Mis[place]d: Animals Lost and Found – Exploring the Unnatural Habitat of the Natural
May 16, 2009 § 1 Comment
By Seowon Bang
XPACE is a student-run gallery that showcases works of many emerging artists, including OCAD undergraduates and recent graduates. They recently hosted an exhibition on furry little creatures, entitled Mis[place]d: Animals Lost and Found, which was curated by Elizabeth Underhill. This show focused on the relationship between humans and animals, the mistreatment and the “misplacement” of such beings in the fabric of human society. But to say the truth, I was completely unaware of the bigger issues behind the theme. An exhibition on animals, how cute could it be, right? But it was so much deeper than that.
I walk into the gallery and I’m immediately greeted by the sound of a moaning dog and I hear a cat meowing as well. What the heck? The dog’s moan is coming from a small video screen on a pedestal at the centre of the gallery space. I glimpse at the label, Ian MacTilstra’s How I Lost My Virginity. Okay… is this what I think it is? I stare at the screen and discover that the video clip is time-elapsed and fast-forwarded, showing a day in the life of a dog. So it’s not mating, but the poor thing is rather bored. All it does is sit on the couch all day staring out of the window. I suddenly recall a childhood memory when my mom found our pet dog Snappy hidden in my bed on a cold winter night. She yelled that animals belonged outside, and the dog was forced outside into the cold night. I cried myself to sleep thinking he would be frozen solid by morning. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that Snappy was alive and well. I thought it was a miracle!
Obviously, I was little and didn’t know that animals are naturally built to withstand the harsh weather and that animals were meant to be outside not indoors, as it is in their nature to do so.
A similar topic is addressed in Laura Paolini’s Crocodile Tears (Crying Cat). It’s an absolutely amazing installation piece. A robot cat is sitting on a sofa, staring into a TV which is playing a video of a real cat, and… crying! It took me a while to realize that this is not a real cat and that the tears are, well, fake. No wonder it’s so sad, it wants to be a real animal. But it can sure cry, as there is a big patch of wet tears on the fabric of the sofa and the tears are constantly dripping out of the cat’s eyes. I felt pretty bad for the fake cat, but as I keep on staring it gets creepier by the second. It wasn’t enough for humans to domesticate animals and make them little human friends, now we’re making robots instead to replace them. People are feeding batteries to these robot pets and petting them. I’m sure they would cry when the ‘pet’ breaks down from machinery defect and dies. How much more unnatural can this be? How much mis[place]d is this robotic cat?
The exhibition continues downstairs in the gallery as well. The basement of XPACE is dark and rather compact and you have to bend your body if you don’t want to bang your head against the low ceiling. The pieces that grabbed my eyes right away were Plague Rats by Stephanie Vegh and Making Bunnies by Stephanie Kervin and Sylvana D’Angelo. As soon as you make your way into the inner corners of the XBASE space you immediately see this huge group of tiny plaster bunnies on the floor emerging out of a hole in the gallery wall, as if they were invading the gallery space from outside. But why are there so many? Perhaps the artists’ are zeroing in on the stereotypical reproductive nature of rabbits. Later I found out that the artists of Making Bunnies will be installing a few more of the animals to indicate that “the invasion continues.”
Vegh’s piece consists of 71 pages out of an illustrated book of ancient ruins and monuments. It was only when I got very close to the piece that I realized that each illustration of the ruins had a frighteningly realistic looking rat drawn onto it. A rat sits on an ancient piece of Roman architecture, the Colosseum, as if he owns the edifice. The title reminds us of major downfalls such as the Black Death and it shows the tension between how the rats came to affect this tragedy and also the extent to which humans were equally responsible for encouraging these rodents by human generated debris.
The exhibition also deals with various representations of the state of animal life, pets, pests, animals in the city, zoos, and the visual representation of animals in encyclopaedias and books. We’re used to seeing these creatures as domesticated pets or nuisance pests so much that the real and original habitat of the animal in nature is foreign to us. These animals are indeed thoroughly mis[place]d. Wildlife animals are disappearing by droves while domestic animals are endlessly reproduced, many wasting away in shelters and the wild. The tears on the robot cat don’t feel so fake anymore now, do they?
Mis[place]d: Animals Lost and Found ran from January the 9th to the 31st, 2009.
Seowon: How did you come to choose animals and their state of being ‘misplaced’ as the subject of your exhibition?
Elizabeth Underhill: The idea for Mis[place]d largely came from my own concerns with animal welfare and discovering that half of the world’s species are dying out. People worry about climate change or the rainforest, but the end result of all these detrimental acts committed by humans is that animals are going missing. So I wanted to see what could be gleaned from these losses. The exhibition acts as something of a whistleblower for our ongoing neglect of animal life and to recognize the problems and stop perpetrating them. Mis[place]d literally confronts the ways we’ve taken non-human life for granted, and hopefully inspires us to change before humans have lost this precious kingdom.
S: The exhibition has covered various aspects of animals including domesticated, wildlife, cityscape, zoos, encyclopaedia images, myths etc. How do you feel about images of animals in commercial culture? The famous retailers Reebok, American Eagle, Agatha, etc. employ animal forms and images to appeal to the consumer.
EU: Animals are viewed as commodities, objects we possess and use for our fulfillment regardless of their well-being and which we use to commodify objects in logo-form. We are so removed from real animals struggling to survive that when we see these cute little logo critters, we come to believe that they are the factual representations of animals and all is well in the world. But when these animals are being presented to us they aren’t really animals anymore. They represent something else such as human greed, neglect, or just pure disconnect from nature.
I believe that even though so many animals have been misplaced we can still find a new perspective to view the world with and hopefully one that’s more attuned to keeping real animals alive on this planet.
S: Were the two pieces in Xbase, Vegh’s Plague Rats and Kervin and D’Angelo’s Making Bunnies created site-specifically? I feel that those works wouldn’t have had the same impact had they been placed elsewhere, say in a bright open space.
EU: Well you very nearly hit the nail right on the head. The basement was a big deciding factor in proposing the show to Xpace. The low ceiling requires viewers to bend down and look at the works very low as if they were entering an animal’s burrow. Vegh and Kervin and D’Angelo’s works became site-specific over the course of planning the exhibition. Previously Vegh’s work had always been shown on brightly-lit white gallery walls, but in Xbase we couldn’t do that due to conservation reasons. The drawings of rats just worked better in a dank creepy corner both in terms of the associations we make with rats’ dwelling places and the claustrophobic feeling Vegh was trying to evoke. Making Bunnies will likely take different shapes wherever they install it, but they did build a little burrow out of found bricks from which the bunnies could emerge, as if they were actually infiltrating the gallery from outside.
S: The artists in the exhibition are independent emerging student artists. Were the works in the exhibition commissioned or did you come across them through chance or research?
EU: The artists in Mis[place]d are all emerging artists with varying degrees of exhibition experience. Most of the artists responded to a call for submissions across the country. Some of the works, Choisy’s Views of a Secret and Nolan and Kelsey and Meghan Speakman’s Legends of Chincoteague were in progress and looking for an upcoming show in which to take part. I approached several artists personally such as Myall, Nault and Sanhueza to participate as I was already familiar with their work. There are several undergraduate student artists involved in the show but most are recent graduates who have had opportunities to exhibit their work previously.
Mis[place]d is the first exhibition I organized and as an emerging curator I was really attracted to the idea of working with others who are just starting out in the art community. I wanted to put the message out that there is a strong undercurrent of concern for animal issues in the next generation of artists. It was an honour to provide a forum for so many new talents and their associated work.
S: What do you hope the viewers would learn or gain from the exhibition?
EU: Mis[place]d is rather heavy on pointing out all the problems with how we perceive animals and the consequences of our behaviour on their lives. If people saw the show and thought I would like to spend some extra time with my dog today, then that’s great. If they just wanted to spend a period discovering new artists and their fantastic projects that would be great also. Another concern I had was that art solely dedicated to animals is still considered low brow. So with this exhibition I really wanted to have people look at animals as being legitimate subject matter in art and start thinking about issues of animal life for its own sake.
Special thanks to:
Mr. Liddington for giving me the opportunity to get in touch with Ms. Elizabeth Underhill, and
Ms. Underhill for granting me this interview and for providing the jpegs and the artist’s talk audio.