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Animals & Us
The Animal in Contemporary Art

April 01, 2004 to May 22, 2004

In the Old Testament, it is written that man shall have dominion over all the animals. For millennia, humans have followed this prescription, hunting wild animals, usurping their habitats and domesticating certain species for the purposes of providing food or labor. After two centuries of industrialization, however, there is little unspoiled wilderness, and very few inhabitants of the Western world have regular contact with farm animals. It is perhaps no coincidence that the industrialization of animal husbandry was accompanied by a dramatic increase in the importance of pet ownership. Indeed, for some today the very phrase pet ownership is anathema: these are animal companions, quasi-family members whose presence in our lives not only restores a vital connection to the natural environment, but, because of the heightened intimacy, fundamentally alters the nature of our emotional engagement with non-human creatures. Born from the alienation of modern life, this empathy may, paradoxically, offer a possibility of redemption.

Over the last three to four decades, a number of people have begun to question the hierarchies that traditionally placed humans above allegedly lesser species, and these concerns gradually permeated the art of the period. Steve Baker, whose book The Postmodern Animal (2000) is a seminal survey of its topic, notes that the resurgence of animal imagery in contemporary art coincided with the birth of the animal rights movement in the 1970s. While animals had been a recurrent if not dominant motif in Western art through the 19th century, the subject was of surprisingly little interest to early 20th-century modernists. With a few notable exceptions (such as Franz Marcs vibrant cows and horses), the modern avant garde either used animals as mere pretexts for formal experimentation or ignored them entirely. However, by June 2000 the situation had changed so dramatically that The New York Times could announce, "Animals Have Taken Over Art."

Joseph Beuys was among the first contemporary artists to engage animal subject matter in a sustained, substantive manner. How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) and Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) were attempts to establish meaningful dialogues with animals that occupy positions of central importance in Eurasian and American mythology respectively. Beuys repeatedly affirmed his personal identification with the hare, which even dead, seemed to him more aesthetically responsive than many humans. By confining himself for a week with a live coyote, the artist endeavored to access invisible spiritual energies that, while common to people and animals alike, have been largely effaced by the mechanistic and materialistic preoccupations of modern-day human society. The coyote--revered by Native Americans for its ability to morph from physical to spiritual form, and persecuted by white colonialists--was also emblematic of humankind's tendency to project feelings of inferiority onto a minority or other scapegoat. Beuys saw his involvement with animals both as a way to harness latent spiritual powers and as a means to heal the ancient wounds produced by toxic assertions of racial superiority.

In his work, Beuys introduced two strands of inquiry that have remained important for subsequent artists: the exploration of the animal/human divide, and the political implications of that divide. Whereas the coyote action was a direct exchange between man and animal, many contemporary artists recognize that our relationships with animals are invariably mediated by prior pictorial conventions and prejudices. The language of representation thus figures prominently in much recent art. A number of artists have toyed with the sentimentality that infuses popular animal imagery. By decapitating and bisecting his Split Rocker, Jeff Koons distances the hobbyhorse from its comforting nursery context. Massive scale is another way of subliminally subverting such kitsch icons--used by Koons in the flower-covered Puppy that was installed as an unofficial adjunct to the 1992 Documenta exhibition near Kassel, Germany, and in 2000 at New York's Rockefeller Center. Ann Craven's pastel-hued bird paintings similarly undercut Disneyesque references by hugely magnifying their diminutive subjects. In this manner, Craven raises questions about domestication and the means whereby once wild species cohabit in the human environment.

Birds appeal to contemporary artists because they seem so intrinsically wild, and because they have long been admired for their beauty and as symbols of freedom. One cannot, of course, approach avian subject matter in the U.S. without conjuring the ghost of John James Audubon. A conqueror of nature active at the same time that European settlers were annihilating the native inhabitants of the American West, Audubon routinely killed his subjects before drawing them. As such, he encapsulates the limitations and implicit aggressiveness of the scientific approach. Love/hate for Audubon infuses the work of Walton Ford, who emulates the master's exquisite technical precision while at the same time twisting this methodology to expose the predations of colonialism. In Benjamin's Emblem, a wild turkey (Franklin's nominee for national bird) nonchalantly spears a far smaller parakeet with its massive talons.

The scientific process of naming (and thereby asserting dominance over) animals is the jumping-off point for Victor Schrager's beautifully photographed Hand Book of Birds. Like Audubon, who set out to draw every bird in America, Schrager initially conceived of his project as the literal fleshing out of a list of names. His birds, however, were not harmed in the process. On the contrary, each subject is handled professionally in the manner appropriate to its species. Nonetheless, the subordination of Schrager's birds--to their handlers, to their human-given names, and to the photographers lens--is the leitmotif of the entire series.

Scientific methodology is also the leitmotif of Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs of the dioramas at New Yorks Museum of Natural History. Dating to the 1930s, these dioramas were once thought to represent the epitome of scientific accuracy, regardless of whether they portrayed prehistoric or extant species. By today's standards of verisimilitude, however, the dioramas look stilted and artificial. Sugimoto's photographs inject new artistic life into these fabricated environments, while at the same time calling into question our ability to ever definitively capture the wildness of nature.

The diorama concept is turned on its head in Frank Noelker's Zoo Portraits. Here, the animals are real, but their surroundings are obviously artificial. These environments are in many cases designed to convince a human audience that the animals remain in their natural habitats, though the animals themselves are unlikely to be fooled. Yet as the primatologist Jane Goodall points out in her introduction to Noelker's forthcoming book, the human intervention that whisks animals from their original habitats is not invariably pernicious. Human incursions into those habitats are sometimes even more destructive, and the survival of some species may depend on their nurturance by enlightened zookeepers. Noelker's animals, with their mute dignity, reflect our conflicted relationship to nature: the animals cannot in most cases go back, and it is not clear how they, or we, are to move forward.

A slightly different approach to science is taken by Alexis Rockman, who prides himself on the clinical accuracy with which he researches and renders his subjects. Though art is ostensibly subjective and science objective, Rockman calls into question the veracity of this dichotomy by willfully commingling the two approaches. Like an illustration in a zoology textbook, his painting Prairie shows in cut-away form the creatures burrowing below the surface of a Mid-Western landscape. The above-ground scenery alludes to the Edenic visions of the American West painted by such 19th-century artists as Albert Bierstadt, but the barrenness of the topography suggests that this may actually be an Apocalyptic, posthuman tableau. The teeming action is all underground, amongst the surviving insects and rodents. Despite their bucolic surroundings, Rockman considers the ground squirrels in his painting to be essentially urban animals, whose nest-building and colonization of tunnels dug by other species parallels human activities. The blurring of categories--art/science, animal/human--is thus carried through thematically as well as aesthetically.

Kiki Smith is another artist who employs the pictorial language of multiple disciplines--including anatomy, anthropology, mythology and religion--to reestablish the bond between animals and humans that was lost through industrialization. Her turn to animal subject matter was triggered by the death, from pesticide poisoning, of a flock of crows in New Jersey, and her work (which she refers to as a kind of Noah's Ark) has a redemptive, preservationist subtext. At the same time, many of her animals appear damaged: They can be patched back together but never made fully whole again. In her series Butterfly, Bat, Turtle, Smith pastes wings or a shell over her own image, creating awkward, imperfect hybrids. "I found this anthropomorphizing interesting," she has said. "The human attributes we give to animals, and the animal attributes we take on as humans construct our identity."

Animal-human hybrids such as centaurs and mermaids have long figured in mythology, but they take on new significance for such contemporary artists as Kiki Smith and Rona Pondick. While working on a series of sculptures in which her own face was melded to the bodies of various animals, Pondick was startled to encounter a news photo of a mouse that had been genetically modified to grow a human ear. Science today not only merges species, but has demonstrated that relatively few genes separate humans from other animals. Increased attention to illnesses transmitted from animals to humans, including West Nile virus, SARS and BSE (mad cow disease), further highlights the permeability of the boundaries separating us from other species. The animal-human hybrid has become a special kind of monster, alluding to our primordial ties with nature while simultaneously triggering fears that science's cross-species transgressions may yield terrifying consequences.

Of all the artists in the present exhibition, Sue Coe addresses these fears most directly. Strongly committed to animal rights, she believes that the industrialization of animal husbandry has not only removed food animals from our midst but has altered the nature of farming in ways that are both unspeakably cruel to the animals and harmful to people. She sees a connection between animals and weaker human beings, all of whom are literally or figuratively chewed up by an amoral capitalist system. In this sense, biotechnology and agribusiness are part of a single continuum. The genetically modified animals depicted in It Got Away from Them are the products of a corrupt and dangerous science. For her Porkopolis series (published in book form as Dead Meat, 1996), Coe infiltrated factory farms and slaughterhouses in order to expose the processes concealed therein. Whereas in earlier works, like Dog of War, the artist used animals metaphorically, she now feels it is crucial to depict animals as they are.

The closest regular contact that most people today have with animals comes from our interactions with pets. Ida Applebroog's Dog with Hat and Dahu both depict dogs in quasi-human guise: one with clothing, the other with crutches. These works remind us that some pets are treated like surrogate children, and that veterinary medicine can now replicate many of the cures once reserved for humans. The animal rights activist Tom Reagan has criticized William Wegman for similarly dressing up his famous weimaraners, claiming that the photographer denies them their innate doggishness. In truth, Wegman's photographs are far more complex than this. The weimaraners are clearly well trained by their master, but the work itself represents the collaborative symbiosis that is the hallmark of the new pet: the animal as equal participant in a cooperative dynamic.

Sally Mann's memorial to her dead greyhound, Eva, is a far more disturbing investigation of the bond between people and their pets. This series of photographs depicts the dog's pelt, which Mann preserved, and bones, which she dug up a year after the animal died. Mann lives on a farm, and therefore remains close to agricultural processes, like tanning and taxidermy, that have become alien to most urbanites. The Eva photos also reference more archaic traditions, such as the preservation of saints bones and other human relics. Though some people live with the ashes of both family members and pets, there is nonetheless a tendency to recoil at these photos, to ask ourselves: Would one do this to a beloved child? Wherein lies the difference? Mann is negotiating the treacherous territory that separates us from the otherness of animals and the other-worldliness of death.

The reification of the other is a recurrent theme in modern and postmodern art, and it is always inherently political. Whereas some contemporary artists have attempted to assimilate the spiritual authenticity of animals, early 20th-century modernists sought inspiration beyond the sphere of European culture, in non- Western countries and in the work of self-taught local artists. In each instance, the other was seen by artists as an alternative or corrective to the dominant power structure. However, just as the early modernists flirtation with primitivism is today viewed as a condescending exercise in cultural colonialism, the postmodern reverence for the animal other can never escape its human-centric origins.

We cannot help but see animals from a human vantage point, and therefore in some sense all the works in the present exhibition are actually about us. As Steve Baker notes, humans will never be able to depict the essence of a real animal, because animals are fundamentally unknowable to us. However, from a less theoretical perspective, there is no denying that animals are real. They may function as our pets, or as our dinner, or they may roam freely in a natural realm that is increasingly encroached upon by human intervention. Regardless, they are obviously real. Arguably a dog, which telegraphs its likes and dislikes fairly distinctly, is more completely knowable than a human companion, who commands a more complex range of emotions. The belief that the animal is inherently unknowable bespeaks a failure of both imagination and of compassion. It is akin to that distancing of the other which leads to genocide.

We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to the many colleagues who made this exhibition possible, as well as to Sue Coe, Don Hanson, Frank Noelker, Alexis Rockman and the William Wegman studio. This exhibition coincides with the publication by the Illinois University Press of Frank Noelker's book Captive Beauty: Zoo Portraits (with a foreword by Jane Goodall and an introduction by Nigel Rothfels). Frank Noelker will be present at the gallery to sign copies of his book on Wednesday, May 19, from 6 to 8 PM. The book may also be ordered from the gallery for $50.00 in hardcover, or $25.00 in paperback. Copies of Sue Coe's Dead Meat (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996; with an introduction by Alexander Cockburn) are available for $40.00 in hardcover, or $22.00 in paperback. If you order by mail, please add $8.00 per book to cover shipping and handling; New York residents, also add sales tax.

Ida Applebroog

Joseph Beuys

Sue Coe

Gregory Crewdson

Mark Dion

Walton Ford

Katherina Fritsch

Leon Golub

Peter Hujar

Jeff Koons

Sally Mann

Frank Noelker

Rona Pondick

Alexis Rockman

Victor Schrager

Kiki Smith

Hiroshi Sugimoto

William Wegman