The Animal Gaze
Various venues, Plymouth and Exeter January to May 2009
The Animal Gaze is a London Metropolitan University event organised and curated by Rosemarie McGoldrick. It is an exhibition of work by over 40 international artists at several venues in Plymouth and in Devon between January and May 2009. The exhibition is part of celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. This is of special relevance to Plymouth, as it was from Devonport, Plymouth where Darwin set sail on his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle on 27 December 1831.
Darwin's concept of the evolution of species through natural selection revolutionised our collective understanding of the world and our place within it. It offered a more convincing, and more verifiable, model of how our world works and our place within it than earlier-proposed creation myths, such as those involving intelligent design by gods and goddesses. In a catalogue essay Mary Loveday Edwards suggests that Darwin “removed the idea of an essential human identity. Humanity is a costructed position, an identity in process: we construct both human and animal by elevating one and demeaning the other”.
How art, as production and manipulation of symbols (meaningful within human perceptual systems), relates to the other species with which we share this planet, strikes me as a valuable and important theme for an exhibition. Especially in the light of the intellectual impact of Charles Darwin.
PLYMOUTH ARTS CENTRE
Plymouth Arts Centre is a quiet location, in an older part of town, which lends itself particularly well to fairly small scale, contemplative work such as this. A large proportion of the exhibition here is made up of DVD-based pieces, which are sensitively set up using a variety of projection and flat screen formats which seem to suit the concept of the animal gaze appropriately.
In the lower gallery, a taxidermically-preserved blackbird perched on a small antique table looks up at a DVD playing on a black framed flat monitor screen mounted on the wall. Standing on on small plinth under the monitor a DVD player is running. The DVD shows the lifeless body of a blackbird similar to the one perched on the table: it is laid on a white piece of textile fabric and is being handled by a pair of human hands. The hands probe the dead blackbirds, exposing pink skin beneath the black feathers. Then I am distracted by another video playing in the same room...
Second Nature by New Zealand artist Hayden Fowler, runs on a knee-level monitor. It's a way longer film than I've got time to watch, but the section I see is a slow-moving, sharply defined white 60s-futurist-type white walled set with a nude woman cradling a baby. Nothing much seems to be happening. It strikes me a bit like those glossy films that Sam Taylor-Wood and Matthew Barney make, minimalistic, carefully proportioned glamour, like the white walled antique bedroom sequence at the end of “2001 – A Space Odyssey” . Stanley Kubrick has a lot to answer for.
The blackbird DVD finishes its loop and the stuffed bird on the table bursts into recorded bird song, moving its head and opening its beak to sing. The tableaux is fascinating, but like a fool I read the exhibition handouts and realise the gulf between my preconceptions and the artist's intentions. I read:
“In Blackbird Menagerie, 2007, an animatronic blackbird perches on a mahogany table, and comes to life when it witnesses a film of its own breast being cut open. Here Roe brings together the strange reality of the taxidermic process and its beautiful resolution in a wondrous creation: a live blackbird distressed by the evisceration of its own corpse.”
There is undoubtedly a high level of technical virtuosity in this piece. The tableaux has a lot to do with ideas of order, neatness, precision, virtuosity: qualities favoured by some art collectors. But a creature forced by an artist to witness its own evisceration is also a profoundly cruel concept.
As soon as I saw the bird, I could tell it was not a living one. To me, a live blackbird is a beautiful creature evoking wonder, and a dead blackbird evokes emotions of sadness. I would imagine that a live blackbird would move about, looking one way then another, to establish spatial relationships between itself and what it was watching. But this one stares rigidly at the screen. This blackbird moves to the recorded sound, but it doesn't “come to life”.
In this and the other lower gallery there are framed photographs and photomontages, including a large colour photograph of an owl, with circles snipped from the roundels of the eyes on the photograph. Suky Best's Wildlife Documentary 7, screened on a wall monitor is a DVD of a flipbook she's made of a seagull in flight.
In the darkened rear gallery, a video projection (Condition M by Clara Rueprich-right) fills the entire wall. A straight piece of documentary realism, shot from a fixed camera at dog's eye level, parallel to concrete kennels, a long line of meat is arranged parallel to the cameras' lens. A pack of hunting hounds is released from the kennels. The dogs weave about, awaiting orders from their human handlers. When the order is given they eagerly devour the meat. The flanks of the dogs are branded with an M.
Darwin emerged from a Victorian climate of scientific collection, specimen preservation, cataloguing and categorising information from the natural world. Matilda Downs' wall-mounted prints parody scientific research methodologies and classifications of knowledge, producing fascinatingly absurd diagrams, following their own logic that seem to make both sense and nonsense.
The Golden Ratio and the Animal Kingdom (below) is drawn as a grid made up of small square each containing a diagram of the proportions of an animal's head. Each head is divided by dotted lines and marked with letters: e: eye; n: nose/beak; j: jaw; in the manner of instructional manuals for artists. Alongside there are maps and atlases formed by interpretations of markings from herds of Friesian cows, scrambled pataphysical diagrams; clusters of of streets with animal names and the like.
Nearby a wall-mounted flat screen monitor is filled by the lifesize image of a fish tank in which a jellyfish swims around. Chroma-keyed onto the foreground is a small female actor who screams "will you miss me when I'm gone" . Her voice can only be heard over the headphones. The jellyfish is clearly disinterested, getting on with its jellyfish life. In the great scheme of things, human emotions don't exactly count for a great deal.
Ladybirds by Miranda Whall is a four minute loped animation, projected onto the wall at knee height, using the soft flickery technique that used to be a staple of hand drawn animation, watercolour-like images of women in stockings and suspenders consort with brightly coloured vibrators. Out of scale, but similarly stylised animated images of birds singing perch on top of the women. The images are so slow moving and tastefully done, so that any emotional shock at the exhibitionist content is erased. It's more an impression of “is that woman doing what I think she's doing?” The vibrator cavorting becomes a mode of territorial display, like the bird song.
I took the title Ladybirds to be a reference to the work of the artist Christine Newby (better known as Cosey Fanni Tutti). Explicit images of Cosey featured heavily in the first issue of Ladybirds, a magazine owned by porn publisher David Sullivan, in August 1976. Cosey was well known as a stripper and as a model who worked in the hard core porn industry as well as a performance artist in Coum Transmissions and later as a member of the music group, Throbbing Gristle. Cosey was active in mail art and often used images clipped from porn magazines in her collages. She has said that she initially ventured into the sex industry because "it seemed my collages would be more 'complete' and honest if the images included me in the real sex situation I was pillaging for my own art". It could be said that was little theory or strategy in Cosey's work beyond the desire to the blur the boundaries between art and life by experiencing new and different challenges. But also it could be said that she established some sort of synthesis between what she was doing as autonomous art-making, and the fairly well paid, but often dangerous, way she chose to make a living as a young woman. As an autonomous research project Cosey was testing her own ideas against the harsh commercial world of the sex industry and finding successful ways of asserting her own personal power within an often hostile environment.
Miranda Whall is also using her own body in her work, but choosing more academic, theoretically-based, parameters for her practice, keeping it within more tightly controlled confines as autonomous art-making, with herself employed as a lecturer in fine art.
She is taking a clearly defined and very humorous stance, which sets up a different set of ambiguities. Within a dispassionate, uninterested animal kingdom, emotional and sexual behaviour becomes removed from a feminist genre piece and recontextualised as signalling behaviour within one of many animal species, of which “art” is a part. The pictures don't operate in the same pattern of desire creation and commodification as in porn, or the knockabout humour of a Karen Finlay performance, say. The vibrator shots are crafted as animated watercolours, becoming instead an dispassionate, observed form of animal behaviour.
Bird song is also a form of sexual display most highly developed in 'perching birds' such as wrens, robins, blackbirds, and song thrushes. Study of bird song is a comparatively new science and the current understanding is that it is a very specialised form of bird call that serves one function only: to ensure the breeding success of the singer, indicating clearly that the singer is healthy and fit and ready to breed. This is largely a male thing, designed so that other females of the same species are attracted and males of the same species are repelled. So there are many levels of genre-bending going on here.
In the rear section of the Arts Centre, Aurelia Mihai's video surveys action in a small back yard, shot from the fifth floor of an apartment block in Bucharest. The film is only 14 minutes long, I'm not sure what is happening onscreen but I get the impression it involves something horrible happening to animals so I don't linger to watch it.
The exhibition includes a piece of sound art by Duncan Speakman, which is described as “an aural telescope... drawing on the listening practice of both animal predators and prey”. You are supposed to borrow MP3 players from the gallery to listen to while you wander between the exhibition venues. Unfortunately no-one here seems to know how to get the MP3 players to work. So I wander on to the other exhibition venues, grooving to the ambience of the Plymouth City Centre soundscape instead.
PLYMOUTH COLLEGE OF ART
The gallery beside the art college is busy with the to-ing and fro-ing of students and, compared to the Arts Centre, it has almost zero atmosphere for art appreciation.
More videos are running. There is a sign that warns that Cathryn Jiggens' DVD piece shows images of animal slaughter and meat preparation. I watch a section of a woman's hands and a dead goose, I read on the handout that the videos here "contain an unnerving eroticism" and document the artist's attempts to learn butchery and "it is Jiggen's stumbling struggle with the carcass as she pulls it apart that enables her work to take on a brutal sinister edge".
Hmm, somehow I don't think this is going to show me anything new, intelligent, or interesting about our coexistence with animals. Bestiality isn't really my bag and I've always found meat preparation brutal and sinister. Those are a couple of the reasons that my diet has been vegetarian for many years now.
But I like a bit of cheese. Talking of which, there's one piece here that really stands out here. There is a glass fronted chiller cabinet with cheese boards with the words cow, goat, sheep, buffalo and human carved into them . On top of each is a chunk of some sort of fatty substance, which I find out (to my relief) is cheese.
The artist Martin White is also a dairy hygiene inspector by trade and his work poses some curious questions about our boundaries of acceptable behaviour. We are happy to consume the milk produced by other species, yet the thought of adults consuming human breast milk (a substance that has specifically evolved to be nourishing to the infants of our species) is strangely taboo.
So this exposes me to some personal self-questioning. Is it this kind of cheese taboo to me? Habitually, I am a vegetarian who eats dairy produce and I have been this way since adolescence. I don't like the idea of animals being exploited, killed, or mistreated and I am aware that an overproduction of meat products, and overfishing of the oceans has caused damage to the natural environment and is an inefficient use of food resources. But it is vaguely possible that my distaste for dead animal products in my food is more of an aesthetic reaction than an ethical one. My personal dietary choices are complex, whether they are primarily ethically or aesthetically decided. However, I do think of my dietary choice to be part of my democratic human rights and freedom of expression. So, assuming there are no health risks involved in eating human breast milk cheese, it does seem a bit weird but I wouldn't mind giving it a try.
I pop up the road to the Plymouth Museum. There's a parallel exhibition to do with Darwin's voyage and the place is full of interesting taxidermical specimens, bird skeletons and collections of other curiosities quite apart from the gallery devoted to the Animal Gaze art.
As well as photos and sculptures, there's one or two art pieces that involve participation, on the level of answering questions on postcards, which blend right into the presentation of the museum as a whole.
I get drawn into a lovely flickery film While Darwin Sleeps by Paul Bush, with a shot of one individual insect per frame, it works nicely with the psychology of vision. The fast succession of images is difficult to process, the mind plays tricks in attempting to understand the visual information. The eye/brain is commonly tricked into believing there is motion in "motion pictures", but here the rapid succession of images is simply a rapid succession of images.
I love flickery structural films, they involve the viewer in something where the watcher's perceptual apparatus creates the art as much as anything else. And I think this tends to subvert the implied primacy and objectivity of the human visual apparatus in visual art. What is happening between the eye as an organ and the brain as it attempts to processes bits of information is thrown into doubt.
I initially assumed that the Animal Gaze exhibition was exploring the ways and animal might gaze, and see the world. But I checked the show's web site:
“The Animal Gaze showed stances outside anthropocentrism, deconstructions of species taxonomy, constructions of the idea of difference and documentation of the consequences of indifference. At the same time, these works about animals and humans perhaps confirmed a trend discernible in recent art - an ascendancy of meaning or ambiguity over ineffability and surface, a move away from the gigantic, as well as more evidence of the profile afforded now to artist collaboration and cross-disciplinary research.”
So it seems that the word "gaze" here is used in the sense of post-Lacanian feminist cultural theory rather than the sense of "an intent look" that a biologist like Darwin might understand it. In short, the exhibition is centred around academic, cultural theory rather than theories arising directly from natural science.
What we have here is a survey of how animals are currently being represented by a selected number contemporary artists, perhaps referring more to recent art history than it does to direct observation and interaction with the animals we share the planet with. If there is a weakness here, it is a basis in 20th century cultural theory that often seems unenlightened by more recent developments in eg cognitive research and natural science.
Be that as it may, the exhibition is challenging, thought-provoking and well worth a visit.
Animal Gaze is also on at Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, and Peninsular Arts Gallery, Plymouth
Nigel Ayers February 2009
review for http://www.artcornwall.org