There are obvious parallels to be drawn between photography and hunting, between the camera and the gun. The notions of death inherent in preserving a moment of life as a still, timeless image have been discussed in relation to photography of all kinds. But when it comes to our relationship with animals, the parallels become more literal. Now that big game hunting is at best outmoded, photography has come to directly replace the kill, safari trippers bringing home an image on film in place of more a gruesome trophy.

Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson’s ‘Nonoq: flat out and bluesome – A Cultural Life of Polar Bears’ – currently on show the New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester – began with a hunt for animals that were already dead. The artists came across three stuffed polar bears in at Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum. Fascinated by these proxy animals and their obscure histories, they photographed them and then embarked on a quest to locate every single such bear in the UK.

Although they admit there may be more, the artists’ endeavours finally unearthed a total of 34 bears. Most were killed by 19th century explorers; a few were donated to museums by zoos, often after the creature had been given the death sentence for bad behaviour. Stuffed by taxidermists the beasts snarl as if poised for a kill, or recline in anthropomorphic playfulness.

In photographing these comic and melancholy puppets it was important that the original presentation was interfered with as little as possible. The artists’ greatest intervention was to pull back a piece of rotting carpet in a museum storeroom to expose the animal’s front quarters. The rest of the beast still remains obscured by a mountain of forgotten junk.

Brought from the wide open spaces of the arctic into crowded museums and stately homes, the bears’ final cramped living quarters echo the feeling of captivity, while forcing into the frame the bizarre contexts into which they have been placed: grouped with tigers and wallabies; guarding the stairs of grandiose residencies; humbled and slowly disintegrating under the blank gaze of the marble statue of the triumphant hunter.

The hunting of these creatures by self-styled heroes of exploration is contrasted with the quiet and studious act of tracking them down through museum records. But they are parallel processes through which the hunter (or collector) seeks to establish a kind of order, whether by taming the wild and conquering the terrifying beast, or disentangling a web of connected histories, cultural references and changing values and perceptions.

In both photography and taxidermy what is present is not the animal itself but the idea of an animal. Photographs reduce three dimensions to two and take a moment out of time. Taxidermy has the illusion of a full physical presence, but the reality is skin-deep, the polar bear is there in surface only. As Michael Henning points out in his essay Skins of the Real: Taxidermy and Photography  (included in the book of the project), the act of photographing stuffed animals might allow for you to imagine a before and after in which the animal is reanimated. The setting of the museum itself, however, conjures ideas of objects frozen in time, of history gathering dust in institutionalised corridors and glass cases.

A narrative of time is present in the decay of poorly preserved specimens and the changing styles of presentation that connect the mounts to outdated notions of nature and the wild. It is also revealed in the form of the individual histories of these glorious beasts. One tale the artists found particularly engaging is that of a bear donated to Ulster Museum after being put down by at Belfast Zoo. Rumours ensued that the bear, resting in a freezer, was not in fact dead. Primal fears were titillated by the idea of a great – perhaps even supernatural – beast lurking the corridors of a building already crowded with spectres of the past.

The methodical approach that the artists’ took in their research was also subject to chance findings and creative thinking and there are no simple conclusions to be drawn from the project. The photographs have been displayed in various museums and galleries, new contexts suggesting new interpretations; the bears themselves were removed from their current homes and brought together for an exhibition at a contemporary arts space, which was also the setting for various seminars and discussions and a film documenting the transportation of the exhibits to the gallery; the book (published by Black Dog) of the project is a fascinating volume which includes the photographic elements of the project and the results of research into provenances, the personal reflections of the artists and various essays discussing ideas touched on here and many more, as well as some reproductions of fascinating vintage photographs uncovered during the project.

At A Cultural Life of Polar Bears’ heart is an exploration of psychological time, of the nature’s flow and man’s constructs, a curious mix of the empirical and the subjective. The 19th century explorers and taxidermists, with whom these cultural lives of bears began, worked in an atmosphere of pseudo-scientific endeavour. Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson’s work reminds us that we continue to make sense of the world through powerful symbols, mythic associations and constructed narratives. Like all the best conceptual art, it begins a subjective process and invites us to continue that train of thought along our own individual tangents.

Taxidermy can be seen as an attempt to resurrect a dead animal for a specific, limited and cultural purpose. If photography of live animals can stand in for the act of the kill, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson’s photography of dead animals is not second kill but a second resurrection, giving these specimens new and complex cultural lives. The tragedy that makes this all the more poignant is that our changing ideas about nature have not kept pace with the reality of what we, as a species, are doing to the planet. In the not too distant future, images, ideas and museum relics will more than likely be all that is left of these awe-inspiring beasts.

Ruby Russell–services/lc/leicester-city-museums/exhibitions/nanoq