Blue Oyster Gallery 2007
Dunedin, New Zealand
The humanities have expressed a growing fascination in recent years with the world of animals, in particular with the ways in which animal and human life interacts and impinges upon one another. From politically motivated animal rights activism to issues of genetic manipulation and more anthropologically inspired studies in the character of animals, contemporary art practice, like a variety of other disciplines, has looked to the animal as a subject whose study might reveal something of the human condition.
This is certainly true of the work of Christchurch based artist Belinda Harrow. Animals have been a recurring motif in the artist’s practice for a number of years now, often used in a symbolic way to suggest liminal psychic spaces and delve into the realm of the unconscious. Want or Need however departs slightly from this modus operandi and demonstrates a more explicit interest in the animal, which now functions as a metaphor for human behaviour.
Twelve paintings featuring couplings of birds, rabbits, bears, coyote and bison, rendered alongside various kinds of human dwellings adorn the walls of Blue Oyster while soft-sculpture animals, displayed on an array of collected chairs, occupy the gallery floor. Caught in the act of copulation, engaged in aggressive rivalry or travelling together in familial groups, these creatures exhibit instinctual behaviours unfettered by convention or social expectation. Harrow’s work suggests not so much a mirroring of ourselves in the animal kingdom, but rather gestures toward the way in which the human has become confined by self imposed codes of conduct and manufactured needs. The raw and intuitive acts of the creatures drawn into Harrow’s imagery represent behaviours which are similarly innate to mankind. Unlike the wild animal however, the human performance of these activities is carried out within socially defined parameters. The various forms of human habitation which occupy Harrow’s paintings are of course concrete manifestations of the way in which we manipulate and re-create the world according to these conventions. Houses, campervans and mobile homes are structures that mark out our own private spaces, or territories. These places are deemed appropriate within the social order as ‘sites’ for mating, and competitive rivalry here assumes the guise of a ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’.
The stuffed satin animal forms are drawn directly from those which inhabit Harrow’s paintings, yet where the painted works offer literal representations of birds and mammals the sculptural pieces have become abstracted silhouette forms that drift into indeterminacy. There is a tantalising ambiguity to these creatures. The residual shapes of antlers or beaks signal the origins of these mutated beasts as indeed residing in the animal world but the specificity of the forms is lost to a peculiar re-figuration in which individual animals are morphed into strange undifferentiated shapes. The chairs which act as pedestals to Harrow’s oddly compelling soft-sculptures are again symbols of social structure; man-made objects designed and produced to fulfil a particular human function. Like her graphic works on paper, these three-dimensional works allude to the way in which social rules and social expectation contain human experience and behaviour.
This juxtaposition of domestic architecture and utilitarian objects with the forms of animals is a familiar strategy in Harrow’s work. Her 2005 work Romantic Traffic, presented as part of her final MFA submission at the University of Canterbury and shown later that year in a slightly altered incarnation at Christchurch’s High Street Project Gallery as Plain and Fancy, playfully combined strange aeroplane/avian forms with covered mattresses. The bed, as a place of nurturing and nesting, conjures notions of safety, comfort, and of home, while the flocks of mutated bird forms reference a freer, more open state of being located somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.
The gallery window and Harrow’s own hand-made net curtains were also important components of Plain & Fancy, bringing elements of domestic architecture and home making to bear on the installation. Five Sparrows, shown at Campbell Grant Galleries, Christchurch, in 2005, in a similar way featured small groups of painted, soft-sculpture sparrows flitting around arched windows or perched on tables drawn on the gallery wall, while Harrow’s contribution to the group show Mastery, held at the University of Canterbury SOFA Gallery in 2005, included a collection of soft grey-scale paintings in which the shadows of swooping and diving birds subtly emerge from the decorative wallpaper patterning of the picture surface. All these works demonstrate Harrow’s ongoing interest in exploring lived experience and the human world through a consideration of the animal.
Another important theme in Harrow’s oeuvre, which I think also has a strong presence here, is the artist’s immigrant identity. From her use of birds and planes to suggest ideas of migration or travel, to notions of memory, nostalgia and the passing of time which were explored in her 2006 work … , Harrow has explored the problem of ‘home’ and what it means to live between places. While perhaps not the driving force behind this newest body of work, there remains nonetheless a distinct sense of Harrow’s dislocated identity as a Canadian/New Zealander. The domestic architecture, motor vehicles and animals are uniquely those of North America reminding us of the artist’s affiliations with some place other than New Zealand. Notions of impermanence and a transient lifestyle are easily signalled by her renditions of kit-set houses, mobile homes and canoes, or bison and moose on the move. Perhaps we might also conjecture, then, that Harrow’s interest in the animal, the ultimate ‘other’, is an oblique reference to her own sense of self as being caught between cultures, both New Zealander and Canadian, and yet at the same time neither.
On the surface, Belinda Harrow’s Want or Need would seem to merely provide the Oedipal answer to the Sphinx’s riddle: “Man is the animal …” Through simple juxtaposition her drawings suggests that, despite appearances, we humans are prey to the same base desires and biologic imperatives as the lowly animal. Alternatively, we might also view this work as exploring the way the human world encroaches upon the animal (thus aligning it with such eco-friendly works as, say, Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, The Rats of N. I. M. H, The Incredible Journey, and Chicken Run). But if we think the formation and policing of territorial borders choreographically, then Harrow’s placing of human and animal habitats in such close proximity may suggest something far more interesting – an improbable encounter: despite their mutually segregated and frigid movements something passes between the two kingdoms, a fleeting glance or glancing blow …
This “something” may be located in a shared sense of movement. Camper vans, mobile homes, and the receding perceptive line of the temporary housing all imply diasporic movement, an uprooting of sedentary human forms in rhythms synchronous with the nomadic movements of coyotes, bears, bison, rabbits, moose and deer. In one of the drawings, two trailer homes “copulate” as if by contagion from the coyotes in heat below them. This is the sort of dangerous animal delirium invoked in the opening credits of the otherwise wholesome Disney classic Escape to Witch Mountain, where the swarming profiles of animated wild dogs mutate into a series of overlapping and blending abstract lines just as unrecognizable and strange as Harrow’s soft sculpture shapes.
Indeed, in moving from the two dimension drawings to the three dimensional sculptures, Harrow’s animals would seem to suffer a similar deformation, themselves becoming undulating lines, a convocation of rhythmic silhouettes, faintly gleaming amorphous shapes. The sculpture’s lustrous sheen of black satin cloyingly invites us in as if by animal magnetism. In addition to Disney, I am reminded also of one of Kafka’s stories: “And what had been so far away was all at once quite near. Jackals were swarming around me, eyes gleaming dull gold and vanishing again, lithe bodies moving nimbly and rhythmically, as if at the crack of a whip.” Like Kafka’s jackals, Harrow’s erotically charged soft pillow forms trace mutant abstract lines. As sculptural forms they have effectively detached themselves from any imitative or figurative function; they cease to represent the world insofar as they assemble a new type of reality.
Nevertheless, a violent abeyance of this vitalic movement can easily be effected by symbolically assimilating the mating animals into a ‘primal scene’ scenario, thereby reducing the work itself to a commemorative restaging of (unconscious) human fears and desires. Harrow even seems to suggest such a reading by situating her animal sculptures on a series of chairs, which are, of course, common enough domestic items. Yet the pure animal intensities enacted here effectively resist the metaphysics of anamnesis or recollection, in which the present moment is always put in the service of a prior occasion. By distancing sexuality from the human, Harrow’s acrylic renderings of the literal “beast with two backs” depict not ‘love making’ so much as simple biological drive, an entirely unsentimental force which at the phylogenetic level functions as a system of productive overflow and expenditure, rather than preservation. The primal scene always labors on behalf of production, not retention or recollection. As Foucault says, life is that which escapes, that which steals away …
Coital intensity tends to dissolve rather than reinforce the borders of the self, erasing the subject to sketch pure sensation in its place. To reproduce is to lose, forget, or suffer the death of self. This is quite literally the case with certain animal species, although none are featured among these North American species. Still, in moving from the drawings to the sculptures, Harrow’s procreating animals undergo a kind of death, morphing into something stranger and more unrecognizable. It has been suggested that “no art is imitative, no art can be imitative or figurative. Suppose a painter “represents” a bird; this is in fact a becoming-bird that can occur only to the extent that the bird itself is in the process of becoming something else, a pure line and pure color.” Thus despite the biographical details, as well as the ease with which we could read this work as social commentary – with instinctive animal behaviors employed for social commentary – something much more subterranean is also at work here. The answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?” may well be “man is the animal” (man crawls on all fours in infancy, walks upright on two legs in adulthood, and with a cane in old age), but we have yet to fully explore what alien kind of animal man (and woman) may become through the art process …
 Kafka, “Jackals and Arabs” The Complete Short Stories, 407.
 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 304.