Entangled looking: The crisis of the animal

Theories are living and breathing reconfigurings of the world.
Karen Barad, from “On Touching—The Inhuman that Therefore I am.”[1]

Michael Cook, Civilised #1, 2012, inkjet print from the series Civilised. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.
Michael Cook, Civilised #1, 2012, inkjet print from the series Civilised. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.

Contemporary animal theory confronts some of the most profound issues of our time—what it means to be human in the Anthropocene, anthropocentrism and the mass extinction of species, the rights of nonhuman animals and the future of ethical thinking. Artists, writers and filmmakers explore these and related issues in works that are experimental and challenging, testifying to this time of crisis. These include Michael Cook’s human–nature studies (Civilised, 2012; Invasion, 2017), Janet Laurence’s work on extinction (After Eden, 2012), Patricia Piccinini’s exploration of the posthuman (Evolution, 2009), Sue Coe’s bearing witness to slaughterhouses (Dead Meat, 1996; Porkopolis, 2001), J.M. Coetzee’s writings on animals and ethics (Elizabeth Costello, 2003, Disgrace, 1999) and Nicolas Philibert’s indictment of zoos in his documentary, (Nénette, 2010).

One of the major factors influencing the development of animal theory is the increasing body of scientific evidence that challenges the traditional view that the human subject is an exceptional being whose intelligence sets it apart from all other species. Scientific research is demonstrating that the characteristics of sentience, intelligence, empathy and altruism are shared by both human and non‑human species alike. Another is the Anthropocene—the fact that human actions, leading to global warming and climate change, have had a disastrous impact that now threatens the planet and its multi‑species future. Scientists and writers such as Diane Ackerman, Claire Colebrook and Jeremy Rifkin argue that the Anthropocene challenges us to rethink what it means to be human. Physicist Karen Barad argues that we have moved too quickly from one theoretical position to another, forgetting the crucial importance of nature and ecological issues: “There is an important sense in which the only thing that doesn’t seem to matter anymore is matter.”[2] Existing radical discourses around feminism, class and race may address these issues but not from the perspective of the intersection of human, animal and nature. Environmental humanities and feminist political ecology, while focusing on the natural world, do not foreground human–animal relationships and the crucial question of what it means to be human. Animal theory argues for the interconnected nature of all life forms, species and activities. 

Animal theory has evolved over a long period of time through the writings of scientists, philosophers and social reformers from earlier centuries such as Charles Darwin, Jeremy Bentham and Frances Power Cobbe. Although the modern animal rights movement developed in response to Peter Singer’s classic book, Animal Liberation (1975), considered to represent its philosophical position, influential earlier writings include Brigid Brophy’s essay, “The Rights of Animals” (1965), Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal‑Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, (1975), and Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non‑humans (1971). Over the centuries, the animal rights movement has been closely aligned with the movement for women’s rights. Frances Power Cobbe, a prominent women’s suffrage campaigner, founded a number of anti‑vivisectionist groups dominated by feminists. In his essay on Brigid Brophy, Robert McKay writes that writers who challenge “anthropocentric attitudes towards animals … include Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Maureen Duffy, Patricia Highsmith, Ursula le Guin, and Alice Walker.”[3] The origin of the contemporary animal rights movement lies in philosophical and scientific discourse, ecofeminism, the work of artists, academics, activists, filmmakers, novelists, poets and playwrights. 

This broadly connected history and evolution of animal theory has its origins in many places. Academics in the humanities, particularly in North America and Europe, have been teaching animal studies for many years. The Animals and Society Institute (ASI), a scholarly organisation whose aim is to expand knowledge in the field of human animal studies (HAS) lists on its website over 160 Universities in North America teaching courses in animal studies with over twenty‑two dedicated postgraduate programs in human/animal studies. While some humanities and social science programs in Australian universities teach individual HAS subjects, the tertiary sector has been comparatively slow in responding to this new field despite the fact that Australians committed to the goals of animal liberation have played a leading role in the establishment of the area worldwide. Australian activists, artists, filmmakers and scholars, alongside their overseas counterparts, play a key part in the global movement through publishing, research and community outreach.

The multidisciplinary basis of this movement is evident from the varied range of theorists who present papers at the triennial week‑long international event, the Minding Animals Conference held so far at Newcastle (Australia), Utrecht, Delhi and most recently Mexico City in 2018. Speakers from the disciplines of law, philosophy, history, politics, religion, music, the visual arts, film, sociology and geography come together to present papers and exchange ideas. This year’s speakers at Mexico City included Carol Adams (ecofeminism), Donna Haraway (historian), Oscar Horta (philosopher and activist), Marita Candela (law), Lori Gruen (philosophy), Jody Emei and Jennifer Wolch (geography). In addition, Minding Animals national groups hold national conferences biennially in a range of countries: Australia, Germany, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, Italy and Denmark. These conferences aim to include, along with papers and panels, an animal art and visual cultures exhibition. The proliferation in the past decade of international film festivals and visual arts exhibitions on the theme of the animal is remarkable. Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, which has just celebrated ten years in publication, focuses in particular on ways in which visual art gives rise to new thinking about ethics, animals and nature.

It is only to be expected that, given the interdisciplinarity and diversity of the field, human–animal studies (as with feminism) incorporates a range of positions. For instance, two of the key figures, Peter Singer (Animal Liberation, 1975) and Tom Regan (Animal Rights, 1983), while both having animal liberation as their ultimate goal, disagree over ethical issues as well as the most effective political strategies and theoretical approaches. Other theorists such as Cary Wolfe (Animal Rites, 2003), Anat Pick (Creaturely Poetics, 2011) and Lori Gruen (Entangled Empathy, 2015) all share similar goals, exploring the issues from related but different perspectives. Some argue that nonhuman animals should be accorded rights under certain conditions: others argue that as all non‑human animals are sentient they should all enjoy the same basic rights as their human counterparts. They argue that to do otherwise would be unethical. Some adopt an essentialist position: others focus on difference. Some groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocate political activism: others voice their protest through aesthetic practices. The growing and impressive range of edited collections on human animal studies represents this diversity from Animals in the Anthopocene edited by the HARN Collective (2015) to Annie Pott’s Meat Culture (2016) and The Animals Reader (2007) edited by Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald.
 
There is no clear‑cut narrative to human–animal studies, but rather a bank of entangled ideas, complex theories, and differing strategies and approaches. It is in this rich diversity that the power of the movement lies. Similarly artists and filmmakers globally adopt different aesthetic approaches and artistic strategies, from the traditional fine arts to multimedia and documentary film in order to explore topics as diverse as anthropocentrism, the human/animal divide, queer animalities and the philosophical issue of what it means to be “human.” 

But for all this wave of current thinking and evidence of concern, animals continue to be exploited. This despite the fact that governments of many countries have passed legislation which recognises that animals are sentient beings, who experience emotions, including pain and distress. Measures must be taken to attend to their welfare. Despite such legislation, globally the majority of animals (as with modern human slaves) remain essentially commodities of exchange, exploited commercially for human benefit, denied the right to live out their lives according to their needs and desires. This contradictory state of affairs comes about because of the way in which the human subject is able to live—in fact, thrive—in states of contradiction. The Australian Voice for Animals Bill (2015) in referring to the human rights implications of the legislation stated: “This Bill does not engage any of the applicable rights or freedoms. ... Animals are sentient beings but as yet do not enjoy rights comparable to human rights. This Bill fulfils humanity’s responsibility to protect and defend the rights of animals to live a life free of cruelty and suffering.”[4]

Michael Cook, Civilised #1, 2012, inkjet print from the series Civilised. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.
Michael Cook, Civilised #1 (detail), 2012, inkjet print from the series Civilised. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.

If animals are denied the rights accorded to human animals it is difficult to see how this Bill “fulfils humanity’s responsibility” to animals or how any serious change might occur to alleviate their suffering. If the rights of human animals are to override the rights of non‑human animals then the acceptance that animals are also sentient beings means little. The mass extinction of species, the industrialised breeding and slaughter of animals for consumption, the cruelty of animal experimentation, the imprisonment of animals in zoos, the growing tragedy of road kill, the cruelty of trophy hunters, the destruction of nature—all of these common‑place happenings are symptoms of the crisis of the animal and the moral decline of humanity. In his book The War Against Animals (2015) Dinesh Wadiwel argues that our relationship with animals worldwide is essentially violent. 

Of all forms of contemporary theory, from feminist theory through to race, class and postcolonial theory, animal theory is arguably the most radical in its implications for humanity. Drawing on poststructuralism, feminism and posthumanism, animal theory interrogates traditional concepts of what it means to be human such as a belief in human exceptionalism and the superiority of human intelligence and human pursuits. In his writings on posthumanism Cary Wolfe argues that the human should be seen as one life form among many. Various terms have been adopted to focus on this project of unmaking such as unhuman, inhuman, posthuman, becoming–animal and unselfing. The animal has always been the excluded figure in contemporary discourses about the other, and until recently has rarely if ever been named as such. 

Artists frequently address these issues by creating images of human–animal hybrids. Michael Cook’s Civilised #1 (2012) depicts a figure with a horse’s head and a human body standing by the sea. Waves swirl around his feet, as grey clouds float in the background. Cook’s hybrid is the opposite of the mythical centaur which had the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse. Here the human–animal is given animal intelligence. The creature mouths the well‑known response of Captain Cook to the inhabitants of the continent he “discovered” in specific reference to Aboriginal people: “They are human creatures … These people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans.” 

Civilised #1 from the artist’s series, that goes by the name of the central question posed “What‑If” revisits the history of Australian settlement by Europeans from an Indigenous perspective. This hybrid human–animal reminds us that the gulf between living (to paraphrase Jean‑Jacques Rousseau) in a “pure state of nature,” and the civilised status of Europeans is similar to that between species, and that by inference our happiness may well depend on an acceptance of the fact we are all animals. What‑if we could change human nature? Taking this further, revenge drives Michael Cook’s latest series, Invasion (2017). These uncanny, disturbing works depict a range of strange creatures, including native animals, such as possums on flying saucers, launching attacks on the terrified humans to rework B‑grade Hollywood science fiction movies and draw telling parallels with the current state of civilisation in this human‑dominated world order.

Nicole Monks’ performance work We are all Animals/Sheemu (2016), first presented at the 2016 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Arts Awards, depicts Monks as a hybrid figure wearing a head‑and upper‑body dress of emu feathers and wool, with human lower legs. Feathers of this large, flightless native Australian, merge with a head of wool from the sheep introduced to Australia to create a strange creature that is also channelled through the human. Again, the figure has an animal head, signifying animal sentience, and a human lower half of notably dirty legs. While, on the one hand Monks is exploring her own cross‑cultural Aboriginal and European heritage, on the other hand she is also examining her human–animal identity, and proximity to nature. 

The crisis of the animal has inspired artists, writers and filmmakers to create radically new texts around human–animal relations. Many use aesthetic strategies that help us to reconsider how we look at animals. Is the look anthropocentric, that is, unthinkingly human‑centred rather than anti‑anthropocentric? Is the gaze voyeuristic—even sadistic? Various scholars, such as John Berger and Anat Pick have offered very different perspectives on this, with Berger introducing the dilemma, in his influential essay “Why Look at Animals?” (1977) in which he examines the alienation of human and animal brought about by nineteenth‑century capitalism and the emergence of debased forms of looking using the example of the modern zoo. 

Nicole Monks, We are all Animals/Sheemu, 2016. Photo courtesy the artist and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Nicole Monks, We are all Animals/Sheemu, 2016. Photo courtesy the artist and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Berger looks back to a rural past when human and animal relations were, in his view, more natural and productive. His essay is highly critical of visual imagery, particularly the proliferation of visual modes of looking in the modern world. In her essay “Why Not Look At Animals?” (2015), in which she critiques the use of wildlife tracking technologies, arguing for the possibility of not-seeing, Pick criticises Berger’s approach: “Berger’s disaffection with animal imagery can give rise to an extinctionist impulse that desires the end of images, or even the end of the debased modern animal. Yet the sheer diversity and complexity of animal imagery suggests modes of looking, seeing, and recognition are possible that reconfigure the connections between visuality and ethics in favour of animals.”[5] 

Jonathan Burt has critiqued Berger’s essay on a number of grounds, particularly for its anthropocentrism and inherent humanism that shifts Berger’s initial interest in animals to a focus on human concerns. How might we look at animals? The possibility of entangled looking, or looking with animals, which draws on Charles Darwin’s view of life as an entangled bank does capture the rich interplay of connections that occur when we engage with animals. Darwinian entanglement sees all forms of life—human, animal and vegetable—as interconnected. As Gillian Beer argues in her influential book Darwin’s Plots (1983), in which she explores the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the workings of evolutionary narrative on nineteenth‑century fiction, his concept of the “inextricable web of affinities’’ and the “entangled bank” are central.[6] Darwinian looking embraces both life and death as well as decay and dissolution. Human and non-human are essential features of this intricate web. Entangled looking is about becoming animal, about asking us to adopt a look of greater reciprocity supporting common histories, origins, sensibilities, desires and (perhaps more diversely inscribed) forms of intelligence. 

The title of Damien Hirst’s well-known work, consisting of a dead tiger shark, preserved in formaldehyde in a glass tank, as the object of an intensely sought gaze provides a case in point. But The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) is conventionally and defiantly anthropocentric in its structuring of the look. Here, the spectator is invited to contemplate his/her own death through the objectified body of the lifeless other. The viewer is invited to feel dominant rather than empathetic because the artist has the power to kill and put on display the body of a savage creature solely for the purpose of human edification. A similar criticism can be aimed at Herman Nitsch’s slaughtered bull performance piece, 150.action (Dark Mofo, 2017), in which the participants writhing around in the bull’s blood and entrails, disregard the individuality of the animal in this group action that conveys a depth of human cruelty, narcissism and indifference to the fate of animals. A more revealing approach would have been to ask the performers (or even those in the audience) to donate their own bodily products in order to consider the point of such abjection and sacrifice. Similar criticism could be targeted at Peng Yu’s Curtain (1999) installation for the Culture Life exhibition in Beijing, in which live lobsters, snakes, bullfrogs and eels are impaled onto hooks to create a slowly‑dying work of art, as perhaps one of the most extreme instances of sadism in recent cultural practice. Entangled looking as a strategy does not avoid depictions of death in art, whether human or animal; rather, it sees death as part of the life cycle and experiences we share. 

Entangled looking also draws on Lori Gruen’s theory of “entangled empathy,” explored in her book of the same title, which argues that we should focus not on animal rights but on our already entangled, empathetic relationships with animals as a basis for responding to their vulnerabilities, just as we have historically privileged analysing our own. Entangled looking allows us to recognise that when we look at animals in visual texts (or in the world) the gaze should be understood as fluid, multiple and mobile. Artists adopting an animal perspective have focused on a number of important issues including species decline, factory farming, human animality, animal ethics, the right of human beings to kill and eat animal others, the use of animals for scientific experimentation, and the physical and visual objectification of other species (in zoos, circuses, wildlife reservations and hunting reserves). 
 

Herman Nitsch, 150.Action, Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions, 2017. Photo courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania.
Herman Nitsch, 150.Action, Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions, 2017. Photo courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania.
Herman Nitsch, 150.Action, Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions, 2017. Photo courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania.
Herman Nitsch, 150.Action, Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions, 2017. Photo courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania.

In her installation Sighthound (2005) Jo Longhurst explores the differences between the human and non‑human gaze. She examines the way in which human identity is shaped through our interaction with animals. In order to view her installation, spectators must bend over and forward to look through a series of eye holes positioned at a dog’s eye level in an evolutionary reversal of “man’s adoption of an upright posture” that Darwin identified as connected to the cultural dominance of vision.[7] This interrogation of point of view is further prompted by Longhurst’s portrait of four Whippets staring out at us with a direct and intense gaze. This quietly provocative work I Know What You’re Thinking (2002–03) seeks to further problematise the “I” that is the subject of the portraits.

Lisa Roet has perhaps more than any other artist taken to representing our most closely matched primate others. In That’s Entertainment (1999) she takes the subject of her monumental animal portraits in two and three dimensions one step further to explore the relations of looking between human and animal. Using a split screen to show film footage of primates in a zoo as objects and subjects of the gaze. Here, the animal’s returned gaze confronts the voyeurism of the (human) viewer. Roet achieves a similar interaction in Ape and the Bunnyman, Part 1 (1998) in which three Hasidic Jewish men identifiable by their attire peer through a set of windows at a chimpanzee who looks intently back at them. A human figure dressed in a bunny suit copies the researchers who wear animal costumes when teaching sign language to apes with the view that this will help them to relax in this artificial environment. This work offers up an entertaining spectacle of dressing up for the other as a routine adaptation to specific circumstances. As the narrator figure in this work of spectatorship, it is the chimpanzee’s turn to contemplate the absurdity of it all by returning the gaze.

This willing act of identification between human and animal broaches a form of empathy which encourages us as human animals to look from within rather than simply to observe. This has inspired provocative new writing, as reflected in Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What is it like to be a Bat?”. As he points out, we might imagine but we will never know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”[8] But this does not mean that we should not try. In his eponymous novel, Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee has the heroine state that there are no boundaries to the “sympathetic imagination” when creating a fictional character: “If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.”[9]

Jo Longhurst, Sighthound, 2005, installation view Museum Folkwang, 2008 eight twin stereo slides, eight plastic stereo viewers, electro-luminescent film. Courtesy and © the artist.
Jo Longhurst, Sighthound, 2005, installation view Museum Folkwang, 2008 eight twin stereo slides, eight plastic stereo viewers, electro-luminescent film. Courtesy and © the artist.

Creative producers frequently employ aesthetic strategies to encourage the viewer to imagine what the non‑human animal is experiencing and feeling. But it is open to conjecture, as to how this can truly imply a metamorphosis in the sense of a complete loss of boundaries. In his astonishing short story The Metamorphosis (1915) Franz Kafka does just that when the protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up inexplicably transformed into another creature—a monstrous insect who is unable to communicate his experience and is left to his own devices, literally crawling the walls. Just as Kafka’s tale suspends our belief in an instrumental way, the radical or more responsible approach is in effect to describe, or maintain, a critical distance.

This critical distance is best established when the content is dictated by the animal subject as an empathic protagonist, responding to and with the human others. One of the most effective instances of this is Nicolas Philibert’s documentary Nénette (2010). Nénette is an orangutan who was captured in the jungles of Borneo as an infant and taken to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. She has been there for over forty years and is the zoo’s most celebrated and loved inhabitant. Visitors to the zoo watch her through the glass walls of her domain. Some come every day to visit her. Her penetrating eyes appear to take in everything, to look and be looked upon. But Philibert’s camera reveals only Nénette in close proximity. This means that we watch Nénette’s face, follow her expressions and gestures. We do not see her human visitors, only hear what they say to Nénette. We can only imagine what she sees in them. The zoo visitors talk to Nénette about their lives, and hazard attempts at what they think she must be feeling and thinking. One even tells Nénette that she must be lonely, like herself, and needs a husband. A key exertion of control here for Nénette is that, when she feels she has had enough exposure, she drapes a blanket over her head. We appreciate her humour, her patience and her desire to be left alone—for the one thing Nénette is denied is privacy. By creating a disjuncture between image and recorded sound and entangling if not mutually assuring the reciprocity of the communications, Philibert challenges the possibilities of a shared understanding. 

Lisa Roet, Ape and the Bunnyman, Part 1, 1998, Cibachrome. © Lisa Roet/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018.
Lisa Roet, Ape and the Bunnyman, Part 1, 1998, Cibachrome. © Lisa Roet/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018.
Nicholas Philibert (Dir.), Nénette, 2010. Photo courtesy and © Nicholas Philibert.
Nicholas Philibert (Dir.), Nénette, 2010. Photo courtesy and © Nicholas Philibert.

In recent years a number of filmmakers have made a range of confronting documentaries on the crisis of the animal. These include Meet Your Meat (2002), Peaceable Kingdom (2004), The Cove (2009), Death on a Factory Farm (2009) Project Nim (2011), An Apology to Elephants (2013) and Blackfish (2013). All these filmic encounters problematise the spectatorial relationships. Project Nim is of particular interest because, like Nénette, Nim is represented as a subject in his own right. Directed by James Marsh, Project Nim tells the remarkable story of an infant chimpanzee, who is forcibly taken from his mother when only a few days old and adopted into a human family. He is even breastfed. Nim learns the meaning of over 125 hand gestures that signify specific concepts and the communication of emotions, needs and desires. Marsh opts for the forms of a reconstruction documentary. He combines archival footage with photographs, dramatic reconstructions and present‑day interviews with Nim’s human companions and teachers to present a range of viewpoints that attempt to capture the experience of Nim, his early happiness and his later anger and despair when he is separated from his human family and sent to a scientific laboratory for animal experimentation. One of the film’s most powerful revelations is about Nim’s own abilities: he is able to use sign language to initiate discussions with humans; he expresses his desires through signing; he can play tricks on his human companions; he recognises himself in a mirror; and he understands the meaning of death.

Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye (2017) is an inter‑species road movie. It depicts an unexpected encounter between Thana, a once‑famous but now disenchanted architect who buys the elephant that he assumes to be his childhood companion from a man in the street in Bangkok. The mission for Thana is to take Pop Aye across Thailand and return him to their rural childhood home in Loei, Isan Province. There is very little dialogue. The sheer physicality of the elephant dominates the frame and the progress of the two protagonists on their journey. Tan sets a creaturely pace by letting the elephant’s gait determine the film’s movement. When Thana becomes exhausted Pop Aye gently lifts him onto her back: when Pop Aye hurts his foot, Thana finds a truck to carry him. Pop Aye’s accommodation of the outsiders they meet on the road punctuates these three encounters. In contrast to films with performing animals, such as circus films, which animal activists argue are unethical as the animals are forced to live alienated lives, Tan lets the elephant dictate narrative movement. In the main Pop Aye simply is. Spectators are free to read into the elephant playing Pop Aye’s “performance” what they will, although the meaning is also influenced by Thana’s narrative. This is not dissimilar to the methodology of film directors Robert Bresson and Chantal Ackerman, who film their (human) actors with a minimum of direction, preferring them to simply be themselves in front of the camera.

The healing power of animals is central to many human–animal films that focus on relationships to strategically examine human cruelty: Umberto D (de Sica, 1952), Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966), Kes (Loach, 1969), The Big Animal (Stuhr, 2000) and Healing (Monahan, 2014). These landmark films all develop their own narrative strategies to replace the anthropocentric gaze with different forms of identification. But clearly, as with Pop Aye, their future in the modern world is bleak. In the final scenes of Pop Aye Thana discovers that the animal he took to be Pop Aye is another, and the companion of his youth was summarily put down after a circus accident. He pledges to find a sanctuary for his new friend, but this Pop Aye quietly departs in the night anticipating the moment of his decline. Our final glimpse is an extreme close‑up of the elephant’s face, his weary eyes, ears and vulnerable, freckled skin. 

Kirsten Tan (Dir.), Pop Aye, 2017. Photo courtesy Giraffe Pictures.
Kirsten Tan (Dir.), Pop Aye, 2017. Photo courtesy Giraffe Pictures.
Janet Laurence, After Eden (detail), 2012, film stills and Duraclear works. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.
Janet Laurence, After Eden (detail), 2012, film stills and Duraclear works. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.

Janet Laurence further exploits the filmic eye as cameo works of still photography and moving image in layers of imagery that create a vision of the Anthropocene and the threat of mass extinctions in her exhibition After Eden (Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 2012). This Eden is populated by backlit photographs and hazy images of vanishing species of plants and animals under threat that include pandas, elephants, monkeys, dingoes, zebras, deer and an array of bird species and delicate wild flowers and grasses. Pandas shot in animal sanctuaries in China and Aceh flicker on divided screens. Laurence talks of the need for “empathic recognition” and the devastation caused by the loss of habitat. In order to see the animals we must look through a mesh or membrane as a layering device that obscures the field of vision to conjure up a dreamscape or literal screen memory, like images from childhood, the lost childhood of the Earth in which the viewer finds a moment of reciprocity in capturing the wrinkled eye of an elephant in time. Many works recall sequences from Maya Deren’s The Very Eye of Night (1958) in which ghostly bodies shown in photographic negative are only partly glimpsed as they float by in the darkness almost out‑of‑sight. The repressed memory that their presence screens out is that these species are already extinct. But Laurence also states that she wants us to feel enabled to act “on their behalf.”[10] This raises the all‑important question of the relationship between art and action. Whereas Laurence chooses empathy as a political tool, others choose outrage. 

One of the most difficult topics for artists and filmmakers to address is that of animal execution, factory farming and the slaughterhouse. Artist and visual essayist, Sue Coe, noted for her political art on a range of social issues, tackles the death of animals directly with her engagement in historical events in the twentieth century, such as Thomas Edison’s execution by electric current of Topsy the elephant in 1903 in Coney Island, New York, that prompted debate about the exploitation and cruelty of circus work for animals, among a number of historical accounts of murdered elephants. Her style combines elements of political cartoons, popular illustration and an expressionist style linked to social realism. These graphic accounts include scenes from the incident in 1885, when the circus operator Barnum lost his superstar, Jumbo, who was hit by a freight train, following which spectators were permitted to hack off pieces of his body for souvenirs. In another incident, Mary, a circus elephant was hung with chains from a crane for killing her trainer. In these works, there is also a fantastic element, as Coe fancifully plots the animal’s revenge in Topsy Kills Man (2007), following the example of Patricia Highsmith who explores the revenge of animals in her short stories, such as “Goat Ride” and “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance” published in The Animals Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder (1975). 

Sue Coe, Meat Files, 1991, graphite, gouache and ink on white Strathmore Bristol board. Courtesy the ariist and Galerie St Etienne, New York
Sue Coe, Meat Files, 1991, graphite, gouache and ink on white Strathmore Bristol board. Courtesy the ariist and Galerie St Etienne, New York

From her graphic woodcuts on themes such as caged chickens to boiling lobsters Coe appeals directly to the viewer’s emotions with her deliberately raw and graphic approach. Coe’s Selection for the Slaughter (1991) depicts a worker selecting a lamb for slaughter as her ill‑fated companions watch on. In Standing Pig (at Lete Concentration Camp) 1993, Coe depicts the slaughter of pigs on a modern pig farm built on the site of a concentration camp for Romany people at Lety in the former Czechoslovakia. By showing prisoners watching on from a distance, Coe argues that the slaughter of animals is also a form of genocide. J. M. Coetzee has his eponymous heroine make the same argument in his novel Elizabeth Costello. Coe, who grew up next to a slaughterhouse in Staffordshire, England, and later as an artist spent time (over a nine‑year period) visiting the abattoirs and meat farms across the USA, Canada and the UK, has created a remarkable body of work published in Dead Meat (1996) that critic Steven Heller notably compared to Goya’s Disasters of War for its incendiary impact. Of Coe’s recent solo show, The Animals (2017), critic Felicia Feaster said: “It’s rare to see impassioned, furious, shocking art … these days. But the powerful exhibition of noted illustrator and artist Sue Coe’s work at Georgia State University gallery may single-handedly remind you of the power of art to bear witness, perhaps change the world, or at least shake up your perspective.”[11]

This compelling avenue for artists to employ shock value and empathy in presenting confronting images of the meat and livestock industry is also taken up in the work of sculptor Lynn Mowson. Her works, employing fragile materials such as latex and wax to replicate human and animal biology in closely resembling fleshy lumps of meat (beautiful little dead things, 2014) also as hanging torsos. The abject status of this dead flesh resembling the products of once living and breathing beings is both confronting and exquisite as work of material resonance that also responds to the bodily creations of Louise Bourgeoise. Working with photomontage to exploit the surrealist principle of the uncanny or odd juxtaposition, Nicolas Lampert’s ongoing series of Meatscapes is another close encounter, disrupting the idyllic vision of the countryside with a towering assemblage of meat cuts that reify the awful truth behind the meat industry. In his famous 1949 documentary, Le Sang des Bêtes (Blood of Beasts), Georges Franju also juxtaposes surreal images close by the slaughterhouse located in an everyday suburban neighbourhood. Likewise, Australian artist Yvette Watt’s photographic images from the Animal Factories Visual Research Project emphasise the innocuous outward appearance of these buildings. Factory farms and slaughterhouses uphold what Jacques Derrida sees as the sacrificial order of human societies. He uses the term “carno‑phallogocentrism” to signify the formation of the subject and subjectivity that allows for a set of sacrificial relations, including the “non‑criminal putting to death” of animals in order to sustain and uphold the metaphysical reality of the human, based on relations of domination and incorporation. He also uses the term “carnivorous virility” to describe the subject of this order as one whose authority privileges the “fraternal schema” as well as the “incorporation” of the animal other.[12]

Another aspect of rural life that places animals in danger, concomitant with the destruction or invasion of habitat, is the prevalence of roadkill as a product of the union of the automobile industry and the expansion of highways through regions populated by wildlife. Australian photographer Marian Drew, adopting the aesthetic conventions of seventeenth‑century Dutch still life, is a forager of these victims of the drive‑through landscape. In Drew’s photographic tableaus the dead animal is carefully arranged on a table containing the traditional victuals and culinary objects of plates, cutlery, fruit or ornamental bowls, with an accompanying serene but haunting vista in the background to represent the memento mori of the Vanitas traditon of still life that triggers a reminder of our own mortality. 

Shaking such historical conventions of thought and aesthetic tradition, a major work from Patricia Piccinini’s exhibition Evolution (2008) at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery powerfully demonstrates her interest in evolution as a driver for inter‑species thinking. The Long Awaited (currently a key work in Hyper Real at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) offers an exemplary instance of the power of empathy, and of learning to love the animal other of our shared chemistry. Piccinini’s fascination with the Darwinian universe of evolution, mutation, degradation and transformation is here normalised. But her key question remains: What does it mean to be human? In this work we see a small boy, dressed in pants, shirt and shoes, nursing across his lap the head of a human–animal hybrid, whose naked body shares with him a bench. The creature is not unlike a dugong—now an endangered species—with human features. Dugongs, known as sea cows, also have a matriarchal history. They are thought to have once been women as well as the inspiration for mermaids. With her grey hair, wrinkled brow, large nose, simian mouth, sagging breasts, large tummy and fish scales she is not the fairytale image. Sloth‑like even, she has nine toes. But endearing is the communion of their heads, resting against each other for mutual support in sleep, like travellers at a bus stop. As in the science fiction film, Splice (Dir. Natali, 2010), cross‑species beings confound all acceptable boundaries as both abject and life‑affirming. 

Nicholas Lampert, Meatscape, 2002. Courtesy and © the artist.
Nicholas Lampert, Meatscape, 2002. Courtesy and © the artist.
Lynn Mowsan, fleshlumps, 2014, microcrystalline wax and pigment (detail from the installation beautiful little dead things). Photo: Kerry Leonard. © Lynn Mowson/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018.
Lynn Mowsan, fleshlumps, 2014, microcrystalline wax and pigment (detail from the installation beautiful little dead things). Photo: Kerry Leonard. © Lynn Mowson/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018.

Piccinini’s powerful works on inter‑species entanglements signal the possibility for creative future directions in human–animal studies and cultural practice. A major strength is the interdisciplinary nature of the field. There needs to be more dialogue between the sciences and humanities and across the arts in disciplines such as feminism, philosophy, history and sociology, queer and environmental studies in order to bring together a range of voices in support of animal ethics. Derrida’s argument that it is the sacrificial structure of human culture, with its focus on incorporation and control, that leads to the oppression of the animal offers a challenge for interdisciplinary debate and artistic practice about new possibilities for human subjectivity. The work of cultural practitioners, artists, filmmakers and writers is crucial. As evidence mounts for the shared histories, natures and desires of human and non‑human species, and the rich work emerging from cultural practices, it is possible to envisage a more optimistic future about how we might live ethically in the Anthropocene.

Patricia Piccinini, The Long Awaited, 2008, silicone, fibreglass, human hair, plywood, leather, clothing. Photo: Graham Baring. Courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco.
Patricia Piccinini, The Long Awaited, 2008, silicone, fibreglass, human hair, plywood, leather, clothing. Photo: Graham Baring. Courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco. 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Karen Barad, “On Touching—The Inhuman that Therefore I am,” Differences, vol. 23, no. 3, 2012, pp. 206–23.
  2. ^ Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007, pp. 132–37.
  3. ^ Robert MacKay, “Brigid Brophy’s Pro‑animal Forms,” Contemporary Women’s Writing, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 1.
  4. ^ Voice for Animals (Independent Office of Animal welfare) Bill 2015:   https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/.../cd588f76-287f-4d3c-aad8-ce7a58a29474.
  5. ^ Anat Pick, “Why Not Look At Animals?,” European Journal of Media Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2015, pp. 107–25: https://necsus-ejms.org/why-not-look-at-animals/.
  6. ^ Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth‑Century Fiction, Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 19.
  7. ^ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, London: John Murray, 1871, pp. 17–18.
  8. ^ Thomas Nagel, “What It Is Like To Be A Bat?”, The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, October 1974, p. 439.
  9. ^ J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, London: Vintage, 2004, p. 80.
  10. ^ Janet Laurence quoted in Dolla S. Merrillees, “An Interview with Janet Laurence,” in Rachel Kent, Janet Laurence: After Eden, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, p. 73.
  11. ^ Felicity Feaster, “Review: Harsh truths define British artist Sue Coe’s animal rights work,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution: https://www.pomona.edu/.../artist-and-activist-sue-coe-atlanta-journal-constitution-felicityfeaster.
  12. ^ Jacques Derrida, “Eating Well, or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” in E. Cadava, P. Connor and J. L Nancy (eds), Who Comes After The Subject? New York and London: Routledge, 1991, pp. 96–119.

Barbara Creed is Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of Screen Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her areas of research cover feminism, human rights and animal studies. Her most recent publication is Stray: Human‑Animal Ethics in the Anthropocene (Power Publications, 2017).

Card image: Janet Laurence, After Eden (detail), 2012, film stills and Duraclear works. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.