In Giovanni Aloi’s groundbreaking book, Art & Animals, the reader is asked to look critically at the way in which animals – living, dead or in representation, have been and are increasingly used in contemporary art. Dealing with identity, “otherness” and down the roots of civilization itself, the book is insightful, inspiring and yet very worrying for anyone involved in the creative industries, or anyone who is concerned and fascinated by animals and the environment. Aloi’s honed analysis is informed by almost seven years of experience as Founder and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. Giovanni and I spoke via email:
JOSHUA KATCHER: We deal a lot with masculinity on The Discerning Brute, mainly from a critical perspective regarding the illusion that exploiting animals is a reflection of strength and virility. In your book you refer to natural history dioramas as “a violent subjugation of nature, a typically masculine endeavor, manifestation of the deep desire to possess and control nature, arresting life in a three-dimensional photographic capture designed to educate and inspire while also demonstrating human supremacy over nature”. Where else do you see conventions of patriarchy being sought out in the art world regarding our use of animals? In your book, Zang Huan’s muscle/meat suit seems to have avoided a machismo interpretation.
GIOVANNI ALOI: This is a very interesting question. That quote from my book is substantially informed by the writing of Donna Haraway, her famous essay on taxidermy titled ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, and was needed within the main context in order to reflect the current predominantly negative, cultural approach to taxidermy. I still believe that statement to be very much true when considered with regards to the golden age of taxidermy (late Victorian period) which led to the expansion of natural history collections around the world. The synergic conflation of gun, camera, gaze and the desire to possess involved in taxidermy of the golden age predominantly was the resultant of traditionally masculine perceptions and attitudes towards the wider world, not just animals. As aptly pointed out by Hogart in the famous series of engravings titled The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), what we do to animals, we are likely to do to other humans…in a literal or metaphorical sense, I would add.
Since the writing of the book I have been further developing my views on taxidermy (a project that will be published next) and most especially on its ambiguous presence in contemporary art. The current revival of taxidermy is a much more complex phenomenon that some claim. In my opinion it has less to do with a sense of guilt for colonialism, a reparational practice, and much more to do with where we are right now, culturally and historically.
With regards to your questions more specifically, I am trying to resist the production of ‘sweeping readings’ of phenomena such as taxidermy or the presence of live animals in the gallery space in order to favour more fragmented and dissonant configuration of the contemporary scene. I am more interested in the use artists make of animals within the context of their own practice and the artistic tropes they adopt. This usually tends to reveal a much more narrow and interesting profile than that of the idea that there may be one ‘species of postmodern animal’ which ‘behaves’ within a set of rules and that is traceable across the landscape of contemporary art. We are perhaps witnessing the emergence of a Post-postmodern animal or an Altermodern one in which the relationship between animal and artist is increasingly based on a personal relation rather than on the metanarratives of the past.
On the note of machismo more specifically it is important to operate with caution and again, I believe, to look at individual cases. Paying attention to the role played by the animal in the work of an artist, entails loosing oneself in a broader enquiry on an extended body of work, identifying previous animal appearances, suggestions of such appearances and raptures from which the animal may have emerged. Zang Huan’s case is a particular one which is briefly brought forward in my book as an example of how the use of meat in more recent contemporary art can transcend the feminist reading of a signifier predominantly bound to the patriarchal. Huan’s practice is usually constellated by verbal statements which further complicate his works. In this specific case, the artist meant the work to be a statement of peace following the attacks of 9/11. Meat was simultaneously used as a symbol of strength and one of extreme frailty and vulnerability. This intrinsic, essential contradiction derails any straight train of patriarchal thought. More readily, I would be inclined to think of as intrinsically patriarchal, those rare works in which the animal is killed in the gallery space, such as Huang Yong Ping Theatre of the World (1993) and Adel Addessemed, Don’t Trust Me (2008), both highly questionable works from an ethical standpoint and rather simplistic in their proposal of symbolic reading.
JOSHUA KATCHER: You refer to animals as having become “accessories to the human condition”. I agree, and see this all the time when animals are assigned a very two-dimensional symbolic value by the artists that use them – living or dead, in representation or in actuality. Most recently, Marina Abramovic said of the live animals in her performance The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, “The raven is a symbol of bad news and death, the small tiger is an image of strength, and the eagle is an image of power”. How do these type of meaning-assignments affect our relationship with animals outside of art? Do you think the world which exists outside of the artists’ mind is relevant or valid?
GIOVANNI ALOI: Statements such as those delivered by Abramović are not informed by the recent human-animal studies revision of the role played by the animal in representation. This is not to say that her traditional symbolic interpretation is entirely useless. It may be of value to the entropic system of her project and especially, if past histories are brought into question, these readings may play a key role. However, large part of the human-animal studies project, and I am especially referring to the representational revisionist project in this case, has denounced the anthropocentric and patriarchal values imbedded in such symbolic subjugation, pointing consequently to more open and polysemic signifying structures better suited to a contemporary understanding of the relationships animal entertain with us through the representational. Personally, I think artists working with animals should attempt to step out of traditional tropes in order to explore the possibilities the animal may offer if freed from the metanarratives woven around the good, the bad and ugly. The main goal of my book was to introduce general readers to this idea, proposing a range of possible avenues to think about and around animal and nature in our time.
Ultimately passive acceptance of traditional animal symbolism is only more likely to reinforce pre-existing cultural concepts about animals that persistently prevent us from putting ourselves at risk in front of the non-human. The symbolic raises a safe screen through which all we see is animal shadows. Ripping the screen entirely may not be what we can do as part of our human condition, but reconfiguring a less safe relational between the human and the non-human is surely within our reach. How this is translated to the wider world so that perhaps in fifty years the arbitrary association between lion and bravery will be substantially understood as obsolete and redundant is to be seen. Antennae, is much concerned with such project. I suggest keeping an eye on books and films for children may give us an indication of what will happen next. There is where the traditional animal symbolism is encoded and passed on almost unaltered from generation to generation.
JOSHUA KATCHER: Many people see the use of animals as a personal choice issue, i.e.: “I’ll respect your not using animals if you respect my use of them”. As “subject[s] of power relations”, and “each single animal [having] had an existence that transcended the concept of specimen” do you see the use of animals in art, or in general, as a social justice issue or a personal choice issue? Does the animal’s perspective matter, and if so, to whom?
GIOVANNI ALOI: I would love to do justice to this question and answer it over a whole book. So many different perspectives on the animal come at play in the space you have outlined. The clash between the ‘specimen idea’ and ‘animal individuality’ is an extremely hard to negotiate. The question of ‘object or subject’, likewise, lies at the core of any animal involvement in art and it is one to which a black and white answer cannot be given. Personally I don’t believe much in the idea of ‘collaborations’ within this field. The struggle between artist and materials has been well documented in the lives of major classical artists from Leonardo and Michelangelo to Monet and Gauguin. The artist ‘CHOOSES’ as we were reminded by Duchamp in 1917 and the artist still ‘chooses’ today, in 2012. Works of art such as Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) may have not been particularly stressful to the coyote involved but it seemed clear that in that setting Beuys was the ‘interested’ party (it was his project, not a collaboration) whilst the coyote may have probably preferred to spend its time roaming around the land, checking trashcans out or mating. In Kira O’Reilly’s Falling Asleep with a Pig (2009) the artist’s sharing of a sty with a pig called Delia was to some degree informed by the human-animal studies debate on ‘animal collaborations’. It therefore put Kira in a more uncomfortable position, moving the artist to the territory of the pig, rather than bringing the animal into the gallery space, like in Beuys’, the domain of the artist. Delia, a domesticated farm animal may have found her new companion unusual, but there is a difference involved in caging a wild animal for the purpose of art and ‘entering’ a domesticated farm animal’s space. What the animal will make of the experience will forever be unclear, however your question raises an important issue with regards to which animals should and which should not be featured in art. Unfortunately, this discerning may be one more readily informed by our underlying specisist approach based on assumptions of suffering and perceptions inherited from the utilitarian discourse of animal rights of the 1970s; an outdated mode in the light of new scientific discoveries on animal perception.
“One key question artists should pose when considering the presence of an animal in works of art is: do I really need one, or can I get the core of my argument across without such presence?”
One key question artists should pose when considering the presence of an animal in works of art is: do I really need one, or can I get the core of my argument across without such presence? At the end of Art & Animals is a reproduction of Mark Dion’s Some Notes Towards a Manifesto for Artists Working With or About the Living World. Conceived as a piece of art in its own right, the piece provides artists with a ‘think tank’ worth going through before deciding on how to proceed on the matter. The text was only published in a catalogue for the Greenhouse Effect exhibition held at the Serpentine Gallery in 2000 and long out of print. As part of my collaboration with Mark Dion, we thought it of paramount importance to make the text more readily available ten years after its original inception. It provides the book with the best ethical set of advice it could possibly have provided, one coming from an internationally exhibited artist whose career has been devoted to the questioning of our certainties on nature and animals.
JOSHUA KATCHER: We often resist comparing non-human animals to humans for various reasons – but it would seem that the justifications for using animal others in art would not suffice in justifying the use of other human beings in the same way. Exhibits like Bodyworlds that use dead people have both intrigued and stirred up controversy. What do you think are the major differences and how can we shift the view of animals being “perceived as a material to be used in a work of art, like pigments…” as you say in your book?
GIOVANNI ALOI: Last year the Natural History Museum in London held a Bodyworlds exhibition by Gunther von Hagens titled Animals Inside Out. Past Bodyworlds exhibitions had been held at disparate venues around the world, but this was set in a museum, providing a more complex proposal on the scientific value of von Hagens’ project. The idea of the freak show, rather than that of the educational scientific display was trackable in both exhibiting formulas, the original in which human bodies were displayed and the more recent animal variant (although some animals were present amongst the earlier human exhibits too).
The main difference between the two exhibits lies in the lack of consensuality which overshadowed Animals Inside Out and that seemingly, to the many, rescued Bodyworlds from simply being reduced to a gruesome exploitation of deceased humans. The people whose bodies we saw in Bodyworlds had allegedly donated them to von Hagens before death (let’s however consider the rumours claiming the first Bodyworlds exhibition used executed Chinese prisoners…) whilst the animals in Animal Inside Out were donated by zoos and other institutions, following the natural death of the animals. Although risking to oversimplifying the situation here, it seems to me that the animal is never in the position of consensuality within the realm of the artistic and the scientific and that this is a contingency within which we can only choose to operate extremely carefully. There is educational value in what von Hagens proposes. It is however the concessions to the theatrical his displays make which dramatically dilute the scientific value in the attempt of luring wider audiences (just think of the scandal raised by the two copulating corpses featured in the 2009 edition…).
Most importantly, it is worth remembering that scientific epistemological acts entail violence, a violence necessary to access knowledge of the other and that without which we would not have ever been able to produce any of the incredible inventions or medical procedures which make our lives and our expectations of life what they are today. Not recognising the value of this unavoidable violence, one to which we all are exposed to in our everyday lives, results in the mirage of an impossible world without suffering; a utopia of ignorance in which knowledge has come to a stand still.
JOSHUA KATCHER. I think this is one of the most powerful quotes in the book: ”…the pig is one of the animals bred by humans entirely for the sake of its meat. It is fed predominantly on garbage in order make it fat. It becomes dirty because it lives in a sty. It is made lazy because because it is confined. Then, after having imposed these impacts on the development of an otherwise wild animal, we use the term ‘pig’ in order to insult other human beings.” If it seems that we are constantly trying to force animals to represent human conventions, I must ask if this methodology has been effective, and to what end? Does casting animals in human historical or sociological dramas effectively aid in our understanding of ourselves? In other words are animals sufficient as human analogies?
GIOVANNI ALOI: According to the anthropocentric tradition in which classical animal symbolism formed, an animal can never be sufficient as a human analogy. In fact, in such paradigmatic set, it can only capture a specific quality (bravery, speed, agility, frailty…), or usually, only one or two at a time. More than a methodology, this is just the way in which the configuring of the anthropocentric system operates, by placing fragmented mirrors around the central human figure in order to provide a fictitious sense of order, control and meaning within a closed system in which the human represents the highest achievement. This automatically reduces the animal by comparison. I can safely affirm that now more than ever before, it is the revisioning of our relationship with the Other to enable us to aid our understanding not only of ourselves but of our functioning amongst others, moving therefore from the classical idea of identity formation as contained entity to a more fluid ‘becoming with’.
JOSHUA KATCHER: I find point Two-B of Mark Dion’s manifesto dangerously vague: “Just as humanity cannot be separated from nature, so our conception of nature can not be said to stand outside of culture and society. We construct and are constructed by nature” . If humanity cannot be separated from nature’s “stable point of reference”, a point I agree with per se, many would use this as a way for justifying just about anything as being natural (nuclear war as being inseparable from the “natural” seems a misleading argument to make). How can we criticize human behaviors if we do not first ask what it is about human civilization that differs from that of the functioning of the rest of the earth’s ecosystems and inhabitants? Or am I assuming that the shared ultimate goal is longevity of the human species upon a planet with biodiversity and evolving, functioning ecosystems?
GIOVANNI ALOI: I think Dion’s point was more directly addressing the nature/culture philosophical Cartesian divide. The fact that we are nature does not necessarily justify our actions, nor those of other animals should either be justified within the same paradigm. I ultimately do not believe that human civilization differs on the level of ‘functioning’ from the rest of the earth’s ecosystems or inhabitant. We just do the same animals do, only using different tools which lead to very encoded cultural structures.
JOSHUA KATCHER: Featured recently on SHOWstudio.com was the artist Rose Robson whose work using dead birds has gained attention within the increasing trend of artists using taxidermy. Robson says, “I guess what I’m trying to say with my work is it’s just, it’s about an experience, and it’s sort of touching on human responses to things like nature and about our relationship with nature, and at the moment for me I’m still very much exploring what it’s capable of and…pushing it further, I think… there’s so many avenues you can go down with something like taxidermy because death is just… it’s probably the most loaded subject.” What is your feeling about this explanation of her work?
GIOVANNI ALOI: I have interviewed Polly Morgan a couple of times and find that she tends to charge her works with a symbolic valence borrowed from surrealist sensitivities. At times her work may have something to say about our relationship with animals and at others it may not. It seems that Robson’s work is further pursuing the second strand of Morgan’s work as her own major inspiration and that she has combined it with some ideas extensively explored by Kate McGuire’s sensuous sculptural, abstract bodies coated in feathers. As a result I do not think Robson work adds much to what has already been achieved by Morgan and McGuire. However as the artist says, this is a process she is exploring. I find it personally difficult to see Robson’s work as much more than an aesthetic experiment which plays with Steve Baker’s idea of ‘botched taxidermy’ in a too literal and narrow sense, resulting in a rather aesthetically pleasing object which ultimately conceals death just as much as traditional taxidermy used to do: the body is abstracted but it pretends livingness. It seems to me that the revival of taxidermy in art may, in the hands of some artists, be entering an aestheticized phase in which philosophical frames are not at the core of the rationale behind the experience. The value these works of art may have for the human-animal studies project is questionable.
JOSHUA KATCHER: Art is one of the greatest influences of fashion. It is contentiously debated whether fashion is or is not art. In the fashion world there is an equal obsession with animals from garments made from animals to animals appearing editorial content and ads. “The technique erases its own history of production” also applies to garments created from animal bodies. Fur, leather, feathers, wool, silk etc… all become objects whose symbolic meaning often has little or nothing to do with the reality of production. I consider our relationship with animals to be a fatal attraction where we want so badly to have contact, but only on our very controlled and deadly terms. Would you say that the use of animals in art has influenced fashion trends? Has it affected our understanding of animals used in the fashion industrial complex?
GIOVANNI ALOI: The relationship between fashion and art is a very difficult one to disentangle in terms of influences. Fashion, as a cultural expression, seems to absorb anything from the material world. Art has more recently begun to do the same. Interestingly, both fashion and art have their starting point in the animal: fashion in the using of skins for the purpose of producing clothing, and art in the form of cave painting. With this I am deliberately trying to diminish emphasis on the influence of one field onto the other, something that may become more tangible in precise moments in local histories, in order to highlight the integral role the animal plays in both from the very start. This is to say that what may seem crossovers between the two, may not necessarily be so at all.
Surely Damien Hirst’s use of animals in the early 1990s has awoken us all to the power animals have in attracting attention when presented in unconventional ways, swaying from the norm of institutional bodies. From this perspective the attention grabbing quality which fashion is so dependent on may have indeed influenced the work of Hirst and other contemporary artists. Parallels between the art and fashion worlds have become common norm over the past fifteen years, even if the more cunning comparison may be drawn between the functioning of their markets rather than the contents of the objects they produce.
JOSHUA KATCHER: Many people respond to art that is percieved as being harmful to animals by saying something along the lines of “that’s not art”. It seems entirely ineffective (and misses the mark) to try to discredit art by saying it’s not art. For people who care about animals but are outsiders to the art scene, is there a more effective or constructive way for them to interact with artists or provide feedback? What tools or approaches should they be aware of?
GIOVANNI ALOI: In all honesty I believe the general public tend to ignore the major interruptions which have taken place during the last century and which have brought classical art to an end. To say ” this is not art” today does really not mean anything as there are so many different forms of art. Art simply isn’t one thing any longer. So those people saying “this is not art” actually reveal their lack of knowledge of the subject by simply uttering those words. Nonetheless, I still encounter people whom say that Duchamp’s Fountain is not art, just because it is not a painting or a sculpture in a classical sense. Changing these misconception is not however up to the individual art historian. The impression one has in undertaking such task is similar to that which faced Don Quixote. I believe it should be something schools should attend. It is as if kids end compulsory education not having understood why Cubism emerges, why abstract art takes place and why a urinal can indeed be art. As they have not been provided with the necessary theoretical framework, and therefore are unable to understand what they are looking at, it is much easier to dismiss the object in front of them instead of acknowledging their own inability to understand it. This is a major issue with the way modern and contemporary art are received by general audience. The paradox of it all is that it would suffice to explain the impact photography and cinema had on classical art through the nineteenth century to make the penny drop. There is no need to go deep into Greenberg or Fry for the occasional gallery goer to understand why classical art is dead.
Some human-animal studies scholars indeed argue that a work of art in which animals are made to suffer “cannot possibly be art”. This again is a very complex issue. Animal cruelty should not have any place in society and by consequence it should not have any place in art. Whilst I aligne myself with a similar thinking on the grounds that deliberate animal cruelty should not be condoned under any circumstance, there is another paradox that needs to be considered here. We predominantly respond to the visibility of the animal body and seeing an animal in the gallery space (whether dead or alive) immediately triggers reactions. Thousands of cows die every hour in abattoirs but it’s the two cows used by Damien Hirst in Mother and Child Divided that cause major uproar. People forget that classical pantings is coated in rabbit glue (to preserve pigment) and other animal derivates (including pigmentation). Paradoxically, there are more dead rabbits smeared over Mona Lisa’s surface than there are in most art pieces involving visible live or dead animals. Yet nobody would denounce any classical masterpiece as cruel to animals. Mona Lisa and all others classical works “are art” although the killing of animals is indeed involved in their making. It is just invisible. This is the main paradox which I think should be considered before making bold statements. Nothing is black and white.
JOSHUA KATCHER: What do you predict regarding the future of animals used in art in the next few decades? What do you hope?
GIOVANNI ALOI: Not being a professionally trained clairvoyant makes answering this question rather difficult. The field of human-animal studies is probably coming of age now. More and more scholars are interested in the discipline. Publications on the subject are now a regular occurrence with many titles being published monthly in the English language alone. My guess is that the animal is here to stay in the arts as well as in the humanities more in general. It will continue to abrasively demand our attention and stalk our every move until a different, new balance in our relationship is found. Ultimately, we are witnessing an environmental crisis of no equal precedent caused by the impact human activities are having on the planet’s bio-systems. With this, I do not mean to suggest that all human–animal studies and artistic related output should resolve into practical forms of activism or environmentalist campaigning. However, I believe that more productive than including live animals in works of art or producing animal objects, may be to track the animal through the networks of ecosystemic and ekistic relationships (including us) with which it interacts (biologically as well as culturally). This may enable us to understand animals not so much as subjects, creating an animal-centric system to replace the anthropocentric one which is being dismantled, but producing instead a rhyzomatic network of interconnectedness to which we are also part with animals and most importantly with plants: the currently ignored living beings on which all life on this planet depends.
Post-modernism has indeed come to an end. Whether we’d like to call this Hypermodernity, Altermodern or Post-postmodernism, I am under the impression that the new shape of things to come will demand of us further dynamism, engagement, risk-taking, activism, experimentalism and may also involve a paradoxical return to realism (in all the elusiveness this term my here summon), along with the courage to build something over that which has already been deconstructed with so much care over the past twenty years of human-animal studies.
Giovanni Aloi was born in Milan, Italy in 1976. In 1995 he obtained his first degree in Fine Art – Theory and Practice, then moved to London in 1997 where he furthered his studies in Visual Cultures (MA) at Goldsmiths University of London. From 1999 to 2004 he worked at Whitechapel Art Gallery and as a film programmer at Prince Charles Cinema in London whilst continuing to work as freelance photographer. Today he is a lecturer in History of Art and Visual Cultures at Queen Mary University of London, The Open University, Goldsmiths University of London, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Tate Galleries. In 2006, he founded Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture of which he is Editor in Chief. Counting thousands of readers around the world, the Journal is today the international reference point for the debate on animals in the arts. (www.antennae.org.uk) Since 2009, Aloi has been researching for his PhD at Goldsmiths University of London on the subject of ‘taxidermy in contemporary art’. His first book, Art & Animals, part of the series ‘Art &…’ by IB Tauris, was published in November