Randolph Street Gallery 2008
Auckland, New Zealand
We are Animals
Once while snorkling I was approached by a fairly large brown fish. It appeared from somewhere and began to examine me through the mask, apparently with some curiosity. I became uneasy about the prolonged scrutiny. In less than half a minute, or an eternity, I lost my nerve and swam back to shore. Afterwards I wondered why I had swam away. I had felt disconcerted, but why? It was due to the peculiarity of being observed by a thing which my experience had led me to believe was in the role of being something to be observed by me. This small gain in self knowledge challenged the sense I had of myself as someone who cared about the natural world. It revealed my concern as self-interest. Sure I care about all the animals and plants; I care so long as they conform to my expectation to be viewed by, but not to view me. Otherwise it is disconcerting.
According to the Freudian analysis, disguised motivations permeate our psychology. The obscurity of our true intentions is essential to the maintanence of a positive self regard. Freud deconstructed dreams on the basis that they are our minds means of disguising from the waking self unacceptible beliefs and desires. By deconstructing the dream, or more properly, a significant series of dreams, Freud believed that, in many cases, hidden motivations and anxieties could be revealed. The Freudian view renders the dream a potentially alarming thing, something with the ability to show us aspects of our nature which are unpleasant or unwelcome, as the fish did.
The work in this exhibition is geared towards showing us something unpleasant about our environment and ourselves. This is achieved by way of a disguise. As happens in dreams and fables, animals are employed as the messangers. A sense of unreality permeates the work. But the animal references can be interptreted in various ways. They do not operate as a straight forward analogy. These animals exist more as condensed extended metaphors. In their statement, the artists refer to concerns about animal welfare due to climate change induced extintion and 'sporting' practice, such as hunting. They are also motivated to critique hackneyed dichtonomies, such as human = rational, animal = instinctual. Such concerns infuse the work, but they are explored with curiosity, rather than being an attempt to persuade the viewer to adopt any particular point of view.
Harrow's wrestling (or dancing) polar beers may be interpreted metaphorically as global climate concerns being brought home to us in our comfortable Christchurch suburbs. Yet there is also a more personal transplantion taking place in Harrow's drawings. Christchurch is depicted as bring populated by the bears, coyotes and wolves from her native Saskatchewan, Canada. The transplantation of these animals to this part of the world mirrors her own journey. So, to read the works as fables about the environment does not exhaust the possibilities. A third interpretation is that the animals stand in for local residents: they represent youths parading, fighting and generally hanging around on a Friday and Saturday night after dark. It is not a contradiction to suppose that all of these ideas have become condensed into the images. As such, Harrow's small and carefully crafted images can be construed as thoughtful reflections on being, where being is considered in the broad, or Heideggerian, sense.
That Jess McCue is concerned for the plight of animals might be inferred from her earlier felt pen drawings of hunters and trophy heads. It might be. But the scale and upbeat handling of the material suggested glorification, rather than condemnation, of the subjects. Currently McCue's work investigates people who exhibit instinctive type behaviours. While the artist has expressed curiosity regarding the motivations of those who post images of themselves on the internet (the images source), the resulting large scale drawings colude with these strangers desire for recognition by strangers of their violent and obsessive pastimes. McCue's work clearly points to the working title claim that 'we are animals.' Her wrestler's displays of preening, aggression and competition are easily interpreted as animal-type behaviours. Yet, the delivery suggests the artist's amusement, as well as her critique. It also points to a delight in the wrestler's brightly costumed and chunky, athletically posed forms. Clearly the formal qualities of the work are to be appreciated for their own sake, and this saves the work from becoming judgmental.
Michael Collins's garrish and painterly depictions of dinosaurs evolved out of a fixation of his two young children. The compositions are informed by cardboard environments, built by the youngsters, containing rocky outcrops and numerous volcanoes. Although innocent of such concerns, it is a highly sexualised environment, of cones and crevises, inhabited by plastic dinosaurs, who fight and prey on one another. These cardboard environments evolved out of a dinosaur wrestling game. The children took on the character of dinosaurs to such an extent that a 'no biting' rule had to be enacted. Experience of fatherhood has reinforced Collins's views about human nature. During play, his children display a very strong intuitive empathy with their distant ancesters. The artist believes that such play encourages personal development to do with boundaries and reciprocity; suggesting that these are more effective than aggression. For Collins's, this ability to reflect upon behaviour characterises the fundamental difference between people and their animal relations. While Collins has expressed an interest in human and animal nature, the environments and characters are being employed also as a departure point for his more formal artistic concerns. The tense compositions, uncompromising colour and confident mark-making tell their own story.
The Darwinian term 'survival of the fittest' popularly conjurs up the idea of a dog-eat-dog existence and there is ample evidence that the artists are alluding to this popular conception. However, Darwin's conception of fitness does not neatly map onto the idea of animal nature as aggressive: his 'fitness' alludes to any behaviour or feature which confers selective advantage in a species. By 'selective advantage' it is to be understood that the behaviour or feature helps towards reproduction, either by ensuring the creature lives long enough to mate or by attracting a mate. Unlike the popular conception, the scientific employment of 'fitness' does not rule out co-operation as a natural-type behaviour.
That the artists adopt the popular, rather than the scientific, conception of 'survival of the fittest' reveals their over-all stratagy for exploring ideas about human and animal nature, and the state of the world generally. In order to operate metaphorically, their subject matter had to line up with the popular view. In metaphor, the vehicle term is grounded in a shared stereotype, rather than being grounded in the latest science. Otherwise the illusion is not accessible, and therefore fails as communication. To say metaphorically that John is a bear is to say something like that John is good at fighting and enjoys getting his own way, or whatever the popular bear stereotype is. To consider that there might be bears who exhibit gentle and co-operative behaviour is to diffuse the metaphor.
I started out by claiming that once I learned something unpleasant about myself from a fish – that my interest in animals was self interested; it depended on them conforming to my idea of how animals behave. This was only unpleasant because I saw myself as being rather virtuous towards animals and the environment. Thankfully in this exhibition the artists do not claim any such moral high ground. In this essay I have mainly accentuated the 'aboutness' relationship of the art to concerns outside of the work. Yet, these works also share the quality of being about the work itself; the formal concerns interior to the process of their production. These drawings and paintings represent a choice to engage with the pleasures of mark-making, form and colour on their own terms. As such, the artists have transcended the contemporary insistence that art be reducible to concept; these works retain a positive sensuality.