Curators’ Statement: The Problem of Describing Life


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The challenge of describing life is that it is a concept with no clear substance. Life describes a process which cannot be seen or apprehended directly, we can only see its effects.

In Systema Naturæ, Carl Liineaus developed a taxonomic system to describe life. The first edition (1735) was 12 pages long and contained three tables that readers could consult to identify plants, animals, and minerals. The tables grouped specimens according to their physical characteristics and classified them within a nested hierarchical ranking: eg. kingdoms, classes, orders, genera, and species. The tables were clear and stable enough that new specimens could be added easily and consistently. The goal was to create a database that would describe all life on Earth.

In the tenth edition of Systema (1758), Linnaeus described four varieties of Homo Sapiens - Homo americanus, Homo europaeus, Homo asiaticus, and Homo africanus - and described how each variety fit within a hierarchical vision of nature.

Homo americanus was defined as showing “unyielding, cheerful, and free” behavior. Homo europaeus were “light, wise, inventors.” Homo asiaticus were “stern, haughty, greedy.” Homo africanus were “sly, sluggish, neglectful” (Kenyon-Flatt 202). 

Linnaeus’ approach to human classification did not align with Roman Catholic Church dogma, which taught that humans were created in God’s image and existed outside of nature. Linnaeus’ tables suggest an attempt to develop a non-human centric perspective on the world, to view life from the perspective of an unbiased table. 

The difficulty of the Linneaus approach is that any taxonomy will be ideological and exclusive. Linnaeus’ observations of nature cannot be separated from the political discussions of his times (ie. Sweden was an active player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade during Linneaus’ time). Also, the taxonomy emphasises on the physical features of life as they can be observed by humans. The approach generates visual objects in nature that interact mechanically. The interaction between objects generates a system that interacts with another system and the collection of interactions suggest life. 

From the position of cinema, Linnaeus’ taxonomies recall still images that have been abstracted and their authorship anonymised. Taxonomies do not capture the quality of life's character of being in motion, making sense, and relating in the same way as cinema. For instance, cinema works through time in a way that Linnaean classification does not convey. The images of cinema are produced in an interactive world - eg. in the space between the filmmaker, the equipment, and film subjects - and the questions a film asks cannot be answered with categorical certainty. The answers are not going to be displayed for the audience’s consumption, they are rather to be developed by the spectator who generates their own relationship to the film and produces meaning that is not always included in the frames. 

The challenge of describing life is that it is a concept with no clear substance. Life describes a process which cannot be seen or apprehended directly, we can only see its effects. All organic life is constantly in a dynamic and chaotic condition of creation and decay: of overpowering and being overpowered. The tree root pulverising the bedrock is an expression of life. As is the expanding ice cracking the cliff and redrawing the shoreline. The expression of life is never still. It is the shifting dynamic of every active relationship. 


Kenyon-Flatt, Brittany. 2021. How Scientific Taxonomy Constructed the Myth of Race. Sapiens: Anthropology Magazine.

Photo: Like Aphrodite, Anisa Xhomaqi

Published: 17.04.2024.

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