SOFA Gallery, Christchurch New Zealand, 2009
In June 2000 a headline captioning a two page feature article in the New York Times trumpeted: “Animals have taken over art and art wonders why”, in response to the preponderance of imagery or presence of animals (live or dead) in the work of many contemporary artists today. Can art really ‘wonder why’? As boundary markers, enclosures, tarmac, development and environmental degradation stalks the land; as biotechnology reaches deeper into the animal gene pool and agribusiness practices engage further codification and efficiency the fascination with non-human animals and their representation is surely, self evident.
Among the many proponents resisting the vastly inoperable status quo are not only, quite predictably environmental and animal rights activists, but theorists from many disciplines engaged in animal studies or human animal discourses. They are concerned with an analysis of human animal relations that seeks to posit animals as beings-in-themselves who are separate from our knowledge of them and to trace the many complex interactions between us from anthropomorphism to human acts of extreme over identification with animals, and perhaps most commonly, the representational use of animals to understand or articulate the human condition.
As for the field of art – in the words of Deleuze and Guattari – “art is constantly haunted by the animal”[i]: haunted not only by the pure sensory qualities of non-human animals, but in a metaphorical sense signifying sheer quantity and regularity. A path can be traced from the inscriptions of animals painted on the walls deep in the bowels of the Lascaux caves in France, of hunting scenes in Medieval times, through to the animalier tradition of the nineteenth century and the dewy-eyed sentimentality of chocolate box animalia from last century to the present.
One of the first artists working in a contemporary trajectory who engaged with animals in a serious and sustained manner was German conceptual and performance artist-shaman Josef Beuys. In works like his infamous How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) Beuys was not only attempting to raise awareness of animal consciousness but modelled a potential intermingling of human animal consciousnesses. Fast forward to the recent past where mega-brand Damien Hirst continues to pickle severed or whole animals in glass vitrines; Maurizio Cattelan’s taxidermised specimens are stacked, suspended or commit suicide; Patricia Piccinini engages the controversial apparatus of biotechnology while shock jock Marco Evaristti presents kitchen blenders with water and goldfish for the willing to ‘blenderise’.
Things are less visceral and eviscerated on the home front. Michael Parekowhai’s giant inflatable bunnies Cosmo and Jim McMurty ply a host of colonial tropes under a cuddly Disney guise while Francis Upritchard draws up the dawn of the taxidermised dead with twitches of voodoo and everyday quiddity to comment on ritualised commodity culture.
The non-human animal, is as we see, a highly versatile palimpsest capable of encapsulating innumerable ideologies, philosophies, theories and projections. As a species they are, in the oft-quoted words of French structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss “good to think [with]”[ii]. Lévi-Strauss’ dictum is not intended as a blithe bon mot but as a broad framework for expanding a mobile awareness of the extent to which we lean on non-human animals for an explication and understanding of ourselves and the structures and strictures that map our surroundings and experiences.
Such themes are evident in the work of Michael Collins, Belinda Harrow and Jess McCue in Survival of the Fittest: Part ll. There is overlap between their work as each artist addresses ‘the animal’, ‘the human’ and the nature of their interaction within a popular understanding of survival of the fittest as one of struggle for life, but also a particularised nuance based on individual interest and emphasis.
Michael Collins’ paintings take as their starting point humble 3D landscape environments constructed by his two children (boys) from cardboard and cut-up egg cartons which are subsequently spray painted in a variety of colours to resemble a primordial volcanic terrain punctuated by shady gullies and fairly regular conical peaks. The cardboard sets are then populated by a cast of toy dinosaurs with which Collins’ both senior and younger enact dinosaur adventures. In essence Collins’ current practice is both the ‘relational’ aspect of game playing and modelling ‘good social behaviour’ (which includes the importance of reciprocity), and the solitary act of painting.
Collins, like UK born, US based painter Malcolm Morley employs model making or props as an aid and subject for his paintings and welcomes this point of origination authored by others as it provides him with both a pre-existing subject and a certain amount of distance. Formally Collins’ paintings employ two main perspectival views, an aerial survey which mimics the game playing point of view or a cinematic sweep over shot a la Jurassic Park, and a close crop which tends to focus on the toy dinosaurs themselves. They are strong painterly works rich in saturated colours played out in an open colour scheme that resemble some of Franz Marc’s paintings in terms of palette and paint handling. Strident colours are placed side by side creating a playful, faux-naif quality. Aside from the social implications of Collins’ grappling with an animal subject he offers an interesting take on the genre of still life.
In a number of bodies of work exhibited over the past few years Christchurch based artist Belinda Harrow has employed avian and fauna symbolism, and domestic articles to tease out interweaving threads which mediate her dual New Zealand/Canada identity, the state of the environment, memories and markers of difference. In a practice which incorporates an eclectic array of disciplines from installation to illustration, sculpture to sewing, some of the most reoccurring motifs or subjects are the animals that inhabited the rural Saskatchewan environs of her childhood such as the bear and wolf. In Survival of the Fittest (1), Harrow attempted a mediation of her two homelands, (or an incursion of one into the other even) in a series of graphite drawings which somewhat uncannily foregrounded the ‘exotic’ (bear or bison) in the rather bland suburban tracts of residential Christchurch. For this, the second instalment, all traces of embedded context are erased with only a stark ‘otherness’ inhabiting the gallery space. An ‘otherness’ which is of course a ‘belonging’ in its culture of origin and evidence of the type of perspective available to someone who claims two homelands.
In her installation of stuffed wolves supported by rudimentary tree-like structures there is more than merely the suggestion that this perspective puts the individual in a rather unusual and at times tenuous position. However to position the wolf as (solely) a surrogate of sorts runs the risk of simplistic shorthand and closes out other readings such as the interaction of flora and fauna, although Harrow does describe with nonchalant ease how “coyotes were always on the periphery”[iii], something that a New Zealander can only wonder at.
Standing astride these tall, Christmas tree like constructions there is a strong aspect of the totemic with regard to not only the wolf, but the deliberate use of timber native to North America. The Douglas fir is also carried into the illustrations marking the wolf, as if in allusion to their interdependence, an interdependence that if not managed correctly could endanger this balance.
In the same way that earlier generations of artists clipped images and texts from newspapers and other printed material, Jess McCue trawls the ever increasing data of the Internet for images that could coalesce under headings of ‘combat’ or ‘the instinctual’. Her favourite hunting grounds are the usual suspects: Google image search, YouTube and backwater personal websites where she selects images in which the popular interpretation of the survival of the fittest is writ large: heroics via combat whether it be hunting or sports such as boxing or wrestling. Needless to say there is a greater quota of human participants in her scenarios, although a simplistic us over them is sidestepped in Richard and Shaun (2008) by the inclusion of a wheelchair bound hunter.
Omissions and erasures are made to each image so as to lend an anonymity that could therefore stand in for ‘every person’. The most striking aspect of this process is the almost blanket refusal to provide a facial identity which only serves to underscore this intention. This is echoed throughout each work by blank and ‘unfinished’ areas, which coupled with the flat modelling gives the forms a type of weightlessness as though they are disembodied ciphers. In a further echo of her source the patchy, striated lines of the felt pens embody the bands of information as it uploads, often painfully slowly, onto the screen.
The work of these three artists participates in dialogues on human and animal interrelatedness that evoke the present and point to the future. How will we live in the world individually and collectively? Is complementary interaction possible and how will we make the vast and necessary changes to inhabit the world and utilise the limited resources available with equanimity, wisdom, tolerance and generosity.
[i] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy, Verso, London and New York, 1994, p. 183.
[ii] Claude Lévi Strauss, Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1962, 128.
[iii] Personal communication, December, 2008