Animal Instinct: Allegory, Allusion, and Anthropomorphism

Part of Exhibition: Animal Magnetism



of an Exhibit

by Amy Kirschke

Published on December 31, 2010

  • Description:

    One of my favorite things about working in a museum is the opportunity to gain fresh perspective on a work of art from our collection when it is out on loan to another institution. So this past week I set out to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Entrapped Otter”, by John James Audubon, on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center as part of their year-long series of exhibitions titled “Animal Magnetism”.

    In the Arts Center’s atrium I was greeted by a large exhibition banner featuring Jill Greenberg’s “Mala Centerfold” photograph of a well-groomed monkey reclined on his side with head propped on one arm in a classic look-at-gorgeous-me magazine pose. Directly below was Andréa Stanislaw’s “The Vanishing Points”, a life-size headless horse sculpture bedazzled in a silvery jeweled skin, mirrored spikes projecting from the abdomen, spinning on a mirrored turntable base. This was clearly a spectacle of animals on display, with creatures that were visually engaging and I prepared myself for a fun exhibition.

    Novelty quickly shifted to discomfort as I entered the main exhibition and encountered the sculpture mounted below the title “Animal Instinct: Allegory, Allusion, and Anthropomorphism”. Perched on a leather base directly at eye level was a lioness clad in a peach-colored leather skin stitched together in patches, wearing long fingerless leather gloves on her front legs to reveal perfectly polished nails on each toe. This was a difficult piece to look at. A female form objectified in taxidermy bondage with her tail docked, blinded by the upholstery-like skin covering her eyes. The label informed me this was Adelaide Paul’s In Your Dreams and that the piece explored the “wild beast through the lens of the human gaze”. This exhibition had my attention.

    I turned to see Sachiko Akiyama’s “Between Dreams and Memory”, a serene totem-like sculpture of a young girl standing with her arms wrapped around a crane, the great bird calm and still against her chest; and I read the verse on the lead wall:

    In the very earliest time,
    when both people and animals lived on the earth,
    a person could become an animal if he wanted to
    and an animal could become a human being.
    Sometimes they were people
    and sometimes animals
    and there was no difference.
    All spoke the same language.

    -Netsilik Inuit Song

    This exhibition was clearly not about animals as isolated subjects, but rather their interconnectedness with humans throughout the ages. An interdependence held in tension between companionship and cruelty, I began to consider the complexity of that magnetic dynamic between humans and animals sharing the same planet.

    The first text panel proposed that animals are so central to the human story they have rivaled us as subjects in art since prehistoric times, and outlined an exhibition of 48 artists exploring the human need to connect with animals as mythical, practical and beloved creatures. I found myself unusually transfixed at the very start of the exhibition and determined it was the combination of arresting objects and the fact that I was inherently a character in the human-animal story to be told.

    Winding through the exhibition’s small rooms felt much like walking through a cabinet of curiosities filled with specimens; animals large and small, two-dimensional and three-dimensional, crafted in a myriad of materials, watched me at every turn. There was no clearly-defined path or audio guide to follow, which lent to the universality of the subject as I wandered alternately between paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs and drawings created by artists from around the globe, each probing the real and imagined significance animals play in our lives. The exhibition was both beautiful and unsettling in its diversity and density, intensified by an ambient incoherent sound, seeming neither human nor animal, coming from a neighboring gallery. I later discovered this was part of Jim Neel’s powerful “Babel” installation, featuring 50 life-size slip-cast chimpanzees standing in army formation with a recording of 50 voices simultaneously reading the sonnet “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, each from different starting points, resulting in sounds rising and falling in unintelligible language.

    Interpretation in “Animal Instinct” was traditional in structure with text panels, labels and handouts, but content privileged the artists’ ideas and larger issues over biography, technique or style. For example, I found “Entrapped Otter” with a label challenging the idea that Audubon was considered a conservationist despite the fact that he killed birds and animals to pose them for painting. This painting and some of Audubon’s bird prints were juxtaposed with the work of contemporary artist Walton Ford across the room; Ford’s “Bangalore” bird print eulogizing the Eurasian Kingfisher now eradicated from China for its blue feathers used in jewelry and hair ornaments.

    The exhibition was punctuated by works of art that were intelligent and exquisitely rendered, such as Kako Ueda’s “Eros and Thanatos”, a large delicate black composition of eggs, roots, birds, snakes and insects in Japanese cut paper on a white linen ground, the technique itself evoking the connectivity between life and death in nature’s fragile web; and other works that prompted strong visceral reactions. I was surprised at the spine shivers when I walked under Deborah Simon’s naturalistic fruit bats perched overhead; and the lump in my throat at Keith Carter’s photograph “Weeping Mary”, when I became caught in the achingly defeated gaze of a mother dog tethered to a long chain, her puppy lying still on the concrete at her feet. I questioned why some animals conjure up fear and others empathy. There were also beautiful, quiet moments. Resting on one of the few benches in the exhibition, I found myself lined up directly behind the small bear sitting in the center of Tom Uttech’s monumental painting “Enassamishhinjijweian”, gazing over his shoulder into the expansive horizon beyond, reminded of how small humans remain in some pockets of the world.

    My personal encounters with the artwork were tempered by the animated reactions of other visitors in the exhibition, especially the children who excitedly showed their parents the different animals. I was impressed by the range of conversations that the exhibition prompted in visitors of all ages, and wondered if a feedback forum was ever considered so visitors could share their reactions to the works on view.

    I left the exhibition considering the components that made it such a satisfying experience. Overall, there was a balance in the approachability of the subject and the challenges presented, ultimately resting on an assembly of exceptional art objects. I recognized that my intellectual and emotional responses to the works of art were not conclusive reactions but rather nudges to question the reasons behind them. So the ideas were not exhausted when I departed. Even as I walked away from the Arts Center, I noticed the pattern of animal prints in the fresh snow along the sidewalk. I stopped for longer than usual to imagine what animals left them there, speculated a rabbit and a deer, then wondered if they crossed there during the night or in the early morning, and if anyone witnessed their passing or if like a temporary canvas the snow served as the only record of their activity. I also continued to think about the “Entrapped Otter” painting and how the exhibition had shifted my reflections to the deeper tensions it embodied. The ideas presented in the exhibition continue to simmer in my mind and I look forward to more residual discoveries.

Latest Comments (1)

wish I was heading to Wisconsin

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

This sounds like a terrific exhibition, and I appreciate your thoughtful review, Amy. I checked online and the exhibition will be on view through June 11, 2011, so perhaps some of you out there might go see it. Let Amy and I know what you think. The one down side to your review is that you didn’t include any images—was there a “no photo” policy? K

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