The essay below is a condensed version of some of the thinking that has fed into my MFA work over the past two years. It is in the catalogue accompanying my final exhibition of the degree. Images of the exhibition will follow.
Animals, Art and Artifice
Whether in the form of a contemporary cat (The Pink Panther) or as a legendary dog saint in the Middle Ages, animals are employed as a means to convey human expression and awareness. Over the course of human history, they have provided a lens through which humans describe and understand what it is to be human. For example, in the cartoon Tom and Jerry, a fictional universe of talking animals is created. This allows the characters to comment on or satirize our human realm of the real and our perceptions. Animals come loaded with preconceived traits, as illustrated in myth and fable (Aesop’s Fables are an example – “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Lion and the Mouse”) and from these we often associate an animal with certain humanistic characteristics and personalities. Writers, artists, cartoonists, animators and filmmakers have used representations of anthropomorphic animals for centuries because as stand-ins, they enable a transition to a metaphorical and fantastical alter-reality. This alternate reality is a place of imagination where the viewer is able to suspend disbelief and engage in both story and commentary.
Steve Baker in Picturing the Beast (2001) asks, “What place does the animal hold in our imagination, and how are we to understand the uses to which our imaginative conception of the animal is put? Above all, why is it that our ideas of the animal – perhaps more than any other set of ideas – are the ones which enable us to frame and express ideas about human identity?” My intention is to explore these questions and others such as: why do certain representations of animals resonate with us? Is it perhaps because the human becomes more articulately explained through the animal? I would like to suggest it could also be about the way that exaggeration, distortion, and misinterpretation play out, both wittingly and unwittingly, in order to highlight the dynamics of representation itself.
Pixar movies provide an example of a myriad of rich animal, insect, non-human and superhuman characters, both hilarious and potentially sinister. Nemo in Finding Nemo, Dug in Up and Remy in Ratatouille, are examples of memorable animal and fish characters anthropomorphized by writers and film makers in order to inform the content and meaning of these stories. Using animals in the place of humans allows the viewer to suspend disbelief in terms of the plausibility of the situation depicted and focus on what is happening between the protagonists, enabling the formation of a relationship between characters and audience. Animal characters as stand-ins, with preconceived traits, provide a means for the audience to be able to quickly identify with them and then explore difficult emotions or ideas (political, gender, racial or ideological, for example) in the relatively safe sphere of the metaphorical or fantasy space.
Pixar films explore nascent personhood via non-human entities. The rat character Remy in Ratatouille acts, speaks, and behaves like a human. He cooks by directing a human chef, hidden under his hat. When discovered as the creator of sublime Parisian fine-dining food by the leading revered authority (restaurant reviewer) in Paris, he is reviled and the restaurant closed down. Eventually he is accepted as a chef, even by the fearsome reviewer, and cooks for some of the wealthiest and most discerning clientele in all of Paris. Writer Kyle Munkittrick suggests, “taken together as a whole narrative, the Pixar canon diagrams what will likely be this century’s main rights battle – the rights of personhood” (Discover, 2011).
When a tension is created in an imaginary space between fantasy and reality, there is potential for a viewer to be able to access an alter reality or metaphorical space. Finding the balance between the real and the simulated (through the way a thing is represented) activates the possibility of something being of this world and simultaneously otherworldly or fantastical.
Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz paraphrase Jill Paton Walsh, who states:
“A work of fantasy compels a reader into a metaphorical state of mind. A work of realism, on the other hand, permits very literal-minded readings. Even worse, it is possible to read a realistic book as though it were not fiction at all” (Hunt, P & Lenz, M. 2001, p.8).
To define fantasy, Hunt states that ―”fantasy allows us to speculate, to explore possibilities, to indulge our private selves – to consider imaginatively things that cannot be” (p.2). In other words, there is a separation from the real and a suspension of belief. He states that the manner in which fantasy offers worlds where anything is possible, frees you to believe anything put forward (p.2). He also states:
“if there is virtually no connection between the real and the fantastic, except distortion, then we arrive at the absurd and nonsense. Consequently we do not escape our situation or ourselves: fantasy has an inevitable role as a commentary on, or counterpart to, reality and realism” (Hunt, p.8).
When objects are able to assert their material reality in the face of a poor approximation of something natural (for example a polystyrene swan mimicking the descent to land on the water), a tension is created between being real/not real; the viewer is able to suspend their disbelief and render each image as real. The material shift, a lack of definition, a strange approximation of otherness (the soft edge of the metallic mould, the fluff of white boa feathers, the frost on frozen meatballs); these facilitate a bald kind of realness. A dynamic of representation is set up, a constant moving back and forth between states of credulity and non-credulity.
When considering fantasy and reality in my work, it is not useful to reduce our thinking to an ‘either-or’ conversation because doing this would deny the space where the work is located, a space that is not attempting to be real.
Fantasy needs to have a correlation with reality in order for it to be effective. The fantastical however, creates an opportunity to view reality differently. Taking into account the earlier quotes of Hunt, Lenz, and Walsh, one could conclude that the presence of humanistic animals in literature or film or other representations (distorted or otherwise) of animals as stand-ins in visual art would place the narrative in the realm of fantasy. Under these circumstances the narrative becomes a vessel to either tell a story beyond the realm of the real, or to make comments on real world situations.
Considering how artists reconcile making work that is both in the world and also of the world, is to address the dynamics of representation itself. The dynamics of representation can result in the subject or idea being open to exaggeration, distortion, and misinterpretation. However, the results of working with the language of representation can produce strange and rich iterations that are able to convey new, more complex and multi-layered readings, while still retaining something of the original source.
Two contemporary examples in the visual arts of representation of animals involving anthropomorphism, iteration and distortion, are found in the work of Ronnie van Hout and Jeff Koons.
The work Duck Character and Mouse Character, 1999, by New Zealand artist Ronnie van Hout illustrates how a cultural icon can, through translation, find form as a wonky iteration. These distorted but well-intended versions of the Disney originals were found as sculptures by an unknown maker in the playground on the waterfront at Picton, New Zealand. Van Hout manages to identify and convey a funny tenderness that honours the naïve efforts of the maker of Picton’s version of the famous Disney characters. In his further iteration as Duck Character and Mouse Character, Van Hout hasn’t set out to interpret the interpretation but has found a translation that is very similar, yet is his own, that allows the original maker’s vision to come through.
In Jeff Koons’ Puppy, 1992, Koons engages both the past and present, referencing the 18th-century formal European garden. Puppy is a gigantic sculptural representation of a West Highland terrier covered in bedding plants and employs very sweet iconography—flowers and puppies—in a monument to the sentimental (Guggenheim online information, 2015). “Imposing in scale, its size is both tightly contained and seemingly out of control (both literally and figuratively still growing)” (Guggenheim online information). Puppy juxtaposes elite and mass-cultural references (topiary and dog breeding, Chia Pets and Hallmark greeting cards); the work may be read as an allegory of contemporary culture. Koons designed this public sculpture to relentlessly entice, to create optimism, and to instill, in his own words, “confidence and security.” (Guggenheim online information). It is a type of golden calf for a new-gilded age. This work, like much of Koons’ is structured such that the rhetorics and value systems of a number of genres are layered on top of one another – kitsch, innocence, religious contemplation and humanity.
Part of my working process involves internet searching but also going out to homeware or popular retail stores on what I call ‘treasure hunts’ to fossick for unusual, strange and wonky representations of animals. As I have noted in my diary:
Today out treasure hunting in the usual haunts I came across an ornamental owl. It had a sombre and watchful expression and a reflective metallic surface. I think it has potential, the possibility of becoming a work in some form.
I begin with an idea of certain qualities, i.e., emotional – pathos, calm, sad and/or materiality, something with ambiguous surface qualities, e.g., sparkly bright, cold or reflective. Being mindful of these key qualities, the search is largely an intuitive exercise. I try to remain open to what is offered up to me along the way, and to how the object, material, or image itself, will determine what the work should be.
Employing other people with the skills and background connection to the subject matter is another avenue to find a unique and wonky iteration. I am interested in the distortions that occur during the process of translation. These can occur either in the work of an artisan maker or through the process of mass production for the consumer market.
Rose called today to discuss the surface treatment and colour of the iced kitten. We considered either a piped lacey type finish, lumpy bits to approximate fur under a flat surface or a frosted finish spiked up free hand – I decided to go for the frosting hoping for something magical to happen that could look like tousled fur…I’m wanting a sad discombobulated little kitten. It has to be pale pink or pale lilac, I’m going for lilac, pretty but slightly melancholic. (Karen Sewell)
In my practice, the language of photography is both a means of harvesting and developing imagery but also presenting imagery to an audience. It supports the suspension of usual beliefs (gravity, scale, weight) and draws attention to the surfaces of the subject/s depicted and their contexts through lighting. The photographic print, through its own sense of surface and materiality, highlights many of these qualities in the space of exhibition but, most importantly for me, I consider the still photograph operating as a form of painting, asking the viewer to unpack a single, static image for clues as to its meaning. Compared with the moving image narrative convention, which engages the viewer with and within a story, the still image highlights a single moment, one that can be contemplated over time.
Installation works address the conventions of staging and display, referencing the constructed nature of retail space against the backdrop of the still life tradition. The photography studio becomes a vehicle to address the construction of images. Its presence in the space of exhibition highlights the manufacture, reception, and apprehension of image as content.
The device of Tableaux is used to expand pictorial space within the space of exhibition. The dual strands of practice, photographic image and still life object/space, are brought into conversation. Light and space are used as elements to frame and bring emphasis to relationships between forms, figures, and grounds.
The emotional register of the work, through the selection of animal images and forms, and their positioning and lighting in the space of image and/or installation, is carefully considered. Animal representations have the capacity to keep representation closer to pathos than bathos. The animal response is instinctual, natural (i.e., without censure) and therefore sincere. The discomfort of a wet kitten, for example, would be a sincere reaction; whereas the tears of a clown (a comic performer) would most likely be interpreted as insincere or scripted, delivered in order to illicit empathy or humour from the audience. In the latter example, pathos, that is, evoking a feeling of pity, kindly sorrow, or compassion becomes bathos, a more insincere pathos, mawkish and trivial in style.
Within works that address these representations of emotion, the constructed nature of the work can create a sense of distance and the potential for irony. The selected animal representations configured as they are within particular visual contexts, are intended to close or at least limit this space.
When animals express their feelings they pour out like water from a spout. Animals’ emotions are raw, unfiltered, and uncontrolled. Their joy is the purest and most contagious of joys and their grief the deepest and most devastating. Their passions bring us to our knees in delight and sorrow. (p.19)
The fondness and perhaps affinity we feel for animals and representations of animals may be in part based in ancient fables and other cartoons, animations, film and literature, but also in our own personal experiences of animals as pets. According to Carolyn Burke and Joby Copenhaver in their paper entitled Animals as People in Children’s Literature:
Many of us share our homes and our hearts with our pets. Certainly our local environments, whether we live in a city, a suburb, or the country, are filled with a vast variety of animals, both large and small. So, it would seem rather intuitive that these same creatures would find a place in the stories that we tell. And they do. But when these animals begin to talk and scheme and learn to read, we have gone past their intuitive inclusion in a replication of reality and have put them to use in a purposeful distortion of reality. (p.206)
In the place of imagination and fantasy, we are able to view reality in a different way, perhaps a way we have never seen it before.
Animal representations whether anthropomorphized and/or translations involving distortion, exaggeration, or misinterpretation are capable of producing strange and rich portrayals that may open a metaphorical, imaginative alter reality for the viewer. Representations of animals provide a platform to make comment on the human condition, real world situations, or tell a story beyond the realm of the real.
The Imposter, 2015
Baker, S. (2001). Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation, new ed. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Munkittrick, K,. (2011). The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Film.
Hunt, P. & Lenz, M. (2001). Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction. London; New York: Continuum.
Guggenheim online information on Puppy, (2015). Retrieved from http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/48
Sewell, K. (year). [Diary]. In the possession of author.
Bekoff, M. (2007). The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter. Novato, California: New World Library.
Burke, C. & Copenhaver, J. (2004, January). Animals as People in Children‘s Literature. Language Arts. 81(3), 205 – 213. http://www.ncte.org/library/nctefiles/store/samplefiles/journals/la/la0813animals.pdf Accessed 10 October 2015.