Animal Acts | Act 1: Ursus arctos
“Ursula, the brown Russian bear, will Twice Daily perform the most outrageous, courageous, charming and skillful circumnavigations of the circus ring – on a children’s bicycle! This bear, a fierce and formidable Wild Animal when captured, has undergone three years of training in the renowned Moscow State Circus. She is now completely tame and remarkably gentle. Ursula is unique amongst performing animals and is greatly admired by all those who see her perform!”
Evidence that various cultures have tamed bears and trained them for performance dates back as far as the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation. Statues suggest that they were used for entertainment purposes. This ancient practice continues today in places such as India, Bulgaria and Siberia. Performing bear acts are criticised by some Westerners, especially animal rights advocates such as PETA
Performing bears – usually ‘dancing bears’ – were a common sight in Europe during the Middle Ages. All of Europe had dancing bears during the 13th century. The practice began fading in Western Europe by the 15th century, but remained alive in Eastern Europe. Dancing bears were commonly seen in Bern, Switzerland. The depiction of a dancing bear occurs in the oldest known city seal (1224), and living bears have been kept in Bern at the town’s expense since 1513 (except for a brief interval when the French removed them to Paris in 1799). Dancing bears were also a common feature at traditional winter festivals in Poland throughout the 18th century. In 2007, incidents of dancing bears used as street entertainment in Spain caused a public outcry. It is unclear whether the practice continues. Dancing bears survived in Serbia and the Former Yugoslavia through the 1980’s, but it is unknown if the practise still exists and, if so, to what degree.
These sketches represent the first stages of preliminary work for a series of paintings that I am creating to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the National Fairground Archive, based in The University Library, University of Sheffield. This commission will form part of the Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition which will open in September 2014 and run for four months.
This new body of work has been inspired by a number of lively discussions with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the archive. They reflect a shared interest in the changing perception of Animal Acts that has occurred in human consciousness over the last few decades. This change in consciousness towards performing animals has had broad implications throughout society, and acts (in itself) as a powerful indicator of the ambiguities that surround the relationship between the human animal and other species.