An extract from a forthcoming essay by Steve Baker exploring
the power of dead animal bodies in postmodern art.
Can contemporary art productively address the killing of
animals? The art of recent decades has made increasing use of animal imagery
(and indeed of animals themselves), and by no means only in a symbolic
or sentimental context. This art has often been seen as both ethically
and aesthetically disturbing, and it is hard to disentangle ethical and
aesthetic questions in these circumstances: the desire of some artists
to address a subject such as the killing of animals may well be driven
by ethical concerns, but the manner in which they try to do so will almost
inevitably bring aesthetic considerations into play.
It is possible to outline three experiences of looking
that relate to the killing of animals, in art and elsewhere. The first
takes as its starting point humanitys familiar (and wholly unreasonable)
anthropocentric expectation of animal propriety: that it is humans who
are to do the looking, and expect the animal to be there to be seen, and
to look like an animal, and not to look back. It then extends this cold
human gaze to killing, as perhaps epitomized in Damien Hirsts disingenuously
naive statement of the artists priorities: "I like ideas of
trying to understand the world by taking things out of the world. You
kill things to look at them." The comment may not have been wholly
ironic, but Hirst would undoubtedly have realized that his words might
equally well describe the motives of the animal trophy hunter.
The second experience, in which the looking flows in the
same single direction, is that described by Elaine Scarry, where humans
cannot but look at the opened body of the killed animal, such is its intense
reality. Here the looker is not the killer, and some of the power in the
relationship therefore lies with the looked-at thing, dead though it is.
The third starts from the recognition of the particular
importance of the look of an animals eyes, whether it is alive or
dead. In Taxidermy: A Complete Manual, John Metcalf writes: "Many
are the times I have left my studio in angry frustration at the difficulty
of getting the eyes to look natural." Referring again to the eyes
in a section on mounting trophy heads, he advises: "Special care
should be exercised here as the eyes are the focal point of the whole
job." The living animals eyes may pose a different difficulty
for the looker who may also be a killer. Lynda Birke recounts a story
of scientists working with laboratory rats, who insisted that a technician
put the rats in opaque cages. As they explained, they did not like having
the rats in clear cages because the "animals could look at you."
It is this third perspective, in which the troubling or
even accusatory power of the animals gaze is engaged, that Angela
Singer explicitly explores in her attempts to turn the meanings of the
hunting trophy, turning the killed animals own glazed gaze back
to meet and to confront that of the sometimes too complacent human viewer.
This New Zealand-based artist has made a series of works since the mid-1990s
that explore strategies for turning taxidermic meaning. Motivated by a
commitment to animal rights, Singer talks of her work as "recycled
taxidermy," and says of it: "I think using taxidermy is a way
for me to honour the animals life, because all the taxidermy I use
was once a trophy kill." (One such piece by Singer, entitled "Sore,"
is reproduced at the top of
Turning meaning, or at least the successful turning of
meaning, calls for more (or other) than what has dismissively been called
the mere "carnivalesque inversion" of the cultures hierarchy
by discontented artists. Angela Singers approach to turning the
trophys meanings, for example, is no inversion of what Anthony Julius
calls the "most fundamental of hierarchies, which places the human
above the merely animal." Rather, it involves a turning away from
that entire spectrum of meanings, and a questioning of the viability and
ethical adequacy of that spectrum.
It is not simply a matter, however, of substituting one
set of ethical priorities for another. Those concerned by the lack of
"moral scruple" in a postmodern art that frequently appears
to take liberties with animal form cannot, it seems, conceive of the possibility
that the integrity of these artworks is not fashioned out of, and is not
best expressed through, the language of morals and ethics. The source
of this integrity might be better thought of as a working method, an intuitive
way of operating, a fluid sub-ethical practice that shapes a particular
"mode of attention" to the animal. As often as not, that mode
of attention will be focused on making, and on form, rather than on meaning.
© Steve Baker, 2004