The Substitute

Using the rhino, Design Indaba alum Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg examines human beings’ relationship with endangered animals.
Posted 6 Feb 23 By Design Indaba Craft Creative Work / Design News Comments

British/South African artist and designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s video installation ‘The Substitute’ brings visitors face-to-face with a digitally recreated, life-sized northern white rhino. The vast creature, which starts off pixelated and unaware of its surroundings, roams the sterile space as it continues to gain intelligence and become more lifelike. The video is coupled with sounds from footage of the last herd of northern white rhinos.

‘The Substitute’ is one of four rhino representations that make up The Lost Rhino, an art installation at the Natural History Museum in London. The others are German painter Albrecht Dürer's iconic – if inaccurate – ‘Rhinoceros’ woodcut print from 1515; a taxidermy of a southern white rhinoceros that was killed to order in 1893; and footage showing beating heart cells grown from a skin sample of a male northern white rhino that died in 2014.

Ginsberg, whose work frequently explores the relationship between science, technology and nature,employed data generated by artificial intelligence agency DeepMind to create ‘her’ rhino – but she is very clear that this new hyper-realistic life form is not, and can never be, the real thing. ‘These are all ultimately substitutes,’ she says. ‘Each copy is imperfect, and created by humans for humans. They all live in our imagination, perhaps more powerfully than the living, breathing animal itself.’

Thus, The Lost Rhino explores how the idea of an animal can become more powerful than the creature itself. And here lies the paradox in Ginsberg’s installation: why are we preoccupied with building substitutes and creating new life forms when we are so neglectful of existing ones?

In questioning our relationship with rhinos, Ginsberg asks that visitors consider preserving the diversity of life on the planet before it’s lost, and before we’re left with just the idea of rhinos instead of the real thing.

The free installation closes on 19 March.

To further understand the artist’s inspiration behind The Lost Rhino, read her essay  

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Photographs: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Natural History Museum.