Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The South Will Rise Again...with dinosaurs?

No, you’re seeing this correctly, it is indeed a model of a Union soldier being attacked by a dinosaur. It can be seen as a roadside attraction off of highway 11 in Natural Bridge, VA, part of an exhibit developed by “Professor” Mark Cline called Dinosaur Kingdom. If you’re driving on a road trip across Virginia and you see an advertisement for a roadside attraction called Dinosaur Kingdom, you’d probably expect some aging, unimpressive model dinosaurs this side of the La Brea tar pits—they might even be slightly animatronic if you’re lucky. But what you wouldn’t expect is a thoroughly envisioned and charismatically ludicrous still-life narrative that attempts to retell the story of the Civil War and in the meantime make it much more awesomer than your boring high school history textbooks ever made it sound.

Cline’s inspiration follows this narrative: the Union have discovered dinosaurs still living in an isolated area of America and decide to use them as a secret weapon against the Confederacy, training the dinosaurs to attack southern soldiers. But the plan backfires, and the Yankees themselves are attacked and eaten by the ancient reptiles from various geologic periods, thus enabling the South to win and—we can only assume—give rise to the Confederate States of America.

This strange and hilarious exhibit works brilliantly on several levels. For one, it fits well into the strange culture of roadside attractions that inhabit the long stretches of land in the American South, allowing those southerners who celebrate the confederate flag as a sign of “heritage” while ignoring or refusing to articulate the problematic ideological implications of such a statement to pass through and temporarily engage in a ridiculous, humorous form of wish-fulfillment, permitting them to temporarily imagine a Confederate victory...with the help of dinosaurs. It’s a whole new way to rewrite southern history again, like a 21st century Birth of a Nation but not as boring/racist. At the same time, it reads as a criticism of Christian fundamentalism whose strict religious and political beliefs are often reflected in the red hue of the southern states.

Certain schools of fundamentalism are, of course, well known for reading scripture as a document of empirical historical evidence rather than a theological text, and thus seek to uncover, manipulate, or frame historical and scientific evidence affirming that the Earth was created in six days ending with the birth of the first man, and that our planet has since aged just over a few thousand years. Thus, we end up with Creationist museums that argue the coexistence of dinosaurs with human beings, exhibiting often-hilarious historical justifications for such cohabitation like this dinosaur with a saddle for human riding from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, or the alleged dinosaur fossils in Jerry Falwell’s museum at his Liberty University that are dated as only about 3,000 years old.

Dinosaur Kingdom seems to celebrate southern heritage and the wish-myth of the South’s resurgence while at the same time criticizing the selective re-telling of histories necessary for that celebration (for instance, the South’s frontier myth and agrarian culture are celebrated as signs of honorable heritage while conveniently ignoring the region’s tattered history of racism and slavery). This careful historical framing is realized in its greatest extreme in the ridiculous historical juxtapositions that aim to justify an impossible retelling of all history from the religious right as manifested within Creationist museums. While not all fundamentalists are from the South, not all southerners are fundamentalists or of the religious right (in full disclosure, I’m originally from Texas), and not all religions are fundamentalist, there is certainly a political connection between the retelling of history in the celebration of southern heritage and the retelling of history in Christian fundamentalism that is being playfully parodied here. (Cline’s other exhibits also playfully engage historical icons, like his life-size replica of Stonehenge completely made of styrofoam, aptly called Foamhenge.)

When Cline’s website read that he also resides in Glasgow, it took me a minute to realize that it was referring to a nearby town in Virginia whose occupants exceed barely more than 1,000, rather than the better-known city in Scotland. Yet Cline seems strangely connected to that other Glasgow, as both Glasgows seem to be linked by an odd way of showing appreciation for southern heritage and culture as well as an affinity for bizarre historical juxtapositions.

If you could hear the people speak in the picture above, you would likely be surprised to hear them speaking with Scottish accents rather than southern ones. I took this picture this past July at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, UK, near the University of Glasgow. The caption above the left corner of this collage describes a love affair had by the citizens of Glasgow with the culture of the American South, from western films to bars like these that feature hoe-downs and line dancing. What struck me most was the presence of the Confederate flag in this Scottish bar, a symbol of dense ideological weight representing America’s long history of institutionalized racism that seemed here to represent nothing more than part of the spectacle of “being southern.”

From the same museum, the picture below is what appears to be a WWII-era fighter plane inexplicably planted above the natural history exhibit, and surrounded (outside the frame) by Scottish aristocratic art.

Either Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is schizophrenically seeking an eccentric (but more head-scratch-inducing than funny) juxtaposition of history, science, and culture comparable to Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom, or they were simply making use of limited space.

"Professor" Mark Cline

…And this has officially been my most random and meandering post. Sorry for the dearth of posts this and last month. I promise get back to this in full swing by the end of the month, and the beginning of 2009 should be a more fruitful time for blogging, schedule-wise. Cheers!


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