Originally published in Tate Magazine, September 2001.
Haunted by the Animal
‘Art is continually haunted by the animal’, wrote Deleuze and Guattari in their final book, What is Philosophy? The animal’s mystifying ubiquity was given a more specifically topical spin in June 2000 when the New York Times ran a two-page feature with the headline ‘Animals have taken over art, and art wonders why’. Despite such familiar precursors as Kounellis’s horses and Beuys’s coyote, the sheer amount of recent art to feature living animals certainly did seem to be a new phenomenon. But by no means all of this work was driven by a desire to say anything in particular about the animals on display. The two Lost Love pieces in Damien Hirst’s huge show in New York’s Gagosian Gallery in the closing months of 2000, for example, featured aquatic tanks in each of which live freshwater fish swam around furniture from a gynaecologist’s office. One of Hirst’s less provocative comments on them was to admit: ‘I don’t quite know what they’re about’.
As the animal in the gallery space is seldom (if ever) there of its own choosing, it is hardly surprising that the ethical issues raised by its treatment by the artist have now come to the fore. When those issues have been addressed by artists, they have emanated from two broadly related positions: the first concerned with the animal’s place in debates around environmentalism, and the second more specifically addressing animal rights.
Representative of the first was Mark Dion’s ‘Some notes towards a manifesto for artists working with or about the living world’, in the catalogue of the Serpentine Gallery’s Greenhouse Effect exhibition in 2000. It is an earnest set of handwritten notes that eschews the irony found in much of his work, and includes this uncompromising declaration: ‘Artists working with living organisms must know what they are doing. They must take responsibility for the plants’ or animals’ welfare. If an organism dies during an exhibition, the viewer should assume the death to be the intention of the artist’.
The statement could certainly be applied to a work exhibited in the Trapholt Art Museum in Denmark early that year. Marco Evaristti’s installation displayed ten ordinary kitchen blenders, in each of which a single goldfish was swimming. Visitors to the exhibition were free to switch on any blender, ‘transforming the content to fish soup’ as one report flippantly put it. When the exhibition was reported in the American media (the work having already been removed by the Danish police), the CNN website polled its readers on their reactions. Seventy-two percent were of the view that the exhibit was ‘definitely not’ art.
The removal of Evaristti’s work followed complaints from an animal rights group, but the animal rights perspective on the use of living animals in art is better represented by the group of Minnesota-based artists who formed the Justice for Animals Arts Guild (JAAG) in the autumn of 2000. They were convinced that ‘much could be accomplished by sensitizing the arts community’ to the fact that animals were ‘sentient beings, not ideas or inanimate materials with which to create a performance or an exhibit’. Their immediate goal was to negotiate with state arts organizations and funding agencies for the institution of policies that would prevent the ‘cruel or degrading’ use of living animals by contemporary artists. Unlike the readers of the CNN website who took the easy view that something shocking or cruel is not art, here were artists themselves taking the more measured response that an artist’s intentions should not automatically overrule the interests of animals which find themselves caught up in that artist’s work.
The JAAG is still in the process of formulating its precise guidelines and goals, and it may therefore be unfair to put too much weight on the outcomes of its preliminary discussions. But along with Dion’s ‘notes towards a manifesto’, they suggest that it may be timely to review the difficulties besetting any such attempt to address the contemporary artist’s responsibilities. What follows, therefore, is an exploration – almost as an anti-manifesto – of things that hinder any easy resolution of these issues.
The question of materials is a useful starting point. The JAAG’s objection to living animals being used as an artist’s ‘inanimate materials’ seems entirely reasonable, but masks the diversity and complexity of contemporary practice. The objection may fit Hirst’s comment on the living flies he used in A Thousand Years (‘formally, I wanted an empty space with moving points within it’), but it is less clear that it would apply to his more recent Lost Love installations, where Hirst had to work with the ‘fish consultant’ Matt Evans simply to get the pieces to work successfully. The fish may figure as no more than moving shapes, moving materals, but the formal success of the works depends on their continued well-being.
Mark Dion’s occasional work with living animals (including a recent installation featuring live piranhas) complicates things further. The animals in his works do indeed serve as his materials, but usually as part of an impassioned or ironic commentary on cultural or environmental issues in which – outside the privileged space of the gallery – those animals are already caught up. It certainly does not lead him to overlook their status as sentient beings. Of the eighteen birds flying around Dion’s complex and subtle 1993 installation, Library for the Birds of Antwerp, the artist has recently remarked that ‘nothing’ in the piece ‘is as impressive as any one of these African finches’. In terms that recall the JAAG’s ambition ‘to sensitize the arts community’, Dion has also spoken of trying, through his work, ‘to sensitize people ... towards the ornithological’.
Even Marco Evaristti’s goldfish installation, which may seem to exemplify art’s cynical manipulation of animals, has been the subject of other more generous readings. The animal rights philosopher Peter Singer noted the cruelty of keeping the fish in such small sterile containers and of allowing exhibition-goers to ‘grind them up’ on a whim, but also acknowledged that ‘when you give people the option of turning the blender on, you raise the question of the power we do have over animals’.
This brings the discussion back to the JAAG’s objection to art that is ‘cruel and degrading’ to animals. Only the treatment of living animals can really be called ‘cruel’, but certain artists’ uses of dead animals might also be regarded as degrading. The altogether more surprising fact is that the distinction between the living and dead animal counts for little in terms of the meanings generated in much contemporary art.
Regardless of ethical stances, it is still materials that count here, creating knowledge and encouraging open and imaginative thought. It is through their dealings with the animal as material that artists have managed to render animals abrasively visible, and utterly distinct from the fantasy creatures of 102 Dalmatians and suchlike, which are effectively erased by the weight of anthropomorphic sentiment surrounding them. Popular culture sees only itself in the eyes of its animal. Art, no matter how apparently cruelly, does not shrink from the sight of the animal. In doing so it is one of the few contemporary forms that can claim properly and respectfully to attend to the otherness of the animal.
Here are some examples. In 1976, Carolee Schneemann staged a revised version of her performance Up to and Including Her Limits at The Kitchen in New York. At one end of the space the artist swung from a harness creating drawings on the paper-covered floor and walls around her, while a live video relay at the opposite end of the room left viewers to shift at will between the performance and its representation. Projected on another wall was a loop of her film Kitch’s Last Meal. But her cat Kitch had died the day before this particular performance, and the dead body was carefully laid out a short distance from the artist.
One of the extraordinary strengths of a previously unpublished photograph of this performance is the counterpoint it establishes between artist and animal, turning the performance into an improvised memorial, the acting-out of the artist’s mourning for the cat who had featured in some of her film-making and of whom she would later movingly write that ‘her steady focus enabled me to consider her regard as an aperture in motion’. Here the artist renders acutely visible the cat who had, in turn, taught her a particular way of seeing the world. The point may be an obvious one, but Kitch’s presence here is in no way diminished by her lack of life.
Questions of animal reality and presence were also evident in Edwina Ashton’s recent Artlab exhibition at Imperial College, called We Speak Your Language. A cluster of television screens showed three of her untitled videos. On the left, short episodes of zoo footage showed marmoset, bear, beaver, seal, penguin, polar bear, their voices providing the only soundtrack to this peculiar triptych. The right-hand screen showed two or three Barbary sheep standing so still in the surrounding rocks that they were easily mistaken for a scene from a diorama, making the single instant when a human head passes in front of the camera all the more alarming. On the middle screen, in a dark and claustrophobic space, is Ashton dressed in a homemade squirrel costume, hesitantly holding up one by one her odd hoard of possessions for the camera’s inspection, and eventually displaying this deeply disturbing animal’s skills not at writing – as viewers might expect when a blank sheet of paper is brought out – but at origami.
It is difficult adequately to describe the complex play of representation in these juxtaposed images, but it reflects Ashton’s concern that the animal on film is an ‘enormous problem’ because it is too real. She struggles even to articulate this perception, saying that ‘it easily becomes too frightening, too involving and distancing, too easy, too condescending to use real animals’. But the work shows very clearly how animal representations may themselves articulate and highlight the visibility of living animals – and at the same time may inadvertently but powerfully ‘suppress the human’, as she puts it.
The same procedure is evident in reverse in Marion Coutts’s 1999 film Epic. It traces the funeral-like procession of a life-sized fibreglass black horse carried at shoulder-height by its four human bearers through the streets and gardens of Rome, commenting obliquely on the city’s equestrian statuary and creating moments of humour when the legs of this otherwise realistic representation form stiff diagonals as the horse is moved up or down flights of steps. Coutts describes it as ‘a stately pantomime played not exclusively for laughs’. Its most striking moment, however, does not directly involve the horse. It is an unexpected shot lasting no more than seven or eight seconds of a large black dog drinking at a fountain in the Borghese Gardens, and this brief glimpse of animal vitality at the film’s centre resonates powerfully through its play of representations.
Akira Mizuta Lippit writes in his book Electric Animal that human identifications with animals ‘result from encounters with sensual excess’. This is nowhere more apparent than in art. As Coutts understatedly remarks, an animal’s will and resistance mean that it ‘is not a sitter’. For Schneemann too the animal in art invariably constitutes a ‘threshold of disturbance’ rather than ever being ‘simple physical evidence’. This is where and how art is ‘haunted by the animal’, to return to Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase.
The animal ‘haunts’ because it can simultaneously be vividly present and bewilderingly absent. In the taxidermic constructions of contemporary artists such as Jordan Baseman, Mark Dion, Angela Singer and Neil Hamon, for example, the uncomfortable illusion of ‘liveness’ is no simple thing. For Singer, recycling taxidermy that was once trophy kill, the process is a way for her ‘to honour the animals’ life’. Cultural theorists such as Lippit and John Berger have argued that in important ways the animal is already lost to the contemporary world, and much of the most compelling animal art is now certainly open to being read as a form of memorial to that loss.
It could even be said that the use of the living animal in art is most telling when it’s caught somewhere between life and death, between reality and representation. Whether or not viewers regard artists’ use of living animals as justifiable, the resulting work is almost always difficult and uncomfortable, and can prompt complex ironies and unlikely alliances when art and animal advocacy come face to face. The clearest case of this is undoubtedly the furore surrounding Eduardo Kac’s recent artwork, GFP Bunny.
Kac (pronounced ‘cats’) produces what he calls transgenic art: ‘a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings’. In February 2000 at the INRA research laboratory in France he created one of these unique beings, an albino rabbit that glows bright green when illuminated with blue light. The rabbit, named Alba by the artist, was created with EGFP, an enhanced version of the green flourescent gene found in jellyfish, which was added to the unborn rabbit’s DNA. The procedure is an established one, which this laboratory had previously used successfully for the purposes of medical research.
According to Kac, the GFP Bunny artwork consists of the rabbit herself, the public dialogue generated by the work, and the proposed ‘social integration’ of the rabbit in Kac’s own family when she was brought back from France to live as the family pet in Chicago. Alba was therefore not so much a living work of art as ‘a participant in the GFP Bunny transgenic artwork’. The work is intended as an ‘examination of the notions of normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity and otherness’, and a negotiation of ‘the terrain between science and culture’. It seeks to offer ‘ambiguity and subtlety where we usually only find affirmative (“in favor”) and negative (“against”) polarity’.
‘Responsibility is key’, Kac insists, and he in no way condones ‘work that harms animals’. It is important to understand that the transgenic work is carried out at the level of the individual reproductive cell: ‘In other words, you do not modify an existing animal’. Such art must be accompanied by ‘a commitment to respect, nurture and love the life thus created’. He says this of the occasion when he first held the rabbit: ‘She immediately awoke in me a strong and urgent sense of responsibility for her well-being’.
Given Kac’s entirely sincere concern not to harm animals in the production of transgenic art, it is at the very least ironic that the easy availability of transgenic mice has already led to an increase in the number of animal experiments currently undertaken, and that the first GM primate was also created in 2000, its genetic material having been modified in the same way as that of Alba.
The complex implications of this whole affair did not end there, because the project did not work out quite as the artist had planned. As of June 2001, Alba is still at the French research lab, which claims that Kac had never been authorized to take her back to Chicago. His concerted campaign to secure Alba’s release has attracted media attention in France and the United States, and a representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals went so far as to say that GFP Bunny was ‘helpful for laboratory animals everywhere’, and could highlight their plight.
What can be learned from such a case? It certainly confirms that there is no consensus on what constitutes ethical behaviour towards the animal in contemporary art. More radically than this, however, it may suggest that ethical questions cannot even be adequately framed in this context. Kac is surely right to say that the question is more complex, because both ‘ethics and aesthetics are branches of philosophy’, and the ‘bias and prejudice’ of the Western philosophical canon has been nowhere more evident than in its pronouncements on animals.
It may be that those working within the arts are especially well placed to devise new forms of responsible action – critical and improvisatory forms that sidestep a rule-bound or unduly moralistic notion of ethics. The recognition of such moves will call for a trust in the integrity of the artist, and a reluctance to be outraged too quickly when the animal takes unexpected or controversial forms.
Alejandro González IĖárritu’s brilliant film Amores Perros provides a fine example. The media’s focus has been on the jarring realism of its brief scenes of simulated dogfights, and this has diverted attention from its serious, prolonged (and profoundly Deleuzian) meditation on the relation of dogs and humans, most notably as Cofi, the black dog at the film’s centre, tests almost to destruction the scope for human-animal alliances. Amores Perros charts both the complex proximity of human and animal lives, and the ways in which the subtle work of representation can shift human preconceptions about the animal world. Although the living animal’s role in film is in some respects distinct from its role in fine art practice, these same two themes are central to some of the most committed and imaginative contemporary art.
Both are evident in the work of Olly & Suzi, whose current exhibition at the Natural History Museum traces their worldwide travels to paint endangered predators at the closest possible quarters in their natural habitats. The fearful proximity this often involves could not be further from Damien Hirst’s detachment from his animal subjects, exemplified in his claim that ‘you kill things to look at them’. Often working with local guides and conservationists, Olly & Suzi’s aim is to render visible the animal’s impending disappearance, whether it is a white shark off the South African coast or a tarantula in Venezuela. Painting together, ‘hand over hand’, they make every effort to enable the depicted animal itself to contribute to the mark-making, so that the weight of the creature’s fragile presence and reality is imprinted there. The finished painting thus takes on the status of ‘a document … a genuine artifact of the event’, in a way that its striking photographic documentation can never quite match.
In place of prescribing (or proscribing) how the animal should be seen, other artists have also engaged in the interplay of the seen and the unseen, and the questioning of what is seen. Alert to the difficult and critical work of representing animals, Britta Jaschinski’s photographs sometimes create productive ambiguities of exactly this kind. In the sharp focus of her current Wild Things series, as in the hazy imagery of the marvellous Beasts series that preceded it, viewers are liable to misread the evidence of their eyes. Unable to figure out how the photographs have been made, they have often assumed that the profile shots of the rhino or elephant in Wild Things show taxidermic animals rather than living ones. Some of these animals have been photographed in zoos, others in the wild. With the erasure of background and context, this significant distinction is also erased – and with it, the dubious notion that is peddled too often that the ‘zoo animal’ is in some sense not a real animal.
Marion Coutts is equally concerned to question viewers’ preconceptions. In a recent video, Cat Piece, the face of a black cat fills the screen, disarmingly staring the viewer down as its pupils dilate and contract in rapid response to unseen distractions behind the camera. In such intense close-up, the animal is shorn of comfortable familiarity. Its gaze is interrupted only by three brief ‘intermissions’ that focus equally closely on other barely recognizable bits of the animal so that, in the artist’s words, ‘the cat almost disappears into its own body’. Like Schneemann’s Kitch, this is a seeing animal rather than a seen one.
In one of their most remarkable pronouncements, Deleuze and Guattari state that artists ‘experience the animal as the only population before which they are responsible in principle’ – thus the animal’s haunting presence for the artist. That responsibility, however the word is interpreted, is the subject of much of the art discussed here. Mark Dion’s provisional manifesto assigns the artist a responsibility to be inventive, because ‘nature does not always know what is best’. The Justice for Animals Arts Guild acknowledges the value of ‘mischief’ as one of art’s strategies, and the need critically to examine art’s claims to ‘truth’. Both views recall Donna Haraway’s ‘argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction’.
There need be few such boundaries in art’s dealings with the animal, though it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge this. As one scientist has said in defence of Eduardo Kac, ‘How did I and my fellow scientists become anointed to do things that should be prohibited to artists? Because we are contributing to the understanding of things? So are artists’. The value of the science is open to question, but prohibiting the art is by no means certain to improve matters.
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