bunny: Jane Alexander’s Lonely Boy.
Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom
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.
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
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
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
Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June
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
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.