Gabriela Bettini

Topografía del Borrado - Gabriela Bettini

Painting, for Gabriela Bettini, is an integral part of social discourse, a place for visually shaping mental processes. Her Topografía del borrado acts like a magnifying glass on our understanding of nature, refracting our environmental references and their interpretation. Issues of power, dependence, and identity have always crystallized in the aesthetic, practical, and conceptual dispute about nature and its properties. The artist draws the eye to the potency of established world views and creates experimental spaces for new narratives with a different outlook on the world.


In her new series of works, Gabriela Bettini explores the concept of nature on which the mimetic make-believe habitats of natural-history dioramas are based. Habitat dioramas enter into an illusionary play with three-dimensional objects in the foreground that merge with painted scenes in the background. Objectivity and imagination, scientific insight and artistic creativity interlock in these nature scene replicas to produce a lifelike impression of pristine nature. Although committed to scientific realism, they illustrate an idyllic nature that never existed as such. In the late 19th and early 20th century, natural history museums in the USA and Europe turned to this medium that nonchalantly merged science and art and promised a didactic impetus with its wide popularity and its graphic descriptiveness. Many institutions provided hunters, taxidermists, landscape painters, set designers, and electricians with lavish means to conduct costly expeditions and realize the elaborate sceneries. Dioramas, often described as «windows on nature»[i], are in fact very material constructions. Taxidermied animals are set into a deceptively real-looking natural surrounding re-created with technical resources: rigid in death, domesticated for safe, enjoyable consumption.


Gabriela Bettini takes interest in the anatomy of these scenes behind glass, in their construction design, and their visual strategies and methods. The artist conceptually starts from historical black-and-white photos documenting the making of the spectacular habitat dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.[ii] The impressive nature representations in her painted adaptations, including the blanks she leaves, turn out to be not merely settings, but rather reflection surfaces that give access to the subliminal, to the subtext. Topografía del borrado pursues the deconstruction of illusion to reveal that the dilemma of dioramas is far beyond being purely aesthetic. Already in the 1980s, the US-American historian of science and ecofeminist Donna Haraway examined 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 debunks dioramas as «meaning-machines» in the service of a modern evolutionary discourse whose values they re-enact: paternalism, racism, and sexism.[iii]


By focusing on nature representations, scientific techniques of musealization, and presentation, Gabriela Bettini reflects the codification of nature as a political, technological, and historico-cultural matter. The artist takes a critical look at knowledge concepts in natural history that are based on the assumption of nature and humans being separate. Binary thinking—nature on one side, culture and humans on the other—has always been a guiding difference characteristic of Western thought. 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. Against the backdrop of the massive appropriation of natural resources and landscapes, the question arises: How can knowledge about nature be obtained and conveyed as long as we believe in human supremacy? Gabriela Bettini explicitly points to links between social understandings of nature, gender relations, and different systems of exploitation and economic appropriation of resources as reviewed and analyzed by ecofeminist researchers since the 1970s (for instance, by Carolyne Merchant, Donna Haraway, Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva, or Alicia Puelo). From the feminist ecological perspective, the subjugation and appropriation of nature is a prerequisite for capitalist patriarchal dominance worldwide.


In Gabriela Bettini's works, the stuffed animals as the actual protagonists of habitat dioramas have disappeared long ago from the artificial stage of life. With regard to real life, it is remarkable how soon many an institution—formerly having legitimized hunting and killing in the service of science and preservation while on the lookout for the perfect exhibition specimen—has today become the burial place of the last remains of an endangered or meanwhile even extinct species. As displays of humankind's power over the world, dioramas embody the insane and unconditional desire to collect the entire knowledge available at a given time in one single spot. Dioramas are ultimately windows on the world, mirrors of an outdated reality concept that no longer suits today's times. Gabriela Bettini's alternative dioramas offer an opportunity to rethink the consequences of the «Monocultures of the Mind» (Vandana Shiva) and the possibilities for a new ethics of partnership among humans and between humanity and nature.




Katrin Steffen



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

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] 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