The line between animal and human was drawn at a point in human history and followed by a line between different races and genders. It has ongoing destructive consequences for planet earth. ‘Us and others’ is still a dichotomy and perceiving humans as superior to nature is no longer a popular idea.
There have been attempts at blurring this line many times and amongst those attempts, feminist philosophers and artists play a prominent role. One of the current exhibitions in BALTIC, ‘Animalesque - Art Across Species and Beings’ can be counted as an attempt too. Being an art exhibition in a gallery space, ‘Animalesque’ has a fundamental human point of view. However, it employs inter-special characteristics; it is highly empathetic, critical and playful. The show reassesses the interconnectedness between species in the context of space, identity and struggle.
The curator of the show, Filipa Ramos, says that the starting point is Deleuze’s text ‘Becoming-Animal’, but it goes beyond the theory. Deleuze, while writing about Francis Bacon, states that between human and animal, there is a deep identity, a zone of indiscernibility, that is more profound than any sentimental identification. “The human who suffers is an animal, the animal who suffers is a human. This is the reality of becoming. What revolutionary person - in art, politics, religion, or elsewhere - has not felt that extreme moment when he or she was nothing but an animal, and became responsible not for the calves that died but before the calves that died?”
Reminding us of a similar question, ‘Animalesque’ brings together works by 17 artists from 11 countries from 1970s to this day. This diverse selection of videos, drawings, sculptures, installations and sound works create a space for the type of identification that Deleuze explains. It is a space that recognises similarities as well as non-resemblances between the species.
French artist Pierre Huyghe’s video ‘Untitled (Human Mask)’ appears to define this space stronger than any other work. The video features a macaque, an extremely adaptable, highly social monkey, the most widespread primate in the world besides humans. In an abandoned restaurant in Japan, the macaque, wearing clothes and a mask of a young girl, slowly walks around, watches birds, contemplates, touches her wig, seemingly waiting for customers to arrive. She appears half-human, half-animal, projecting a sense of melancholy and loneliness. It is a haunting and provoking scene, reminiscent of films that depict a post-apocalyptic world. She walks in the restaurant like Katniss Everdeen. She puzzles the audience about her state and which side of the spectrum she belongs to.
Some of the works tell of shared struggles, such as natural disasters, colonialism and oppression of particular races or classes. In Ho Tzu Nyen’s two-channel video ‘2 or 3 Tigers’, animal and human merge into one another. The work is a dialogue that revisits the history of the colonialist occupation of South East Asia and its impact on the local environment. The work emphasises the Malayan tigers’ state of being in danger of extinction.
On a big wall at the back of the gallery there is a collage that, from a distance, looks like a drawing of climbing plants. Coming closer, the images become recognisable: Grace Jones, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yoko Ono, Rosa Parks and many more … Mary Beth Edelson, in her work ‘Untitled’, plays tribute to the presence of women in history and depicts prominent figures of feminist and civil rights movements. Women, who are represented in her work, appear and disappear into abstractions of nature and the work points toward a harmony between women and nature. They are intertwined with each other, appearing like flowers, clouds, root nodes, statues in a wild garden.
Collaboration between human and animal in the contemporary, urban context is also imagined. ‘Hope Hippo’ is one of the prominent works in the exhibition, initially because of its size. It is a huge, realistic clay sculpture of a hippopotamus. A performer sits on top of the hippo in the middle of the gallery, reads a newspaper and blows a whistle when they find an alarming news story. This creates an image which is not seen in National Geographic or indeed in Nairobi National Park. Hippo and human become accomplices in announcing wrong-doings in a comic way. The work was first shown in 2005 Venice Biennale and in 2020, stories concerning both species have undoubtedly changed. One wonders if the frequency of the whistle has increased since.
The exhibition takes us on a journey of emotions; shock, joy, concern, warmth, curiosity, empathy. The text at the entrance of the gallery says “To be animalesque is to be animal-like, to be able to change, mutate, become another”. Expanding the possibilities of empathy for other beings with whom we share the earth and attempting for a zone of indiscernibility, the show perhaps takes the pressure off some of us, while adding more pressure to others.