, the next biggest thrill will be found in the middle of the biggest cities." Living sculptures. Whatever the substitute is for the destruction of nature. The domestication of absolutely everything. "Best in Show." That's where we are. "Get those ears up." These stupid little frilly things with their ridiculous haircuts.

You also shoot fashion and the rich and infamous. How do international jet-setters compare as photo subjects with African wildlife ?

Well, there are very few of them that can compare. It's quite a business appearing on the Pleistocene landscape and surviving.

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