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Mateo Pizarro's Ancient Sources

Words:

Edd Norval
November 14, 2018

Through the internet providing the commodification and accessibility of an almost infinite wealth of information and knowledge, we can check things at the click of a button. There was a time though when information was transferred orally, often subject to superstitious whispers and personal agendas.

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There were no checks or balance back then. It gave way to a mythological way of telling stories and communicating ideas. As they moved from person to person and after subsequent re-tellings, they morphed from one thing to another. The end product was the truth, but one that had been subject to several combined imaginations - likely greatly changed from the original source.


It is animals that artist Mateo Pizarro choose to focus on in a project titled Bestiary of Improbable Animals. The idea was that, with help, he'd track down descriptions of ancient creatures in texts that ranged from travel notes to classics of literature.


Pizarro's vision was to create a compendium of illustrations that visualised animals based solely on a written account. This is, as mentioned, how a lot of knowledge would be passed down. There are many early reproductions of animals based on similar accounts showcasing animals that are real and in existence today. The results can sometimes be funny and other times intriguing or terrifying. Some of them even nearly got it right. As it's based on nature - the full spectrum of possibilities is present.

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Pizarro points out that this combination of descriptions of animals and the vast areas of world that had yet to be rendered at the time of their discovery, the world seemed a vastly unexplored frontier, full of possibilities and one "that has a certain kind of infinity to it."


It's incredible on many levels. Our language wasn't as expansive in previous centuries, so things that are now named had yet to be. It's this combination of words and images that constantly evolves in accordance to our understanding of the world around us. That the two develop simultaneously is no coincidence.


Try it. Imagine an animal with four legs and skin the colour of grass. It drags itself along on its belly, capable of camouflaging itself in its natural habitat and is able to move at high speeds on land. It's head is long and its teeth are sharp. The beast's tail is joined to its body and it too moves with the thing.


What's the animal being described? If you give this description to ten different illustrators, you'll get ten different animals. All ten of those could be incorrectly drawing what had been witnessed. What we have now, due to our access to knowledge, is a matter-of-fact and scientific understanding of the world. This is great and it's come as a sign and a product of progress in various fields. One expense though has been the romance of a world of possibilities and the great unknown. Now, it seems, everywhere is only as far away as a few clicks on a keyboard.

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His magical creatures come with magical names like an Apis, a Brazilian Striped Iguana and a Leaf-Nosed Vampire Bat. His descriptions delve into various sources through centuries and include their own exotic descriptions from the texts.


Pizarro works mainly in graphite and creates work of immense detail. It is through the detail on his creatures that they are brought to life. Unlike the maps with territories unchartered, his animals are drawn as if they are real. Some of them, you'll find, are real - only because he drew them by description and not name, they might not look like how we know them now.


That's the other dimension at play in this project - the words. Some of the descriptions, given by brave explorers, are no doubt filled with hyperbole and superlatives. The descriptions exist as much to embellish their journey and heighten their reputation as to give a factual account of what they saw.


Like the drawings, it also brings into question our idea of objective and subjective truth. We might think we've seen something a certain way, but in actual fact, it was something else entirely different. If you'd just woken up and looked out of your tent to see a giant elephant for the first time, with no televised precedents in your mind - you too would probably recall a more vivid creature, a longer trunk capable of immense roars and a beast of a stature twice the size.


Truth is as much a subject in this collection, now turned into a book, as ideas, imagination, history and science are. It's about what you see, read and hear and how that translates into making you feel. Now we will very rarely come across something new like these discoveries, but we will still feel things and see things for the first time. In these rare moments, we will experience the wonder that Pizarro depicts here and that this project captures.


If you're still reading - the animal described earlier was a crocodile, by the way

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