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I, bunny: Jane Alexander’s Lonely Boy.

The Fauna Arts
By David Brickman

Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., through February 2006

Back in the early heyday of conceptualism, my school buddies and I often used a phrase that became something of a mantra; after confronting work in an experimental medium or, for that matter, any new or interesting experience, we would say, “Yeah—but is it art?”

These days, it seems artists and curators have forgotten how to ask such a question: So many boundaries have been broken, so much conceptual art has been exposed and absorbed, that we now take it for granted that anything at all that an artist or museum presents as art is acceptable as such. Audiences, however, are not necessarily so willing to take this leap of faith; and the new show at MASS MoCA, Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom, is just the sort of collection that will raise this question (and others) for those still capable of healthy skepticism.

Becoming Animal is the creation of the museum’s associate curator Nato Thompson, who explains in his hopelessly bombastic catalog essay a fascination with the diminishing distinctions between humans and all other species: As genetic manipulations bring them closer to us and we learn through genome mapping how close we are to them, a longstanding division is breaking down. The premise seems to be to have a look at where artists meet scientists within this realm and to thereby get a sense of where we stand as a species in relation to other species. He asks, “If we actually are becoming animal, whither our ethical, moral, sacred, and legal systems, let alone our dinner?” To which I say, that’s a pretty big “if,” Nato.

All this cultural mumbo-jumbo aside, there’s a bunch of interesting stuff in the show, along with some not so interesting. It features work by an international cast of 12: Jane Alexander of Cape Town, South Africa; Rachel Berwick of Providence, R.I.; Brian Conley of New York City; Mark Dion of Beach Lake, Pa.; Sam Easterson of North Hollywood, Calif.; Kathy High of Troy; Natalie Jeremijenko, an Australian now splitting her time between New York City and San Diego; Nicolas Lampert of Milwaukee, Wisc.; Michael Oatman of Troy; Motohiko Odani of Tokyo; Patricia Piccinini of Melbourne; and Ann-Sofi Sidén of New York City and Stockholm.

The last person on this list has what amounts to a show within the show—or more accurately, a museum within the museum. Her display documenting more than 10 years of performances involving the semi-human persona QM is elaborate, exhaustive, and self-contained. Called the Queen of Mud Museum, Sidén’s installation could easily be addressed as a separate entity; with hours’ worth of film and video projections, and a digital archive holding more than 3,500 items, a separate visit would be required to give it its due.

At the least, one must view a 28-minute short feature film from 1997 that was the culmination of the mud-covered, lizardlike QM’s existence; titled QM, I think I call her QM, it is a strangely affecting portrait of paranoia and isolation in the form of a lonely, retired psychiatrist who holds QM (portrayed always by Sidén) in a locked room for study purposes. The film is well-written and professionally produced. Still photographs depicting the apartment of a real New York psychiatrist after her death reveal the haunting source of the film’s ideas and add to the visual appeal of the QMM display, as do glass cases containing physical artifacts from the film and other projects.

Sam Easterson and Motohiko Odani also use film, to different degrees of success. Easterson’s collection of videos shot from the point of view of a variety of animals, while coming out of the “structural” (as in nonstructured) tradition, more readily bring to mind the sort of footage one sees on nature shows or, at best, in movies such as the brilliant full-length features Microcosmos and Winged Migration. However, his are a lot less interesting.

Odani, employing extensive special effects and the Japanese penchant for cuteness, has created a truly irresistible yet cloying yet creepy yet catchy yet annoying confection in Rompers. Featuring a techno-beat soundtrack with la-la singing, the video shows mutated frogs, bugs, and a girl (mutated as well) that frolic and jump among mutated plants in a candy-colored landscape. Everything about it would suggest that I’d run screaming at first sight—instead, I happily watched it two or three times. Better look out for that guy, he could be dangerous!

Suburban fantasies of the malevolent variety, populated by cute creatures, are a specialty of Michael Oatman. His ample contribution of collages large and small to the exhibition is, again, almost a show in itself. Oatman made a big splash with a huge multi-part collage at 2003’s Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibition, and his work at MASS MoCA continues the theme of birds armed to the teeth—er, beaks—and deftly transformed found landscape imagery.

Though he clearly works his fool ass off, and does the necessary digging research-wise, Oatman doesn’t bore you with too many facts. Instead, he lets his unparalleled imagination and source material collaborate in taking you to new places. The biggest, and probably best piece he presents here is a very long frieze titled Husbandry; in it, a panoply of archetypal men (soldier, politician, lion tamer, meter reader, soccer players, Boy Scouts) populate a suburban landscape that bristles with animals and oddities, as well as a hazard or two of the female type. It’s a hoot and a howl—and if I didn’t already know Mike and his work from years past, I’d say he is the discovery of the exhibition.

My other favorite piece in Becoming Animal is the commissioned installation by Mark Dion titled Library for the Birds of Massachusetts. In effect, it is nothing more than an aviary, occupied by 18 zebra finches, and accessible to human visitors. Dion has provided the little birds with a cut-up and reassembled tree, along with a whole lot of books about many subjects, but mostly science, biology, ornithology and the like, and a few objects of interest, such as a hunter’s apparel and gear.

The finches do what finches do—they sing, flutter about, eye people curiously—and they perch, peck and poop on the books. The pleasure in all the things assembled in there is strictly for the humans; equally, the pure delight of visiting the birds has nothing to do with art, and would be just the same in a science museum, park or zoo.

Another commission in the show, by Kathy High, has transgenic—that is genetically modified with human DNA—rats living in it; think of a living-room gerbil habitat on steroids and you get the picture. Near that are some big glass tubes with tiny video monitors at their bottoms and tiny speakers above them; these play werewolf movies and other such fare. Obviously intended to express horror and compassion in relation to the use and abuse of animals in the name of science, the display looks so much like a science experiment itself that I completely missed the point, got bored and walked away. For me, it failed the “Yeah—but is it art?” test hands-down.

As did the show’s third commission, an outdoor installation of wired-for-sound electronic perches that Natalie Jeremijenko created in the belief that the local pigeons would learn to use them to communicate with visitors (I kid you not). Predictably, on two successive hot and sunny afternoons at the museum, this visitor saw no pigeons anywhere near the perches (though I could hear them cooing from some cooler spot nearby). Sometimes, I guess, birds are even smarter than we think. The perches, by the way, are located right under Jeremijenko’s other installation at MASS MoCA, which consists of six suspended upside-down maple trees that have been there since the museum opened in 1999. Of the six, five are still alive and, apparently, still straining to adapt to their predicament.

Other works in the show also tiptoe along that ever-popular borderline between art and science: Rachel Berwick’s Lonesome George installation finds expression by translating a living-but-near-extinct giant tortoise’s exhalation into the wind in a pair of sails; Brian Conley’s Pseudanarum Gigantica, which consists of an inflatable bladder joined to a primitive pipe-organ apparatus in imitation of a tree frog’s mating-call system, underperforms humorously and a bit pathetically, considering its size.

Conley’s piece also brought to mind an anecdote about Leonardo Da Vinci, in which he was purported to be designing a spinning machine—not to do any work, however, but in order to help Leonardo in his effort to understand the miracle of the human hand’s ability to twist yarn. There’s little doubt that the original Renaissance man intended this as science, not art—and I suspect he had no problem discerning the difference.

Finally, the work that most clearly embodies the theme of the show is that of Patricia Piccinini. With her horrifying silicone sculpture The Young Family, Piccinini presents a lifelike rendition of a new creature, part human, part pig; in the scenario, a nearly hairless, reclining mother suckles three of her brood while a fourth lolls nearby, grabbing at its toes and gazing lovingly at its snouted caregiver.

The scene, while peaceful, is almost too hideous to study for long—yet, like an accident’s carnage, it is impossible to ignore. So is its message, which suggests a distant future when we will perhaps have become so hybridized and mutated as to be no longer recognizable, even to ourselves. Here, Piccinini has transcended elements of science to comment clearly and emotionally on the human experience. And, yeah, that’s art.


Rob O’Neil: Projections

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June 12

These 10 gelatin silver prints by Rob O’Neil from a body of work titled Projections make a nice addition to the [Re]collections show, as they also use historical artifacts in interesting and transformative configurations.

O’Neil, who teaches at the College of Saint Rose, has strong technique and an idea that transcends being a gimmick. By projecting the images from antique educational lantern slides, then staging scenes in front of them and photographing the set-ups, he creates layered, storylike representations of his thoughts. Some are more literal, others more surreal, but all of them have interesting attitudes.

In this series, the slides show industrial subjects: a dam, a mine, a harbor, a grain elevator, etc. O’Neil adds related objects and interjects an arm or a profile (in one case, half a figure) as a sort of everyman researcher on the job. This hand often holds glass lab equipment or a lit match, like a scientist might.

My favorite is called Ice. In it, a view of a boat in arctic waters is augmented by block and tackle much like the boat’s rigging, creating a nice illusion of continuity. In all the prints, which are large for photographs, O’Neil’s excellent black-and-white printing adds to the effect. The display offers a nice opportunity to see a substantial body of work by one of the area’s better photographers.

—David Brickman

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