September 7, 2014

Pandas on Tour

When most people think of papier-mache they might think of elementary school, arts and crafts at summer camp, or a big mess. Ready to break down those stereotypes is French artist Paulo Grangeon. Starting in 2008, Grangeon's 1,600 slightly kitsch papier-mache panda bears have been on a world tour. The project is called Pandas on Tour and was made in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund.

Grangeon made 1,600 pandas to represent the number of individuals alive today in the wild. The piece aims to raise awareness about their dwindling populations. As it turns out, 1,600 might actually be too generous, as recent estimates have put the numbers closer to 1,500. Pandas, which has long been an iconic symbol of endangered species, due especially to the panda's inherent cuteness (look out for those big eye patches!) and its iconic status as the WWF's mascot, have been in trouble for a while.

Their decreasing population has generally been driven by habitat loss, which isn't hard to imagine in midst of the ever expanding Chinese population. More recently, a new threat to the panda's population has been identified: climate change. Pandas native habitat are the moist bamboo forests that lie between 5,000 and 10,000 feet in elevation. Although pandas are categorized as carnivores, they subsist almost exclusively on bamboo. Being a specialist like this, for better or worse,  makes them especially dependent on their food source.

As human development and disturbance encroach on their habitat, creeping up the mountain sides from all directions, pandas often find themselves high and dry, unable to travel safely to new habitat.
As if humans were not a large enough threat for anyone's sustainable population, climate change is affecting weather patterns in China...along with much of the rest of the world, and in this case, making the mountain forests less habitable for bamboo. The panda's problem is actually a bamboo problem, but that doesn't make it any less detrimental to these lovable teddy bears.

The panda may be a cliche endangered species but due to its enormous human fan club, Grangeon's art project is making waves. Cliches are cliches for a reason, and pandas definitely win on the cute factor. This project seems to be an effective strategy to get non-environmentalist to take an interest in endangered species.

Aside from starting a conversation among the non-environmentalist types, I wonder if Pandas on Tour is really effective. I have not seen it in person, but from a photograph I wonder if the project really denotes the nearly deadly population numbers effectively. From images, the project actually looks quite striking, which is commendable to Grangeon's effort. Because the piece makes such a large impression on the viewer, does it really force someone to contemplate the species diminutive status? What if the project was in miniature, making reference to the small population size or fragility of their situation? Or maybe they could be displayed along side the estimated global population of starlings, which might effectively put their actual population numbers in perspective for the unversed viewer.

Regardless of any constructive criticism clearly, due to its wide press coverage, a lot of people are impressed by Pandas on Tour. I am sure it makes a significant impression on the viewer, especially in its notable installation sites including the Eiffel Tower and the Tain Tan Buddha in Hong Kong. I hope this piece starts conversations about endangered species, wildlife conservation, and environmental destruction, but with a slight reservation of being too critical,  I can't help but ponder if the cutesy ocean of pandas really conjures up these critical issues. This project is impressive and, yes, cute. What would this project be like if it highlighted a less-cute, less-known, and possibly even more endangered species?