“Animality” is one of the rare occasions where academia meets the road, so to speak, as the theoretical map is put to use. In the spring of 2011, Zach Cahill, a lecturer with the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago and coordinator of the Open Practice Committee, taught a course entitled “Animality” as a survey of the issues surrounding the complicated and often problematic relationships between humans and animals. This exhibition is the culmination of that survey course.
Human-animal relationships have reemerged as an object of earnest scholarly work recently, with Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, which remains much in line with her earlier interest in the implosion of ontological categories (e.g.: being human, being machine, being animal, etc.). Besides Haraway, Bataille, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, others, including Giorgio Agamben and Cary Wolfe, constitute the mandatory reading for the course. Throughout, students were assigned to be “class photographer,” in a gesture that not only produced a wall of notes and photos, (making up one of the works in this exhibit) but also illustrated through the evidentiary photograph the primary experience of humanity’s relationships with animals, especially wild ones.
The front window of DOVA Temporary houses a haunting photograph of a coyote stalking through the nighttime underbrush, eyes aglow from the reflected light. In the corners of the picture are the markings of a scientific survey: a conflation of disciplines that I always find fruitful. The image was a product of a camera trap set up by the class and “taken” by the animal that triggered the camera. The image-as-evidence is taken as a gesture towards a co-existence through visual verification and, one could argue, mastery. To surveil, in the spirit of Foucault, is to master.
Upon entering the smallish storefront gallery, I drifted to the left and came across a postcard of people in animal-head masks playing on a jungle gym; a sympathetic contribution by internationally renowned artist Pierre Huyghe. Huyghe was a guest lecturer and discussed the role animals played within his art.
Pierre Huyghe, La Toison D’or, Dijon, 1993
Theresa Ganz’ contribution was a collaged c-print, cut into strips like bundled brush and hung over a white cloth paper. Watercolor accents blended the formal pattern of the cutouts into the background.
Jessie Mott. From left to right, respectively: Twins, Reddened Menace, The Visitor, Pale Jeweled Coyote. All 2010.
Next to Ganz came Jessie Mott’s gorgeous animal paintings. Mott is a local favorite of mine; I am always happy to come across Mott’s vibrant hyper-color animals undergoing transubstantiation.
To the right of Mott, a table with various documents from the course lies in front of a wall of notes on poster board, as well as the aforementioned class images. Documents from Seminar, as it was called, left me a little annoyed at the short hand that pervades the academy. Name-dropping (see the beginning of this article) and incomplete thoughts that are suggestive of either nothing or something should require a bit more explanation. For example, one such card read: “Why do people die in the woods? Shame – they don’t think.” Had I heard the discussion behind that short hand, I may have been a little less angered at such distilled arrogance, but it is beside the point. I couldn’t help but think of Aokigahara, Japan’s infamous “suicide woods.”
On the table in front of this wall lay publications from the class, including a book of poetry or two and a short essay by guest lecturer, critic and curator Jan Verwoert. Verwoert’s essay, “Animalisms” finds its focus in the space between an “instrumentalized” world and one in “attunement” with the “duende” of being. Verwoert makes the case that the way in which human beings have so far integrated with the natural world, by means of the biblical dominion, has produced an intellectual and emotional rupture that has in turn caused much of our current ecological and therefore sociological and political discontent. Verwoert tries hard to stay away from a reliance on animist euphemisms (anima, soul, duende) but in the end marks this conceptual difference in the West as the key to unraveling the tortured human-animal (and by extension, nature) relationship. His solution to the tortured relationship between humans and animals was to leave behind a relationship based on sacrifice in favor of what he calls “radical empathy.”
Next to this table of textual goodies, three white boxes protrude from the wall in a vertical line, each lined with faux fur of one sort or another. When you peer into Elle Opitz’ Untitled, two squares of mirror reflect your eyes, giving the illusion of being in an animal’s skin. It’s a neat trick that does give one a fleeting moment of cognitive dissonance and suggests the all-too-apt metaphor of “being in someone else’s skin.”
Stacee Kalmanovsky. Taming Beasts in the Homeland. 2011.
In the back of the gallery are two video installations projected on adjoining walls and running simultaneously. One displays a succession of three pieces by Stacee Kalmanovsky entitled, respectively, Taming Beasts in the Homeland, Asking for it, and Animal Skin. The other displays works by Cassandra Troyan entitled, respectively, This Is The Fight Of Day And Night, and I See Black Light (Pressure Apparatus). Kalmanovsky’s Taming Beasts documents two young boys playing football in a bright, sunny meadow, enacting aggression and bearing teeth to the camera in an idyllic integration of the human and animal. The camera work is done in an amateur style, like a home movie, further integrating the animal-like into the accepted human everyday. In contrast, Troyan’s work is a protracted close-up of what initially appears to be an animal’s eye with tears slowly washing over the darkened skin until the color gives way. Troyan said of this piece, “I wanted to create an emotional landscape of both accumulation and disappearance. Something so familiar it is remarkably easy to get lost in; potentially beautiful, but enough sense of abjection that it never reaches transcendence.” It is a sublime moment but disturbing in the frustrated potential for transformation between human and animal. Both of these artists’ work is worth the trip to Hyde Park.
Jacqueline Hendrickson. Installation view of Paradise Found at DOVA Temporary. 2011.
Plaster statuettes of pheasants, ducks and various other woodland creatures (including stereotypical Indian busts in full headdress) populated the far corner of the main room. Jacqueline Hendrickson’s Paradise Found brought back memories of my Midwest childhood and the proliferation of lawn ornaments that abounded in my hometown; the vast majority being lifelike bucks and does. Ironically, it was common to see deer strolling through backyards, grazing on the Kentucky Bluegrass. A matter of control, people were not content with the happenstance and transience of nature so, like victims of a Medusa, the subject of our natural fascinations were frozen in stone to be posed and painted as we liked.
Hannah Pae contributed a series of ten found photographs from a search for “animals in captivity.” She then cropped the photos to focus on a single eye and placed these in two even columns. The result is a strange capture of the moment prior to empathetic identification. There’s a cliché saying regarding vegans; they do not eat anything with a face. The face becomes the point of emotive transference. None of the eyes look directly into the camera, however, suspending empathy.
A Year on a Page 1989-2011 by May Yeung is an interesting artifact. In the format of a calendar (I’m not sure why), Yeung presents a series of photographs that liken her body to the body of an animal, wrapped in plastic wrap, prepared for consumption. The images are part provocative, yet reserved. In some images, the artist seems to have found it hard to commit to the project and so we see images of chicken wings hung on a small coat rack next to the artist’s arms, bound in white clothe, pretending to hang from the same hooks.
May Yeung. A Year on a Page 1989-2011. 2011
Perhaps Yeung’s poetry could shed a little light on the whole exhibition and the intricacies of humanity and animality. Her poem entitled, “The fried chicken,” ends with the following stanza:
I am a fried chicken.
A fried chicken happy to be eaten dead,
-Joel Kuennen, ArtSlant Staff Writer.
[in the interests of full disclosure it should be noted that artist and ArtSlant writer Erik Wenzel was included in this exhibition]