The Nature of the Beast
The New Art Gallery Walsall
26th of April – 30th of June
by Giovanni Aloi
The insistent presence of animals in contemporary art is a phenomenon still gathering momentum. But besides the grand, shock-statements of artists like Damien Hirst, a much more complex animal revolution is beginning to surface in the mainstream. This beautifully formed group show in Walsall titled The Nature of the Beast is perhaps its most recent and most successful manifestation, at least in the UK. Staged in the sleek and glossy gallery spaces designed by Caruso St John, this exhibition finally proposes a well curated selection featuring artists whose work has centred on animal subjects from a range of different perspectives. The number of artists on show is limited but their names are all well known: Mat Collishaw, Mark Fairnington, Tessa Farmer, Polly Morgan, Olly & Suzi and Patricia Piccinini. What appears clear from the outset is that this is an exhibition designed to to make us think about our relationships with animals. It is not about marvelling at the beauty of the exotic, the cute and the strange. And this is what these artists successfully achieve through their chosen artistic medium and methodological approach.
The impressive hang of the main gallery proposes a dialogue between Mark Fairnington’s life-size British bulls, Patricia Piccinini’s hybrid sculpture and Olly and Suzy’s drawings of endangered wild dogs of East Africa. The underlying connection between the three can be easily traced to the concepts of wild and domestication. Fairnington’s bulls are presented on white canvasses, seen longitudinally, the animals always face ahead, posing for the viewer in the iconography of the specimen. This approach puts us in a position of visual advantage. The animal body is displayed for the human gaze against the blank dissecting table of scientific epistemology. This positioning of the animal body acquires further levels of complexity in Fairnington’s work as this bull-parade evokes the dynamics of markets. Each bull was painted from an existing individual animal and each still carries an original name such as Turbo Tommy or Soldier— they are simultaneously representatives of their breed and individuals. These are animals engineered by us through a long history of selective breeding. Their names work both as reminder of this history and as markers of the human interventions that has made them what they are. Simultaneously they also speak of exuberant masculinity but also of animal identity: one that we can only understand as being defined by markets, breeders, fashion, and last but not least, the relationship with a farmer. As the artist explains:
"The making of an image of an animal through photography, sculpture and even taxidermy was a way of describing what that animal meant to its owner. A very valuable animal gave importance and social status to its owner and a painting of the animal acknowledged this."
Facing Fiarnington’s hyperrealist paintings of domesticated animals, Olly and Suzi’s drawings of wild dogs propose the elusiveness of endangered wild animals as precariously pinned down by the simple and rushed tracings on paper. Deliberately disregarding all rules set by the history of “proper wildlife illustration”, these artists paint in the wild, rather than in the studio. Their tracing of the animal encounter is rushed, frenzied and always partial, in assonance with the nature of the experience involved in all wild animal encounters. The result is haphazard, but also urgent and present. The animal encounter lives only in a thin now in which rhetorical symbolism finds no space for orchestration. The aesthetic clash between Fairnington’s static and excruciatingly detailed bulls and the jagged, rushed markings by Olly and Suzy solidely points at the extreme parameters of different epistemic values. The prolonged encounter with the domesticated animal and the fleeting intersection with the wild one are two diametrically opposed, but equally engaging ways of understanding animal lives.
Two enigmatic pieces by hyperrealist artist Patricia Piccinini frame this dialectic opposition. Here, animal-form simultaneously belongs to a distant past and perhaps a not so far away future. Piccinini presents us with a hyperdomesticated gone wild—nature/culture hybrid beings in which, through an implicit process of genetic manipulation, human, animal and machine have merged in uncategorizable ominous beasts. Sphinx, Piccinini’s hyperrealist silicon sculpture is a case in point. Sitting on a plinth in the classical iconography of the Egyptian riddle teller, this human/animal fleshy body opens an orifice to reveal a kidney like organ lying in it. Is it human food for the beast or an offering to the human from the beast?
It is through this positioning of the viewer between the extreme polarities of the wild, the domesticated and the hybrid that the exhibition delves into a fictional, historically charged, sublime animal world through the work of Tessa Farmer, Polly Morgan and Matt Collishaw, all presenting us with Victorian-inspired tableaus in which animal life and death are suspended through the photographic medium or that of taxidermy. Tessa Farmer has for the occasion installed the biggest piece of her career so far. This is the latest instalment of the evil fairies saga. For those whom have not seen Tessa Farmer’s work in the flesh it will be difficult to comprehend how astonishingly believable her incredibly minute skeletal fairies are, especially when juxtaposed to preserved butterflies, flies, ants and bees. In this tableau the fairies have taken control over a hoard of crabs which they use as war machines against an epic battle with a python. The sublime effect caused by the multitude of insects swarming above the scene has to be experienced to be believed.
Matt Collishaw’s contribution to the exhibition is a selection of images from his Insecticide series which presents butterflies and moths horribly crushed and disfigured whilst seemingly suspended in mid air against a black background. The series is printed on 182.9 x 182.9 cm photographic sheets, generating a sensational hyperrealist overwhelming effect. The process of magnification which allows to peer into the microcosms of nature was a pivotal romantic strategy in fashion during the Victorian period aiming at distorting the world in search of spirituality through the immensely vast and infinitely small. Beauty and horror coexist again in these ambiguous pictorial dimensions proposing a tension difficult to emotionally negotiate: how can so much beauty be produced by so much death?
The Victorian animal thread is further explored by Polly Morgan through her distinctive brand of surrealist taxidermy in which nothing is what it seems. Morgan subverts the educational value which taxidermy acquired through the 19th century as main epistemological tool of the natural history museum through interventions which summon fictional, fantastic narratives in which horror and beauty also coexist. In Hide and Fight, an opening on the stomach of a dead stag is revealed to house a seemingly never-ending dark cave filled with resting bats.
The exhibition comes to an end with a final surprise which reassess its critical flare: artist Mark Fairnington has curated a small exhibition titled Our Creatures which is housed in a room within the main exhibition. Based on the genre of animal portraiture, it further explores the complexities of domesticity through themes of human/animal socio/historical interaction. As the artist explains:
These are images and objects that depict in particular the domestic and local relationships between people and animals and show how these could be pragmatic, eccentric, brutal and loving. Here are the creatures that provided friendship, entertainment and sport, they could be made to fight, they could be raced against each other, they could be bred and sold for profit and they could be eaten as food. In these roles they inspired a huge range of human responses; they were and still are a vital part of the human world both emotionally and economically.
The centerpiece of this exhibition within the exhibition is a small taxidermy dog which Fairnington borrowed from the Hornyman Museum in London. The dog is displayed in a glass cabinet, just as it arrived at the gallery in Walsall. It sits inside the cardboard box in which it is normally housed in the Hornyman’s archive, surrounded by the tissue paper which protects it. The simulated livingness of the taxidermied puppy is simultaneously heightened and negated by its setting. One second it is a live puppy jumping out of a box, whilst the second after we become painfully aware that the dog is a museum specimen—its faded museum label partly visible on the upturned lid of the box—the taxidermic spell is broken.
As far as displaying contemporary art involved with questions of animality, this exhibition has set the benchmark by providing viewers with a display in which animals are not simply cute, majestic or horrific but where seriously relevant questions about our relationship with animals are raised.
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.view all articles from this author