Bearing up under Covid

Red bear on First Avenue, Mount Lawley from Out of Hi-bear-nation exhibition by DeeDee Noon at Bowie Kitchen Cafe.

ARTIST and researcher DeeDee Noon has spent years examining peoples’ connection to toys.

When she recently returned from a trip down south to find bears in many Perth windows to comfort children during lockdown, she was compelled to photograph them and delve deeper into the origins and meanings.

“No one’s been able to pin down where it came from,” she says. Wichita, Philadelphia and Reykjavik were all early adopters of the bear hunt, but Bear Zero remains a mystery.

“At one level, it seems very hyper-local,” she says, but notes it’s also a global phenomenon that has spread widely.

“I do find interesting the parallel process of a real deal virus, Covid, and the viral spread of the bear hunt.”

Viral marketing

Ms Noon, a research candidate at ECU, wonders if the origin could be viral marketing, as many corporations have jumped on Covid to bolster their image with comforting ‘we’re all in this’ campaigns. 

“There’s a loveliness to this, I’m not taking that away at all, but as adults [we] have a broader perspective, and I’ve seen this before.”

Apart from manufacturers pushing them into the public conscious to sell more bears, they’ve also been used to bolster other brands: Saatchi & Saatchi used Ted to rehabilitate the image of the UK’s Richmond Sausages after it turned out they were loaded with horse meat. 

In recent years the publishers of the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt have pulled off marketing stunts like a Guinness World Record “largest reading lesson” to keep the book popular (the author Michael Rosen recently spent 47 days on a ventilator and almost died from Covid-19, but that’s probably not a marketing stunt).

Apart from selling bears, books or horse meat sausages, there’s also just the passive benefits to the social media and traditional media getting eyes: “The internet is a hungry beast,” Ms Noon says, “and if everyone is at home and not out in the world, then the internet has to have content. And the bear hunt helped generate content.”

Whatever the origin, Ms Noon says the people putting them up in windows have good intentions: “The outward message is one of care – be brave, it is a confusing time – and comfort.”

Ms Noon says the teddy’s been a symbol of comfort for about 120 years since it was named for Theodore Roosevelt, whose hardy adventurer heart melted when confronted with a bear who’d been wounded on a hunt. A resulting political cartoon showing the usually-fearsome creature as cute and pitiable inspired toymaker Morris Michtom to create the first teddy bear, sending one to Roosevelt and asking permission to use his name.

“In a very short time the bear’s gone from a scary predator to a protector,” Ms Noon says, with Ted’s snout getting shorter and more cute compared to the original half-tonne apex predator that’s near-immune to small calibre fire. 

Windows

Ms Noon says it wasn’t just bears she saw in windows while documenting the trend: Lazy sloths hanging on fences evoked images of sedentary residents inside, and living room windows put a new lens over Tickle Me Elmo’s grin.

“Tickle me Elmo’s usually quite happy,” Ms Noon says, but during this pandemic “I’ve seen enough Tickle Me Elmos with their noses behind glass to change that cheery grin to look like a yelp for help.”

Her photography exhibition Out of Hi-Bear-Nation is at Bowie Kitchen Cafe on Coode Street, Mt Lawley, until July 13. Ms Noon gives artist talks on July 11 at 11am, 11.20am, and 11.40am (call 9371 9900 to book a spot).

By DAVID BELL

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