The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

UnHuman Kind: paradoxes of speciesism
Michael Alstad, Carel Moiseiwitsch, Camille Turner & Veronica Verkley

A Space, Toronto, June 20 — July 27, 1996
[ 2,280 words ]

The issue of technology and its ramifications on animals is central to the work of Camille Turner. Using digital technology as her medium, Turner has created a web site as a locus of information about the manipulation of animals for human consumption. When Internet browsers log onto the site, they are presented with a menu (one should not miss the parallel drawn between computer menu and food menu) e-listing five dishes ranging from veal to ice cream. Clicking on any of these items will take the viewer through a myriad of images and statistical information which trace the procedures and sources for the production of the meal. Images of slaughtered animals are juxtaposed against excerpts from advertising campaigns and quotes drawn from a variety of sources, creating a strategy of irony through apparent misapprehension. Though the condemnation of factory farming and attendant technologies is clear, Turner reclaims technology as a tool by building her piece from within its application, overturning a judgment against the originating choice as opposed to the means by which it is carried out.

Speciesism: the moral and ethical standards we apply to our own species still do not apply to other species. Do humans have the right to exploit other beings for so-called medical advances? Radiation tests on rhesus monkeys, continuous insemination of female pigs locked in stocks, cosmetic eye product testing on rabbits, the flies, fish and toads used in studies of cardiac development; the list of atrocities is never ending. The animal rights movement has successfully waged a war over these ethical and moral issues for decades now, but the issue is far from being resolved. Animals are often marketed as those inanimate touchy feely toys that pile up in the corner of your children's bedrooms, or become synthesized cartoon characters with stupid voices dubbed onto celluloid by the Hollywood image machine.

Locked up in zoos and aquariums, under artificially controlled environments like Montreal's Biodome — for those who can't afford to get out of the city to see them in the wild — most of the animals we have seen up close at theme parks, safari parks and amusement parks have been moved one or two climactic regions and continents away from their natural habitats. At the other end of the spectrum, factory farms and slaughter houses, although climatized too, are not much of an amusement for animals or humans and although most of us have never visited them or would wish to, they are (and this may sound slightly Orwellian) like the 'Animal Farm' with no leaders — just increased standardization, packaging, and production of objects, images, machines, technologies, and foodstuffs, processed for our consumption. This is the general drift of global marketing-culture.

If the art of the Postmodern era itself reflects on these tendencies of conformity to norms, scales and standards of production, it is because the art has become rationalized and monotonous like the institutions it serves. The game is largely hermetic and occludes any search for a holistic connectedness to nature. So one must ask the question: What ever became of context? The works in UnHuman Kind decry the ongoing destruction of a holistic worldview — of the culture of nature — and defy the ongoing decontextualization of one element from the next, of one life form from another, and ultimately affirm the healing and positive potential that nature might hold for us. UnHuman Kind does so by describing the present state of our relation to nature and other species at ground zero, in a world where time is running out.

One need only consider the recent Mad Cow disease fiasco in England as a tragedy of Holocaust proportions for the animal world. Enacted by humanity in an increasingly sterilized, anaesthetized environment this atrocity started as a desperate attempt to seal itself off from planetary illness — ironically our own well being and resistance to disease was being undermined in the process . . .

Using different aesthetic and structural perspectives, Michael Alstad, Carel Moiseiwitsch, Camille Turner and Veronica Verkley address the same issue: it is humanity and not nature or animals who present the problems, who interpret, alter or manipulate nature. Human beings create the situational context for product demand, supply and consumption. Allocating and redirecting resources at will to serve our own supposed needs, we have failed to bring nature into the equation with a purpose other than utilitarian.

Michael Alstad's Nest series elaborates on sculptures exhibited last year at the Partisan Gallery in Toronto. We usually associate the Nest with domesticity, care, upbringing and safety, but Alstad's Nests are assembled out of human hair and arranged on precarious pedestals with tenaciously clawed feet that resemble birds' legs.

The egg-like objects that stand in the Nests are entirely synthetic and resin-based. Hanging above each of them is a hypodermic syringe, poised as if part of an experiment or to synthetically increase their nutrient potential. The inner yolks of the eggs are miniature world globes which allude to the global nature of the problem. The agricultural and food packaging industry manipulates the content of food to the extent that its actual contents and effects on our health are largely unknown. Animals are likewise used by the medical and scientific industry as guinea pigs. The only role we play in all of this is to consume the man-made product while animals suffer. An impending evil hovers above Alstad's fragile eggs — the symbols of health and future life. This evil imposes its will from without and shatters nature's serenity with little or no regard for the fragility and diversity of life. Alstad's Hybrid # 4 is a wall-mounted frame with holes and tunnels incised in it, as if its edges had been partially eaten by insects all around. Within this frame the reproduced images of chicken, fish and human body parts are discontinuous fragments of a whole transferred by a photo emulsion process onto a synthetic latex membrane that itself is like a skin. Because we can catch a partial glimpse of the whole picture, the sources and contexts these body and animal parts derive from have been removed or are seemingly irrelevant. On a shelf beneath the piece, ghostly pinkish-coloured latex molded forms directly cast from the images reproduced on the latex above, rest like inert lifeless objects immersed in a pool of iodine.

Inspired by an article in Time Magazine (Nov. 6th 1995) that recounted an experiment where human tissue and synthetic materials were grafted onto a mouse's back (and eventually grown into a perfectly formed human ear), Alstad's work juxtaposes elements in a severe, all too real way, just as fragments of life are decontextualized, cut up, prodded, sectioned off with a surgical knife. These constructions exemplify a violence perpetrated against animals in medical technology experiments undertaken daily in cloistered research laboratories. Such experimentation only proves civilization's own violent interactions with nature. Attempts to excel in medical treatment of all manner of diseases go on in an atmosphere of worldwide environmental disruption by pollution, manufacturing, manipulation and transformation of material resources, populations and animals. This dystopian climate creates profits for pharmaceutical companies and medical technology but illness and death continue their exponential increase regardless of so-called scientific breakthroughs.

The post-punk angst and expressionism in the Carel Moiseiwitsch triptych titled Trophies merges figuration with abstraction. There are skeletal images of elephants on either side of the panel-like X-rays — a cartoonish parody or likeness of her chosen subject. In a way the images are like the elephants themselves who ritualistically visit the bones of their ancestors, whose ivory tusks and skins are stripped away from their carcasses to make clothing, fashion accoutrements and carpets. Moiseiwitsch's canvases are unstretched and unframed — skins — hanging like the eviscerated remains of painting's modernist legacy. That atrophied artform, exploited by markets and the machinations of the museo-cultural bureaucracy becomes an endangered species just as the African and Indian elephant herds.

Beauty is in the eye of the consumer, be it artificial or natural, but the toll enacted on our planet's bioculture and life is a heavy one. The irony is inescapable. Like the vaguely symmetrical abstract in the central panel, formal abstraction is the flipside of representation and arises out of our Cartesian and dualistic legacy of history. Euroculture's rational vision of progress that grew out of the Age of Enlightenment generated an art that was historically and rationally bound.

The aesthetic worldview likewise emphasized containment and dominance of nature. Moiseiwitsch's central panel, which looks like the bicameral cortex of the human brain, or as abstract as a Rorschach test, alludes to such formal aesthetic traditions as abstraction and representation, but the image also carries echoes of the experience of birth and the great mother Earth's legacy of life. The layers peel off to reveal yet other layers of life in an endless cycle of birth, life, death, decay and birth. In Moiseiwitsch's words: 'I was trying to make a place of transformation, to mark out a space where there was the potential for apprehending the divine.' Moiseiwitsch's work also renders homage to an age old kind of illustration that is raw, experiential and based on observation. Austere and child-like but also unsettling, Moiseiwitsch's art Trophies are designed to enlighten our consciousness.

How different are modernist aesthetic attitudes from those of a hunter? Art is segregated and removed from life, aNesthetized, and like the hunter who sacrifices animals in a vain attempt to capture life, our formal art history did the same. The lawns that surround our public art galleries are as manicured and sterile, devoid of life as the art within. If that isn't an embodiment of the decontextualized state of art and human culture from the culture of nature what is? The subtle subterfuge of the conscious one-upmanship of nature we see in Moiseiwitsch's Trophies styles its expression from a marginal, even primitive perspective and is a fragmentary [em]broiderie on our civilization's present and future condition. If there is a question to be asked, it may be what drives us to map nature, map out every orifice and crevice of every living species? Are we finally creating a portrait of the very limits of human consciousness and its incapacity to celebrate diversity, to integrate life forms and forces into the atrophying corpse of art and nature? Some hope of redemption resides here in these suggestive metaphors of desecration.

Veronica Verkley's art making involves a series of rituals that include finding and gathering elements she will use for her art. Often her works are fabulous constructions, sculptural assemblages that represent animals. Their symbolism is benign and instinctive, less a representation of than a response to animals' remarkable capacity to survive in encroached and shrinking wilderness and urban sites. Their lives and actions now take place in habitats with little or no organic continuity, just like ours, and this makes it all the more remarkable. Constructed out of red coloured copper and aluminum wire and driftwood that resembles bones, Verkley's current work has been made to resemble several hare-like creatures. The hare is a mythological animal associated with birth and magic. As sculptural figures, they are a parody of those nostalgic taxidermists' representations of animals one sees in natural history museums, nature books or National Geographic. But these ones are vulnerable, can only barely move. These 'animals' have motor mechanisms that cause them to activate. They become awkward and mechanical-like toys and the breathing sounds they make are likewise constricted as if they were dying or recovering from a severe blow. There is an animistic, almost pagan look to them as well.

Camille Turner's electronic 'home page' website piece uses the latest technology to address human and nature-based issues through the use of imagery, text and statistics on the screen. The piece has tiny cube-like images of slaughtered cows hanging from hooks amid other live cows, veal calves in pens so small they cannot move for their entire lives, dead chickens caught in wire cage mesh, with advertising copy and poetic phrases interspersed throughout. The size of the actual images on the screen makes them appear contained, tiny and cube-like as if simulating the constricted conditions animals are tested in. The context Turner has created on the screen, like the very real social and biocultural context animals now live in or are contained in resembles this reductive and controlling atmosphere. Designed to be seen worldwide on the web, Turner's work in her own words 'exposes the greed of humans who profit from the slaughter of billions of animals. Juxtaposing quotes and images, I am creating a hall of horrors, exploring what goes on behind the scenes before the animal flesh becomes lovely cuts of meat and is brought to the table... It is a barnyard tale with a difference.' The texts that follow the images create an ideational counterpoint, as do the statistics about factory farms in operation, the number of animals killed, how many resources are consumed in order to perpetuate this industry, the role marketing boards play, etc.

The main point in all these works is that an ideology underlines all this mistreatment of animals that parallels our own lack of respect for nature's place as a contributor to economy. Unless economic production is modified to work with — rather than against — nature, our own future will be as InHuman as that of the unHuman Kind.

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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