Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” - Edward O. Wilson

Humanity is at a critical point in its history: we have actually stopped to consider how much we have destroyed and whether we will continue to do so. We are responsible for the world’s sixth wave of mass extinction:1 wild animals are dying in irretrievable numbers from habitat destruction and fragmentation,2 environmental stressors,3 and extermination by those who consider them pests or desirable commodities,4 while domestic animals are being produced and consumed at a ridiculous rate.5 Mis[place]d: Animals Lost and Found features thirteen projects by emerging artists concerned with our damaging relationship with wildlife and companion animals. To be misplaced is to be accidentally lost from a place of belonging. This exhibition suggests that the notion of incorrect positioning may be applied to animals, as well as the pervading attitude that we possess them. The works in Mis[place]d act as sites of inquiry, places where new ways of thinking about animals can be found where misplaced attitudes have brought about loss.

Familiar Faces
“When the world crashes in to my living room/Television made me what I am” - Talking Heads

Exerting cultural and biological stressors onto animals to get them to fit into human societal structures is the basis of domestication, although recent practitioners have been accused of endangering animal and human welfare in so doing.6 While these creatures, such as pets, seem an intrinsic part of our lives and happiness, the process of domestication simultaneously situates them as “objects of ownership, inheritance, purchase, and exchange.”7 By defamiliarizing the animals we consider closest to us, works by Laura Paolini and Ian MacTilstra remark on losing pets within our homes.

Laura Paolini’s Crocodile Tears (Crying Cat) situates a pet in its “natural habitat:” a seat in front of the television. A robotic cat watches a video of a real cat playing to the tune of What a Wonderful World. The robot cries constantly, suggesting that what it sees brings about feelings of sadness. Our dominance of the animal world is reflected by our desire to achieve within it aesthetic beauty, breeding animals that aren’t really animals anymore, but rather pretty objects, continuously ascribed with human qualities and emotions. Also evident is a critique of art historical concerns with the power of beauty to achieve the sublime: the cat is gorgeous, but as fake as its tears, and deeply rooted in materiality.

Ian MacTilstra’s digitized super-8 video How I Lost My Virginity shows a time-elapsed day in the life of a dog. The dog is captured sleeping on a couch, rarely getting up to move, and we hear its restless moans. This idle dog is one we’re not unaccustomed to: the pet that spends its life sleeping. However, as time passes and the dog’s moans become more insistent, this common scene becomes repulsive and disconcerting. Dogs are known as "man’s best friend," revered for their heroic loyalty. But this is a hero devoid of glory. As with losing virgin purity, something sacred has been stripped away from this animal.

Pest Problems
“Check what’s in the trash bag/We’re just another part of you” - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

“Pest” is a diminutive of pestilent, the word indicative of something deadly, yet the pesky creatures we fear and are disgusted by resemble us closely in terms of physiognomy, behaviour, and intelligence. The destruction of the world’s resources is suicide, perhaps paralleled most poignantly in the way we treat pests. Works by Stephanie Vegh, Stephanie Kervin and Sylvana D’Angelo, and Christina Knox examine the problems with pests.

The Plagues by Stephanie Vegh confronts our fear of rats in relation to their overwhelming pervasiveness of civic spaces and poor reputation as bearers of fatal disease. Spreading out from a stoney basement corner are rats drawn onto 71 pages of Rome and the Campagna, a Victorian treatise glorifying ancient architecture. Vegh’s interventionist illustrations emphasize the incongruity between the text’s claims of greatness and images of the remaining ruins, and seek to expose our historical tendency toward hubris while neglecting to credit the influential forces of animals. Vegh’s drawings capture the reputation of the rat: they are monumental yet ephemeral, silent but “equal builders of civilization alongside human influence.”8

Stephanie Kervin and Sylvana D’Angelo’s Making Bunnies begins with a hundred small plaster rabbits that multiply during the exhibition. This intimidating family of rabbits is made from molds based on one Kervin’s mother made for her as a child. Making Bunnies makes physical the process of reproducing that which is inherited. Playing on rabbits’ ability to quickly reproduce, Kervin and D’Angelo liken this to the perpetuation of inherited values, particularly in relation to the prejudicial act of speciesism that makes acceptable the mistreatment of pests and other animals.9 By staggering the installation, most will only have a limited view of the rabbits, as is the case when preordained attitudes toward masses of animals block us from individually interacting with each.

Losing animals in representational contexts is clear in Christina Knox’s photographs, Shooting the Mass Murder. In blurry, obscured images we see Knox’s attempts to document a mass murder of crows - between 16,000-32,000 - that congregate at dusk at a roosting site just outside Vancouver. These works may be regarded as a cooperative effort, with Knox bound by the shortcomings of her camera to get pale, gritty images of her subjects - which appear lost amongst residual distortion due to low light - without causing them duress from assistive lighting. Her photos engage us despite compromised clarity, embodying a critique of the need for our ideals to be met at the cost of animals’ well being.

Exotic Thrillers
“But you’re innocent when you dream” - Tom Waits

Bizarre portrayals of animals range from pure fantasy claimed as authentic to the housebound representations of wild creatures we never physically interact with. Our habit of dreaming may seem benign, but it is indicative of a larger tendency toward the exploitation and consumption of animal life. Works by Ashley Andrews, Valerie Sabaliauskas, Aidan Dahlin Nolan with Meghan and Kelsey Speakman, Renee Nault, and Hannah Myall quote various representations of animals that note a strange desire to find pleasure in creatures that are by definition lost.

Taxidermy has roots in the study of natural sciences that spread to the phenomenon of trophy display by hobbyists, collectors and hunters. Ashley Andrews’ paintings take up the absurd implications of this practice. Figures in Sniffing Boar, Green Weasel, and Red Fox are based on the moulds inserted into the hides of animals as well as the patterns in the wood painted on, but are barely identifiable as specific animals. In merging the components used in making trophies, Andrews’ paintings become the anti-trophy. By removing the skin, an image we can identify and recognize, Andrews de-values this form of animal “preservation,” while making attractive images, visually linking the grotesque with a desire to render beauty into possession-form.

Our experience of wildlife is often from a distance, as with reading of it in books, the subject of Valerie Sabaliauskas’ untitled installation of children’s encyclopedias. A sense of comfort is evoked by placing these objects, unquestioned from childhood, in our hands. However, within each book is a hollowed out space where a drawing of an endangered animal appears imprisoned, trapped in an unmoving stance.

Visiting animal sanctuaries and zoos is a fairly recent means of experiencing nature, though true wilderness is decidedly lacking in what are actually controlled and managed environments. Legends of Chincoteague by Aidan Dahlin Nolan, Kelsey Speakman and Meghan Speakman, is in the spirit of romantic, bucolic images captured on such visits, while drawing attention to the constructed aspect of these places. Large, hazy tourist-style snapshots of ponies in their fenced-in sanctuary and pens hang with sand and driftwood spread below. Legend has it that the ancestors of these ponies were shipwrecked off the coast of Virginia while being transported to South America. Children’s books by Marguerite Henry increased their fame, and put descendants of Misty, her real-life protagonist, in demand by private owners. Dahlin Nolan and the Speakmans present the strange dichotomy between being swept up in the story of these ponies through their romantic portrayal, and the abrupt realization via the fake beach that it is fictive narrative that fuels their appeal.

Yeti are the mysterious humanoid creatures whose existence depends on being lost. In I don’t mind the sight of you, Hannah Myall has scrawled these words alongside two identically posed yeti. She references the literary aspect of yeti’s existence - the power of words, folktales and rumours that keep them alive in our imaginations. It is also something of a passive yet romantic statement of acceptance - not minding the propagation of stories as replacements for the real thing. Yeti seem to signify our hope that there is something still left out there in the world to discover, an intact portion of nature that has escaped us. Yeti features the same figure traced repeatedly, simultaneously denoting the iconic nature of this creature, and the forgery of forgeries that are required for it to exist.

Farewell to Beasts is a series of paintings by Renee Nault that portray extinct fantasy animals, and suggest the sense of loss that occurs upon discovering their non-existence. Otherworldly creatures such as mermaids and gruesome Romanesque chimeras held real significance in the mythologies and religions of early civilizations. Nault is interested in the point of departure from the influence of these images. Ultimately her work suggests that truth is in the eye of the beholder, and the choice to believe in or be influenced by representations of animals in their physical absence, though felt by individuals, has more to do with large-scale consensus.

Today’s Fables
“The way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky/These are the days of miracle and wonder/And don’t cry baby/Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry” - Paul Simon

Misplaced attitudes granted animals in art significance only when anthropomorphized. A classic literary example, Aesop’s Fables portray animals as caricatures of human vices and virtues to teach us lessons in morality. Yet their inclusion provides no wisdom for interaction between our species. Rapidly changing circumstances within the world demand that today’s fables offer lessons in lives other than our own, as demonstrated by the works of Colleen Collins, Samuel Choisy, and Tania Sanhueza.

Colleen Collins’ performance, seen documented in The Summons Series, simulates a hunter beckoning prey to shoot for food, so done by using a calling device that animals respond to for an encounter with the opposite sex. When we summon another for our sustenance, at what cost is it to them? Conversely, if a summoned being comes willingly to us, can their intentions be considered selfless? The Summons Series brings issues of misanthropy and altruism to the fore in our relationships with others and our need to co-exist for survival. Animals missing from these landscapes are from the past, present, and future (the particular sites where the performances took place are rich with fossils from the Triassic and Jurassic periods). Collins relates their non-appearance to the physical and psychological nature of the site: these landscapes have been “acted upon severely,”10 as inhospitable in their appearance as they are in our mental conception of them. Signified as radical psychic geographies, Collins’ photographs allow us to move from image to the contents of our own minds, that sometimes mirror these rough landscapes.

Wonderfully ethereal, Samuel Choisy’s staged photographs of taxidermy animals in cityscapes were developed from exposures captured by a pinhole camera. Views of a Secret is an ongoing series exploring beauty and otherness within controlled and foreign environments. Our time with these images feels fleeting; we have caught a moment of beauty and the freedom and wildness that go along with it. There is a distinct sense of otherness that occurs with the transformative power these animals have on the cityscape. Being introduced to a foreign environment brings with it the realization of difference, identifying oneself as an other, rather than one who fits with the rest. Choisy’s work has connotations of the unseen, secret struggles animals and humans alike face to make a home in a new place when the old one has been left behind.

Focusing on Canadian wildlife, Tania Sanhueza’s practice resembles animal activism. The Great Auks were constructed from reclaimed and recycled fabrics, stitched carefully together and filled with natural fibres. Using environmentally conscious materials, Sanhueza’s work functions as an apology to this species ravaged by humans to the point of extinction. Docile in temperament, the flightless Great Auk was easily wiped out from its North Atlantic habitat where it once thrived in abundance. Using contradiction to raise awareness, the toy-like Auks are objects of desire, just as their real counterparts were to those who saw them as bankable commodities. Though the birds have been lost, their beauty is present for us to consider and engage with. This is the power of images: to influence our thinking about the world around us. For Sanhueza, it is as simple as making animals appeal to our sensibilities, so we stop taking them for granted, and become interested in learning about lives other than our own.

“If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine - our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements - they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor - we may be all netted together.” - Charles Darwin

Perhaps it is still a wild idea that animal and human life could possibly be interconnected. Everything up to this point has been marred by attempts to keep us separate. Humanity’s legacy smacks of this attitude that there is an “elsewhere,” a place where responsibility to the world disappears and the consequences of our actions only matter if they serve our needs. But there is only one place. Could animals and humans be any more alike in sharing the desire to find somewhere to belong?

1 This is the first time in the world's history that mass extinction has come about because of the actions of humans:
2 For factors causing mass extinction of species, including habitat destruction, fragmentation and
ecosystem degradation: Foreman, Dave. Rewilding North America. Washington: Island Press, 2004.
3 This is an umbrella term used to describe various factors (like chemical pollution and climate change)
that interfere with the productivity, reproductive success and ecological development of organisms.
Freedman, Bill. Environmental Science A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 2001.
4 For a strong example of “pest” eradication:
One species driven to extinction through unrestrained harvesting is the passenger pigeon, a full account
given in: Stutchbury, Bridget. Silence of the Songbirds. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2007. pp25-26.
5 In the United States, half of all animals admitted to animals shelters are euthanized (between three and
four million):
6 For criticisms and theoretically detrimental consequences of genetically engineering food animals:
Boyens, Ingeborg. Unnatural Harvest. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2000.
8 Interview with Stephanie Vegh via email, Thursday May 29, 2008.
9 Our poor treatment of animals is due to inherited values and attitudes toward them; the ongoing denial of ethical and moral treatment of animals be-
cause they are not human is speciesism and about as reprehensible as sexism and racism: Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins,
10 Interview with Colleen Collins via email, Tuesday October 14, 2008.
(c) Elizabeth Underhill 2009

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