Gabriela Bettini

Windows on the World - Derivada

Windows on the World


The inquisitive exploration of the world is an interest shared by art and science alike. While the two disciplines may take different approaches to explaining nature, they still cross paths at many different levels, as they have in the past and continue to in the present. Both art and science rely on methods of presentation; science, like art, has a productive character in that it creates model worlds and worldviews.


A result of an audience-attracting alliance between scientific and artistic concepts are the life-size habitat dioramas that have been on display for over a century in natural history museums around most of the world. The art of the landscape painter and the craft of the taxidermist meet in these dioramas, where preserved animals are presented in naturalistic landscape settings. Gabriela Bettini is interested in concepts of the world and the self, of nature and culture, ultimately in concepts of aesthetics and modernity, which are subliminally inscribed into the peculiar showcases that find their context between art, science, and entertainment. With their suggestive powers undaunted, dioramas, often described as «windows on nature»[1], function and fascinate as vehicles for aesthetic daydream journeys into an accurately measured world.


Gabriela Bettini examines the anatomy of these scenes behind glass, their construction design, and their visual strategies and methods. She particularly focuses on the backdrop, which is always created first in dioramas. The actual painting process is preceded by field studies documented in drawings, photographs and zoological studies. The resulting naturalistic panorama painting of the habitat is then arranged on a semicircular canvas. In her presentation, the artist concretely refers to historical black-and-white photos from the 1940s depicting the making of the Wapiti diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.[2] The impressive nature representation in her artistic adaptation turns out to be not merely a setting, but rather a reflection surface that also gives access to the subtext. The idealized memory-image, which reminds us of a nature that is endangered or already lost – and, strictly speaking, never existed as such –, has evolved to a thought-image, where the claim to truth and objectivity of the natural sciences is on trial.


In her work, the artist takes a critical look at knowledge concepts in natural history that are based on the assumption of nature and humans being separate. The degradation of nature to a mere machine of production and reproduction at the service of humans is inseparably linked to the history of the European sciences. In the feminist ecological perspective, the subjugation and appropriation of nature is a prerequisite for capitalist patriarchal dominance worldwide. Already in the 1980s, the US-American historian of science and ecofeminist Donna Haraway examined the spectacular habitat dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History from the first half of the 20th century. She pointed out how the seductive realism and authoritative credibility of the scenes cast the «teddy bear patriarchy» of their time of creation along with their outdated gender hierarchy into the present. Haraway debunked dioramas as «meaning-machines» in the service of a modern evolutionary discourse whose values they re-enact: paternalism, racism, and sexism.[3]


Dioramas ultimately represent the power of humans over the world; they are mirrors of an outdated reality concept that no longer suits today's times. Gabriela Bettini's works offer an opportunity to critically scrutinize traditional scientific views of the world and to rethink the possibilities for a new ethics of partnership among humans and between humanity and nature.


Katrin Steffen


[1] Stephen Christopher Quinn, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, New York 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Donna Haraway, Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936. Social Text 11, Winter 1984–85.


Katrin Steffen. 2020