Last April Huang Yong Ping was forced to remove the animals that inhabit one of his most famous sculptures, Theater of the World 1993, when it was being presented as part of his first traveling retrospective House of Oracles at the Vancouver Art Gallery.The rather complex installation is shaped like a large turtle shell and encases a reptile house and insectarium which host – under the same glass roof and without partitions – tarantulas, cockroaches, millipedes, scorpions, lizards, snakes and toads. The animals are meant to live side by side, but the piece is charged with a creeping tension and evokes some kind of imminent nasty event as both predators and prey move slowly around. We watch, secretly wishing for something dramatic to happen.
Ping’s work connects to a wealth of centuries-old Chinese traditions: Theatre of the World is inspired by the I Ching but also refers to the preparation of Gu, a magical potion that is said to have been made in South China by putting together five venomous creatures in a pot for a year. However, folklore was insufficient to pacify the Humane Society and the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Their demands led to the artist removing all the insects and reptiles. He later stated bitterly that the societies seemed to be exclusively preoccupied with modifying “the artwork into something that resembled a zoo or a pet shop, where each piece is neatly separated into different glass boxes in order to present a staged ‘natural environment’”. He went even further by pointing to the paradox of a situation in which animal rights issues were raised to “violently interfere with the rights of an art work to be freely exhibited”.
The ethical struggle between animal rights and artists’ entitlement to free expressions is not new, of course. Joseph Beuys, the St Francis of contemporary art, had his share of controversy and abuse, in spite of his green party politics and his solemn slogans that proclaimed his will “to elevate the status of animals to that of humans”.
Nowadays, with animal rights activists getting more forceful, one is left to hope for the rise of an artist who will demand that the status of humans be elevated to that of animals. At times, in fact, it seems like animals are granted more privileges than humans. Why is it, for example, that the peaceful coexistence of different poisonous animals is more unethical than, say, the cohabitation of a collection of humans in an enclosed space being filmed for reality TV? Why, when it comes to animals, do we find unacceptable the same behaviour we are ready to accept among the members of our species? Consent is usually the discriminating factor brought up in any ethical discussion about animals, but then again, free will is hard to detect in the animal kingdom, or – as Wittgenstein would have said – if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.
The film Zoo, directed by Robinson Devor and shown for the first time at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, has agitated the puritan consciousness of the American public, as well as capturing the attention of art critics and film writers. Part crude documentary, part highly stylised docu-fiction, investigates the world of zoophilia, searching for the desires and hysteria surrounding a form of sexuality that, even in the most progressive circles, is bound to spark debates on ethical issues of consent and animal rights. One of the most chilling scenes in the beautifully shot film has nothing to do with sex: instead it shows a self-proclaimed animal rescuer who castrates a horse so that the animal may no longer be involved in sinful acts with humans. The dilemma might sound banal, but it’s more than legitimate and far from being easily solved: who is hurting the horse the most, the vet who emasculates it, or the men who have taken animal loving to a whole new level?
Strangely enough – or fortunately enough – bestiality is not a theme that has attracted the interest of many contemporary artists. It is a different kind of union, namely the marriage between the natural kingdom and the realm of artificiality, which has resulted in a series of works that are challenging the way we understand our relationship to animals and to the world. Like Ping’s Theater of the World, many of these have raised ethical questions or generated the usual angry reactions of animalist groups, but they do so at a completely different level from the characters in Zoo.
It is certainly not a coincidence that, together with the photographs of the World Trade Center on fire, one of the images that best defines our present is the seemingly benign portrait of Dolly, the cloned sheep. As William J.T. Mitchell writes in his brilliant What Do Pictures Want?: “The cloned sheep is no less a horror than the catastrophic image of terrorist destruction. The clone, to some people, represents the destruction of the natural order, and reminds us of the innumerable myths that treat the creation of artificial life as the violation of fundamental taboos. From the story of the golem to Frankenstein to the cyborgs of contemporary science fiction, the artificial life-form is treated as a monstrous violation of natural law.” Many contemporary artists are exploring this territory, using animals not to go back to some primitive realm, but, on the contrary, to have access to a hyper-artificial kingdom of possibilities. They cultivate the promiscuity between nature and artifice, experimenting with strange genetic transformations. Some search for ideas in the vocabulary of science and in the space of the laboratory, while others find their inspiration in the stereotype of the mad scientist. Either way, today’s artists are interested in the metaphor of science more than in its actual application. Gone is the phase in which artists like Eduardo Kac could take the theme of cloning and make mutant creatures, such as his infamous transgenic glow-in-the-dark bunny. Along with their fascination for scientific debates, they now seem to keep alive an irrational belief in magic and supernatural powers. So when they are using animals in their work, they appear to make reference to ancient rituals and rural traditions. At other times they seem equally interested in cloning as they are in Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic cartoons.
One of the most celebrated prophets of the synthesis between the natural and the artificial, Matthew Barney, has recently presented a live performance in his studio in which some of these themes are taken to new hallucinatory heights. Conceived as a rehearsal for a piece that was premiered in July at the Opera House in Manchester, it featured a marching band dressed in balaclavas and military uniforms, a couple of semi-naked ladies with veils covering just their faces and – as a grand finale – a gigantic live bull with the horns painted gold and covered with garlands of flowers that was escorted on stage and coaxed to mount a car.
Had this maculate conception succeeded, probably it would have given birth to the kind of creatures that graze in the universes imagined by Paola Pivi, an Italian artist who specialises in living in extreme environments (she has recently relocated to Anchorage in Alaska). Pivi has realised a series of works in which animals are treated as objects in readymades, displaced and inserted in radically incongruous contexts: zebras are taken to the mountains and photographed as they run around in the snow, ostriches are pictured at sea, while donkeys float away on small wooden boats and leopards are left to crawl between hundreds of cappuccino mugs. Her most ambitious work in this vein is Interesting, which consists of more than 40 different animals, all white, that inhabit the exhibition space for the duration of the show. Staged at the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, Milan, in 2006, it brought together goats, dogs, ducks, chickens, horses, lamas, cows, peacocks, ponies, turkeys, sheep and exotic birds, all free to roam, turning the exhibition into an albino Noah’s Ark. Walking through Pivi’s installation felt like entering a three-dimensional monochrome painting – a twenty-first-century Manzoni perhaps? Despite its carnivalesque atmosphere, the piece had more menacing nuances, as though the artist was imagining an anaemic future in which colors and differences will be erased.
The idea of a perfect communion with nature and the fear for its incipient destruction is a recurring theme among some artists today, who represent a world from which the very idea of wilderness seems to be expelled – or a world that returns to wilderness after the disappearance of mankind. It’s not the Garden of Eden in which humans and animals live side by side; it’s a post-apocalyptic world in which animals are left to play among the ruins of humanity.
You get a sense of this in Urs Fischer’s installation House of Bread 2004, a life-size house made entirely of bread. Part fairy tale scenario, part ghostly presence, this archetypical image of home is inhabited by a storm of brightly colored parrots that spend their time picking at the sculpture.
Something similar happens in John Bock’s mesmerising video Gast 2004, in which we see a gigantic hare jump around a living room, looking like some kind of overgrown species. Projected much larger than life, the creature evokes dream-like sequences of cheap sci-fi movies as well as classics of fantasy literature. Of course, it’s a parody of Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. Bock’s hare, however, is alive and kicking; she doesn’t care about the history of art, she’s more interested in eating the artist’s sculptures.
Seeing our domestic spaces colonised by animals can be unnerving. In Rivane Neuenschwander and Gao Guimarães’s video Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue 2006 hundreds of ants carry coloured confetti that the artists have carefully placed in their paths. As with many other works in which animals are used, at first the piece has a childish freshness to it, something you immediately connect to: the ants seem carefully caught in a choreographed dance that might recall the procession of a Brazilian carnival. But the more you watch, the more unsettling it becomes: the ants are playing with the residues of our existence, they are taking our things away – they are little undertakers.
Artists have often resorted to animals to talk about death, as though they were in a closer proximity to nature and therefore to mortality; as though it were easier to speak about death by using someone else as an example. As Damien Hirst might have said, animals serve the purpose of proving “the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”.
For the 2007 Munster Sculpture Project, Mike Kelley realised a social sculpture in which the viewers are invited to interact with live animals. His Petting Zoo – built in a dismal backyard not far from the city’s train station – is a strange allegory of death based on the biblical legend of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed a divine decree. In Kelley’s farm, animals such as goats, horses, asses, ponies and a cow are free to roam around a statue of salt with the features of a woman.
Attracted by its saline taste, they lick the sculpture, slowly destroying it and transforming this makeshift monument into an hallucinated vision tinted with sexual tensions and iconoclastic forces.
Probably as a reaction against traditional monumental sculpture in which animals are depicted as strong and unbeatable, many contemporary artists have created works in which horses in particular are portrayed in desperately anti-heroic poses. Anri Sala’s Time After Time 2003 is a eulogy for a horse the artist found abandoned on the side of a highway in Albania: in the short, lo-fi, dark video, the skinny animal stands perfectly still, terrified, almost shell-shocked by the sounds of the speeding cars. As with many other videos by Sala, it celebrates a moment of loss and surrender. Maurizio Cattelan’s live and taxidermic animals often speak of death: like equestrian monuments in reverse, they question authority instead of honouring it. With their absurd changes of scale and anthropomorphic transformations, they can also take the visual grammar of cartoons to its most tragic consequences. Something of those endless chases between cats and mice resurfaces in Mircea Cantor’s Deeparture 2005, a film of a deer and a wolf in a gallery. They circle each other nervously, their breath getting heavier and heavier, and you can almost see their heartbeats becoming faster. Perfectly filmed and carefully edited, it runs in a loop with no climax and no finale; the predator and the prey move slowly, the deer tries to remain still, while the wolf paces the room but never attacks – what would in a natural environment be a dance of death turns into a coldly executed ballet of survival.
Another animal dance is staged in Douglas Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time 2003, probably one of the artist’s most hypnotic pieces. Filmed inside the spaces of the Gagosian Gallery in New York, it shows an elephant as it carries out a series of exercises, lies down, rolls on its side, returns to its feet and falls down again. Inspired by an early film by Thomas Edison that documented the execution of an elephant of the Coney Island Circus, Play Dead is particularly beautiful and upsetting because it portrays an animal that seems to be practising its own death, a privilege usually not granted to humans.
Then again, humans have the privilege of using animals to represent our most private fears. Unfortunately, we will never know how animals depict and imagine us. In the 1970s Gino De Dominicis, one of Italy’s most mysterious artists, organised an exhibition which was open only to animals – no humans allowed. It’s impossible to know what was in the show and, more importantly, what animals might have thought of it, but De Dominicis succeeded in reversing our usually anthropocentric point of view. As in the old paradox about the science laboratory, his piece insinuates the doubt that it is not the scientist that has trained the rat to go through the labyrinth to get to the food, but the rat that has trained the scientist and taught him to prepare the food always at the same time and whenever the rat is done with its daily exercises. Or, more simply, as Walt Disney might have said: “Remember, this all started with a mouse.”