The Camel Riddle

Cross-disciplinary work traces the edges of a larger reality that no one discipline can know completely. Over the years I developed curious shorthand to begin conversations about this bigger picture with colleagues in the sciences – one playful tack has taken on the affectionate name, “The Camel Riddle.”

It started in grad school when I wrote a research paper for my adviser, Glenn Adamson. The paper was on the rather terse Camel sculptures of Nancy Graves that she executed from 1968 to 1970. The works existed in time alongside the minimalist works of Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, and Richard Serra. Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–1969, (photo above) were shown in the Whitney Museum in 1969 to what I am told was a crowd of bemused spectators – the exhibition had a mix of curious accessibility (like a petting zoo in a contemporary art venue) and head-scratching opacity (like a petting zoo in a contemporary art venue). The work looked as though objects from the American Museum of Natural History were mistakenly delivered to the Whitney loading dock and subsequently put on display.

It’s in my relationships with colleagues in the sciences that the works’ head-scratching quality becomes very useful – it begins to get at the gaps and overlaps in what our two different inquiries are up to. And with that, I’d like to give you a chance to experience the Camel Riddle first hand:

It’s best if you can experience this with a family member, friend, or co-worker, so take a minute to grab a person or three to join you in this game – the conversation, mutual puzzlement, and perhaps even impassioned discussion is priceless. Nevertheless, if no one’s to hand it’s a great thought experiment by yourself too (and you can spring it on folks at dinner later).

Below you will see a variety of camels and the places they reside. Take a look at each camel and its site and take a minute to first privately, then as a group consider your responses to these questions:

  • Take a look at these camels and their locations. What is the same and what is different about each? – physically, conceptually, or in whatever way occurs to you.
  • Would it matter if you swapped the camels between the various sites – would their meaning, role, or significance change in any way? Why? Think through the various swaps – which produce the most interesting mixes for you? Explain.
Nancy Graves, Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–1969, first displayed at the Whitey Museum of American Art
Fabricated camel from Traveling the Silk Road, American Museum of Natural History, NY
Camel on a make-shift merry-go-round in a Pakistani slum,, photo by the Associated Press
Bactrian camel display, Cincinati Zoo
Napoleon’s camel from the Egyptian campaigns, Musée africain de l’île d’Aix
Edouard Verreaux, Arab Courier Attacked by Lions, created for the Paris World’s Fair, 1867, now in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

[wait to have your own thoughts or discussion before scrolling down]

When I have this discussion with colleagues over a lab table, the dinner table, or in a gallery the conversation begins haltingly at first (this one’s bigger, that one is more brown) but quickly evolves into the inevitable impassioned debate about the implications of site and how site changes the way we understand what objects mean (and that certain camel swaps would produce some dung issues – but even that in the world of art is interesting). Almost on their own my science colleagues quickly come to understand the complexities of an object and its site. And it is that inherent slipperiness of meaning, place, and displacement (and object being where you don’t expect) that opens the language of art and starts the conversation about what art and science value in their results and in the way they convey their ideas.




Beatice and Virgil, Yann Martel
One of the most memorable, impassioned moments of conversation with one of my colleagues in the sciences mirrors a debate between an author and a historian in Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. Indeed, a day after the lab meeting in which this rather heated exchange took place another scientist who had been a part of the group approached me with a stunned look on her face and said, “I just read the debate you had yesterday!” and she handed me this book. The story is an amazing feat and worth your time – watch for the debate in the first quarter of the book. You’ll know you’ve found it when you encounter the repeated phrase, “What’s your book about?”

– Cheers, NS

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