Andrew Zuckerman has an instinct for discoveries. “I troll weird auctions for things that slip through the cracks,” the multi-hyphenate photographer confessed on a recent morning in New York while pacing through the Chelsea design space Chamber. It was the day before the opening of the gallery’s second annual collection, “Human|Nature,” which Zuckerman was invited to curate. Every few steps, he would slow down, look quizzically at a piece, adjust.
Known for his striking, life-size pictures of birds, wild animals, and plant life, the 38-year-old Zuckerman has an exceedingly diverse résumé. In addition to being a photographer with a three-tome series of pictures of the natural world—Creature (2007), Bird (2009), and Flower (2012)—he has also made a successful crossover into filmmaking. In 2007, he received acclaim as a director when his short film High Falls, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The late New York Times reporter and “Carpetbagger” David Carr called it a “great little movie.” Last year, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten commissioned Zuckerman to create four films that were presented in the windows of Barneys on Madison Avenue.
With “Human|Nature,” the soft-spoken Zuckerman was at first apprehensive about the invitation to be a curator—his previous experience was more in creative direction, film, and photography work. But as it turned out, the assignment dovetailed perfectly with his inquisitive nature, love for design, and dogged pursuit of esoteric objects.
The outcome of nine months of tracking, commissioning, and acquiring pieces, the exhibit features works by fashion designers, sculptors, furniture makers, pottery artists, carpet weavers, and jewelry makers. The pieces comprise wood and bone, leather and stone, felt, and even live plants and fish. There’s a life-size chimpanzee made from needle-felted wool by Kiyoshi Mino, a Japanese-American farmer and artisan; a seductive, knobby carpet modeled after a moss garden with rocks and a pond, by Argentine weaver Alexandra Kehayoglou; and a wispy, multi-textured mobile by Los Angeles–based drawing and collage artist Claire Oswalt. Inspired by the same impulse that governs his work with animals and plants—to “shorten the distance between human beings and nature”—Zuckerman focused on work that’s conceptually as well as physically about natural materials.
Like the objects in the show that aspire to a certain in-betweenness—not totally pure, not quite manufactured—Chamber revels in a form of hybridity. The gallery’s Argentine founder and director, Juan García Mosqueda, is interested in organizing one of the shows himself down the line, but for the moment he is more keen on promoting the space’s nimble character. “I really want to push the curators to find their own interpretation of what Chamber is,” he says, referring to the model of inviting a curator, or team of curators, to organize the yearly collections and smaller exhibitions.
It’s a collaborative process: For Chamber’s first collection, he indulged his passion for Dutch design by inviting the Amsterdam and Antwerp-based Studio Job to collect a hundred objects. For the second collection, he approached Zuckerman, who set about the project with the same spirit that guides his picture series: a remarkable departure from the often precious approach to creating images. “I’m not interested in making great photographs,” he says. “I’m interested in transferring that animal from three dimensions to two.”
As with his images that present animals and plants with high level of detail, Zuckerman sought to provoke a deeper reaction with the objects he chose. “I value emotional response rather than how expensive something is,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in a design show that was about material value or market value; I was interested in a show that had emotional resonance.”
The thematic and material directions of the collection posit questions about the appropriation of elements from the natural world and their commodification. But a quick reconsideration reveals how these objects, many of them made by hand, indeed propose an alternative to the fast-paced exploitation of natural resources for mass production and industry. Whether this is a deliberate or collateral effect of the show is up for discussion, but Zuckerman was attentive from the start to the idea of time. “As technology is rapidly advancing,” he says, “I think I’m drawn more and more to the things that haven’t changed.”