To create with animals or not
From cave paintings to today’s animal photography along with television documentaries on the lives and environments of numerous animal species, human beings have always represented living non-humans through diverse technical means. Certainly, according to our perception of the world, taken from legends, religion or other forms of discourse that organize our comprehension of reality, different intentions stimulate our desire to picture these familiar or not other species, from a magical view of the world to a more scientific conception in which these beasts are considered at times as subjects endowed with a spirit and, at other times as nothing more than a body and a potential resource for humans. Yet, in the multiple animistic or totemic views of Indigenous peoples, the non-human animal has always occupied a predominant place in their cosmology. However, in the western world, where the history of art tied to Judeo-Christian visual culture gradually has been imposed, the animal figure falls more within a celebration of creativity.
Accordingly, in medieval bestiaries or Renaissance still life, as well as in the majority of painted and sculpted works from modernity onward, animals of all species have been categorized in a sphere of life at a considerable distance from us. This distancing between human and non-human is revealed mainly in rationalist thought, which for centuries has looked upon the animal as that which through comparison defines and advances the “uniqueness of the human being.” This split in the order of life is clearly expressed in the thinking of René Descartes (1596–1650). By turning his back on the Greco-Latin tradition of the human as a “rational animal,” Descartes made a veritable revolution in the organization of life, separating henceforth the human spirit from all that is corporal, leading to the conception of animals as machines. Fortunately, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) contested this dualism in his considerations of animals’ suffering and developed a mode of thought based on their ability to experience physical sensations just as we do. Whereas in the Cartesian tradition animals were reduced to their physical aspect with no language to express themselves, nor reason to think, domesticated or wild animals in their capacity to suffer would find a favourable ground for our benevolence as human beings.
Despite the emergence of this new relationship with the animal condition, the art world — like many spheres of society — was slow to act. In a text from 2009 titled Testing the Animal: The Body and Material 1, Barbara Denis-Morel notes that numerous artists, among them Damien Hirst, Adel Abdessemed, Lee Bul and Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, are determined to expose the violent treatment that we submit animals to in some of their works. These artists and numerous others like to remind us of humanity’s failures, having little concern for other species. Also, in wanting to show human barbarity in all its rawness, these artists provoke us with their use of the living or dead animal’s body as material. Contrary to these demonstrations in which animal life is reduced to goods to be consumed, this collection of essays for issue 121 attempts to approach what could be the animal’s point of view. The texts here reflect on this new relational state, revealing a desire to construct new viewpoints rather than matters of culpability or ethical redemption.
In 2012, historian Éric Baratay published a book titled The Animal Point of View [Le point de vue animal, Éditions Seuil]. Bénédicte Ramade, in charge of this collection of texts, shares in the ideas presented in this work, in particular, the difficulty of evading anthropomorphism when reconsidering human history “in the light of animality.” In her text, Ramade expands on this difficult exercise. Presenting the works of Sam Easterson, Pierre Huyghe and the duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, she puts forth some hypotheses underlining the importance of decolonizing knowledge in order to devise new ways of revealing how animals perceive the world. This is also the position taken in other texts, such as that of Martina Caruso, which looks at the video works of Christoph Keller, Corinne Silva and Basma Alsharif to understand the role of technical device in telling about human and non-human relations. In the series Animal Lovers, artist, activist and researcher Julie Andreyev also uses video as a way to pay honour. In her text, Penny Leong Browne examines how the creative process in some works rests on an interspecies exchange. She shows how Andreyev, in her practice, applies cognitive ethology to the ethics of communication within post-anthropocentric thought.
Within this post-anthropocentric perspective, indeed a post-humanist one, we certainly cannot grant the animal the status of an artist, but as Anne-Sophie Miclo shows in her text on Michel Blazy, animals can take part in artistic activity. For a number of years, Blazy has staged scenarios “giving a significant place to the indeterminate and the living.” The result of this work is the fruit of a collaboration in which non-humans must be considered as active agents and not as objects. Emily Duke and Cooper Battersby’s Lesser Apes (2011) points to another form of collaboration between human and non-human, which Ray Cronin presents in his text where the question is raised concerning the affective — read sexual — relation between a primatologist and a female bonobo. The subject of possible communication between species is also Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca’s focus in her analysis of Sheep Pig Goat, a performance the British company, Fevered Sleep produced, which presents farm animals interacting with dancers and musicians. The author examines these exchanges and the questions that this brings to the study of animals as well as the gulf that seems to separate the human and non-human. Yet, is this gulf reason enough to ignore the animal world? Only of late, we have rediscovered that everything on this planet is interconnected and that our life depends on the way we respectfully integrate with other non-human beings and ecosystems. Tomás Saraceno’s immense work ON AIR presented recently at Palais de Tokyo in Paris is a good example. In her text, Marie Siguier is interested particularly in the enormous spiders’ webs presented in the first gallery. Organized “around climates, the flux and shift from the biological to the atmospheric,” this exhibition rightly corresponds to the vision of an ecosystemic universe in which humanity is invited to create new connections in order to rethink “the porosity between the human and non-human.” Is this not the only way to redefine our humanity once again?
Alongside these essays, Agnès Villette’s portfolio casts a specific look at the insects that for a number of years have invaded our environment. She presents them as “strangers,” now posing important ecological and economic challenges. Three texts follow in the “Events” section: Orange 2018, the triennial at Expression, centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s retrospective from this past summer at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Biennale nationale de sculpture contemporaine in Trois-Rivières. The exhibition reviews and selected titled sections complete this issue, and hold some nice surprises for the curious reader.
1. Barbara Denis-Morel, « L’animal à l’épreuve de l’art contemporain : le corps comme matériau », Sociétés & Représentations, n° 27, 2009, p. 155-166. [https://www.cairn.info/revue-societes-et-representations-2009-1-page-155.htm]