Because I have a four and three quarters year old daughter, I was intrigued by the email I received from The Suburban announcing a one-day only “Holiday Experience” for kids and grownups alike. We were invited to come and Sit On A Polar Bear’s Lap. The event was billed as “a project by Diego Leclery,” a well-known Chicago artist who also co-runs the alternative space Julius Caesar.
Since The Polar Bear looms large in our house (my husband runs the endangered species program of a national environmental group) I thought, what the hell, I’ll bring my daughter and check it out. It couldn’t be any creepier than Santa Claus, could it? (Since we’re Jewish, my child has never had the terrifying privilege of being forced to sit on Santa’s lap whilst bored teens in elf costumes took her picture). But since I wasn’t sure what to expect, I kept it vague and told my daughter we were going to do “this polar bear thing” during the afternoon and left it at that. A part of me was worried that the project–whatever form it took–would feel cynical in some way, and though I’m all for overturning fake holiday cheer in appropriate contexts, I didn’t want my kid to be the butt of the joke. But this Polar Bear was nothing like that at all.
In fact this Polar Bear…I’m not (too) embarrassed to admit that this Polar Bear was truly magical. At least he was for my daughter. She couldn’t get enough of the huge, cuddly fellow and I literally had to drag her out of the room so that other kids (and adults) could have their turn sitting on his lap. She got in line to visit the Polar Bear three separate times.
“Is the Polar Bear a machine?” she kept asking me. “No,” I said – “he is a living creature. Can’t you tell by the way he was hugging you?”
“So it was alive?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, “he was alive. I’m pretty sure it was a he anyway.”
“But how did a Polar Bear come all the way from the North Pole?”
“Well,” I said, thinking fast — because she already knows Santa isn’t real and I kinda wanted to give her something — “well, this is a special kind of Polar Bear. That’s why he’s here. He is different from other Polar Bears.”
“Yes, mama…he is sooo kind! If he was a different Polar Bear he would probably try to kill me.”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
For me, the Polar Bear brought a number of things to mind–from Temple Grandin’s “squeeze machine” to the culture of fear that the media has built around children and adults and physical expressions of affection, to the fact that environmental groups crafting media campaigns are forced to rely on a few highly photogenic “charismatic critters”–like the Polar Bear–in order to get the general public to care about environmental issues like species decimation and global warming.
But for my daughter, the Polar Bear wasn’t conceptual or referential. It was real, and it made her so happy. So thank you Polar Bear. That was a really sweet thing you did.