Tuesday, 10 March, 2015

MENAGERIE, 13 December 2014- 1 March 2015, ACCA. Review by Chiara Scafidi.

Walking into the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s exhibition MENAGERIE, I felt conflicted. Full disclosure:  my artist friend suggested  I see the anthropomorphism-themed show purely so that the two of us could bitch about how bad it was. Expectations were not high, and I was looking for an excuse to bitch. On the other hand, I love animals. Conundrum.

The exhibition consists  of video, photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and reproduction works all involving animals in some manner. Dark mahogany walls recall 19th century parlours and  are lined with paintings of hunting parties, domestic barnyards, pictures of horses and worried-looking dogs. The bevy of works in this vein reflects both the Victorian fashion for animal paintings and the tendency for artists to anthropomorphise the subjects to create moral narratives.

The curator and ACCA’s artistic director Juliana Engberg has also included the type of reproduction prints you always see collecting dust in  op-shops. Their inclusion left me feeling a little divided: I thought it was progressive to include low-brow objects to reflect on the history of sentimental animal paintings as marketable products with a commercial presence. However,  I thought the inclusion of reproduction prints  confused the focus between individual artist-driven pieces and the personal vision of the curator. And if you are going to include 19th century decorative art, which infers a kind of retrospective of  depictions of animals in the entire cultural sphere, why not include YouTube videos of dramatic hamsters and sneezing pandas? For me, this confused the boundary between educational art museum retrospective and interpretive exhibition.

The wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities popular amongst rulers in Renaissance Europe, is self-consciously referenced by the multiple stuffed and mounted animals. I sensed an imitation of the process undertaken by David Walsh to transform  his eclectic collection of contemporary and historical art into the dark and twisted cabinet of wonders that is MONA.

Both the historical and the post-modern depictions of animals seemed to fall into the category of sweet and sentimental art. Paul Wood’s melted glass oozes over decorative ceramic animal figurines and painted crockery. In a video by Mircea Cantor, a wolf and a deer peacefully cohabit in a white wall space. Abdul-Rahman Abdulla’s domestic shorthair black cat sleeps soundly on a rug, and Annika Eriksson films stray dogs living on a tip and narrates their lives in first person like a nostalgic novel. Anastasia Klose adds personality blurbs to her naïve pencil drawings of shelter cats, and Maurizio Catalan’s stuffed Labradors watch over a stiff glass-eyed chick.

Other animal works fit more into the absurd than the sentimental: Shannon Te Ao’s video of himself reciting poetry to various animals; the bird in the mouth of Robert Gligorov; Patricia Piccinini’s hand-drawn grotesqueries. Joseph Beuys is videoed having sometimes hilarious interactions with a half-wild coyote in a gallery, Peter Fischli and David Weiss roam the wilderness dressed in tacky animal costumes, and Lucy Gunning has women imitate horse noises and behaviour. These works all deal in the symbolic but rely less on sentimental aesthetic.

It was Shannon Te Ao’s work that made me think about how I read meaning into animals. The artist sits or moves about in a room, reciting a poem about a spurned lover. In each recitation different animals are present with him, chickens and ducks, a wallaby, some rabbits. Watching ducks slowly close their eyes in sleep as Te Ao chants  softly to them, I realised how much expression I read into their faces. It was like putting images to music in a video clip, the images filled up with meaning. Were those animals really calmed by the dulcet tones of Te Ao, like I was? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, I had to remind myself: I’m not a duck.

The most famous 19th century animal painter, Edwin Landseer, was interestingly omitted. William Wegman would also have fit right in to this exhibition (remember the Weimarana dogs with people hands on Sesame Street?) I was happy, however, to see work by the infamous 19th century painter of horses Rosa Bonheur.

The exhibition was punctuated with quotes by historical figures. These once again spoke of the human quality of animals, the comfort they bring and their innocence. While the quotes provided interesting observations about animals from a literary perspective, I noted that there was a definite emphasis on the  sentimental. This is a legitimate element of the human attitude to animals, but there was a distinct lack of any reference to more negative depictions of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw.’

I don’t believe art has to be cynical in order to be critical and I don’t believe art being positive, sweet or cute precludes it from deeper meaning or critical power. MENAGERIE seemed to set out to cover a particular history of sentimental animal art. However, it failed to delve any deeper into the meaning of our fascination with animals as communicators of the human condition. It felt like the exhibition equivalent of a YouTube video of a dog ecstatically greeting its GI owner home from Iraq:but what if the dog acts like that every time someone walks through the door? Why do we want it to be special, to have meaning? Are we megalomaniacs, obsessed with our own importance? Answer: yes.

MENAGERIE revels in our often saccharine, always symbolic treatment of animals in art. However, the exhibition seems to stay firmly implanted in this aesthetic without ever rising above it to ask why.