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Lights! Camera! Alligator! 

Swamp Sanctuary a wry look at man's complex relationship with nature

Like celebrity journalist Sam Donaldson outfitted in a down-and-dirty flak jacket to report in some distant, war-torn land, artist Sam Easterson's video work is an amusing clash of show-biz and edification. In this case, it's the rough-and-tumble animal kingdom that wears civilization's technological vestment in order to report back news from the front.

This Minneapolis artist's vastly entertaining exhibition, Animal, Vegetable, Video: Swamp Sanctuary, at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery offers a humorous first-hand report on our wild environments in an oxymoronic marriage of technology and nature. Purportedly outfitting a range of indigenous Georgia swamp creatures -- an alligator, a frog, a tortoise -- with mini-cameras that record their habitats, Easterson offers a "you are there" animal's-eye perspective of a Georgia swamp.

The show's historical predecessors are the "cabinets of curiosities" and "scientific" expositions of the late-18th century in which stuffed or live animals and "native" artifacts of all sorts were collected by explorers and amateur scientists to provide a mix of education and entertainment to novelty-starved audiences.

Easterson pushes that tradition into the video age, where the real comedy begins when he translates his animal follies to the ACA gallery space. There his video naturalism is humorously contrasted with the high-tech deconstruction of how he got the job done.

The artist's videos documenting his alligator or frog's progress through the swamp are shown on three TV monitors mounted from the gallery ceiling. And, as if offering a mini-tutorial on his "research," Easterson also displays an armadillo, an alligator and a frog -- all stuffed -- with mini-cameras and batteries mounted instructively on their backs. Even a tiny frog is improbably encircled with a ridiculous amount of gray duct tape to hold the camera on, like a tiny D.P.

Electrical cords in various colors are coiled around the gallery in topographic patterns modeled on the swamp Easterson documents and are linked up to the monitors. Signs posted around the gallery warn viewers to stay behind the outermost yellow line, a demand that comments on our mania for orderly, controlled approaches to nature and an echo of the similarly distancing camera's gaze.

Swamp Sanctuary has a wry-snarky concept. But it can prove, at times, quite moving, too. As the methodically slow-moving tortoise plows through a dense thicket, for example, his body hugging the Earth, we are made physically aware of the animal's absolute vulnerability. When the tortoise stops at one point to appraise a sudden noise, the blundering, intrusive threat of humankind into this peaceful domain becomes all too clear.

But most of Easterson's commentary is cagier and lurks purposefully below the surface. Though Swamp Sanctuary

can often seem like a sophisticated prank, recalling the special effects-packed fakery of a Disney jungle ride, the work's humor

is only a means of showing the absurdity

of our responses to nature. As Easterson

so cleverly illustrates, our desire to get

closer to the mystery of nature seems

terminally jeopardized by our tendency

to erect fences, to cage or dissect animals

in order to study them.

Easterson thus treats the idea of penetrating nature with a fair degree of irony. From the video information provided, the animals seem like participants in Easterson's documentation. But the fact that his beat reporters -- as they are represented in the gallery -- are varnished, taxidermied specimens underscores what happens to humankind's collaborators and helpmates. These animals are as rewarded for their unique perspective as the canary in a coal mine.

Safaris and zoos have given us our primary vision of the natural world. And while we pretend to learn from these missions into the unknown, in reality we are just passive spectators squinting uneasily at its offerings through thick, protective glass.

Sam Easterson's Animal, Vegetable, Video: Swamp Sanctuary runs through July 1 at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. noon-5 p.m. 404-733-5052.

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