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 humanity’s 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 Hirst’s disingenuously naive statement of the artist’s 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 animal’s 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 animal’s 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 animal’s gaze is engaged, that Angela Singer explicitly explores in her attempts to turn the meanings of the hunting trophy, turning the killed animal’s 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
this extract.)

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 culture’s hierarchy by discontented artists. Angela Singer’s approach to turning the trophy’s 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