Review: Human Animal Artist: art inspired by animals

Curated by Janine Burke, McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery, 20 November 2016 – 19 February 2017

The exploration of human and non-human animal relations is experiencing another surge in curatorial attention around the world, and Human Animal Artist is an intriguing addition to the mix. Human Animal Artist is the second of a trilogy of exhibitions curated by Janine Burke, and follows on from Nest (McClelland, 2013) in which Burke boldly placed over 70 exquisite birds nests within the gallery space. Nest quietly proclaimed the aesthetic production of non-human animals to be within the realms of ‘art’, and in doing so destabilized the anthropocentric domain of the artist.

Human Animal Artist takes a somewhat more conventional anthropocentric approach by featuring human artists, however rather than simply representing animals these artists demonstrate a sustained observation of, and respect for, non-human animals and their activities, and incorporate this into their work and working methodologies.

Sandra Selig’s Universes (2007) comprises fifteen small works which reveal enamel sprayed spider-webs fixed onto paper. The webs are captivating, the delicate detail almost fabric like, with rips and holes and straggly strands, like galaxies, 3D renderings, torn stockings and dust balls. I wonder what the spider makes of the stolen web if, as mentioned in the catalogue they were golden orb spiders, as these spiders build mostly semi-permanent webs, often consuming and repairing these on a daily basis. These incredible, ad hoc and delicate webs are at odds with Selig’s own accomplished sculptural thread work, which in comparison appears over controlled and calculated. By contrast Sean People’ sculpture Irrational—Non-cartesian—Emotional (2015) harnesses something of the working method of non-human animals, as if some strange bird, in finding the silver pipes sticking out of a wall, has decided that it would create the perfect nesting place, and gathered sticks and objects (seemingly from a miniature dolls’ house) to make its home.

Catherine Clover’s site-specific work Confab (2016) uses the large glass wall looking into the parkland to textually evoke field recordings that capture bird sounds and overheard snatches of conversation, naming local birds and artworks and artists featured in the surrounding parkland. The work provokes you to speak or sound out the words, to create a rhythm of naming and sounding, all the while visually moving between seeing the text on the glass wall and seeing through the text to the park. This method of manipulating our focus, distancing and closeness, partial naming and sounding, thoughtfully interweaves the non-human in our complex linguistic world; naming without claiming to know.

Nature quickly takes over the estranged and untended, and some works play with this; firstly, Elizabeth Presa’s sculptural work Apian Utopias: Small architecture for bees (2013) is reminiscent of a neglected shrine.  Three sets of beeswax bowls are stacked like forgotten votive offerings; edges wafer thin, transparent and fragile.  Honeycomb fills the cracks and corners of the sculpture, as if bees have started to make this space their own. The warm smell of beeswax makes you draw close, and notice other inclusions and symbolism in the plaster shrine, the tile patterns, the blue interior, the money pressed into the plaster; all indicators of the human engagement with spirituality. The shrine is in the process of becoming something other; a space for the non-human, albeit artificially by the artist’s hand. Actual bees (Presa’s Living bee hive) are located outside the gallery visible through the glass wall. This work, along with others, raises the provocative question of how do we share space, creative or otherwise with the more-than-human?

Jason deCaires Taylor’s video Human nature (2012) depicts his large-scale projects that create the conditions for artificial reefs by anchoring pH neutral cement sculptures into the seabed. An accomplished underwater photographer, the artist reveals the stunning layers of growth and transformation; and the rather formulaic cast figures become metamorphosed by the incursions of corals, barnacles and sponges (to name a few). The eerie sculptural human forms engage the viewer by evoking the monstrous and mortal; the body rejoining the earth, being grown over, eaten into, consumed.

David Rothenberg’s Wild Bird Jazz (2000) provides an unintentional sad note in the exhibition: in the video Rothenberg plays the clarinet to a White-crested Laughing Thrush who responds.  Captive in its artificial enclosure with glass walls, museum lighting and painted walls, I could only think of the boredom the bird experiences and was reminded of the film Nanette that documents the world-weariness of the eponymous forty-year-old captive female orangutan. 

These are but a small sample of the many engaging and thoughtful works in Human Animal Artist.  While the artworks and their human artists respond sensitively and respectfully to the production of the non-human animals around them, this ultimately falls short of Burke’s striking curatorial essay that celebrates the beauty of animal production, and convincingly argues for the non-human animal to be considered as collaborator and fellow artist.

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Sean Peoples, Irrational—Non-cartesian—Emotional, 2015. 3D printed plastic, sticks, branches, plumbing, garden matter, miniature furniture, found objects, screws, paper

Courtesy of the artist and Station Gallery, Melbourne

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Elizabeth Presa, Apian Utopias: Small architecture for bees, 2013 (detail). Plaster, beeswax, honey. Photo courtesy the artist.

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Sandra Selig, Universes 2007. Spider silk, enamel, fixative on paper 42 x 29.5cm. Courtesy of Monash University Museum of Art

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Jason deCaires Taylor, Vicissitudes 2011. Video still of installation view, Grenada, West Indies.

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Catherine Clover, Confab, 2016

Dr lynn mowson is a practicing sculptor who engages with entangled empathic relationships between human and non-human animals, in particular agricultural animals. Her sculptural research is featured in a chapter of the book The Art of the Animal, Lantern Press, 2015, and forthcoming exhibition SPOM: Sexual Politics of Meat at The Animal Museum, LA, in 2017. Her forthcoming publications include a chapter in the book Animaladies (Eds Lori Gruen and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey-Rapsey) and keynote and chapter for Dear Dairy, The University of Canterbury, NZ.  lynn is a Research Assistant for the Human Rights and Animal Ethics Research Network [HRAE], University of Melbourne, and is on the Committee for HRAE and is Vice-Chair of the Australasian Animals Studies Association.  

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