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Art World? More Like SeaWorld: The Use of Live Animals as Objects of Art

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While non-human animals (e.g. the bulls and horses depicted in the caves of Lascaux) have been subjects of art for tens of thousands of years, in the past few decades living animals have become not mere subjects but objects of art. Unlike two or three dimensional representations of animals, or even dead animals (the stuffed goat central to Robert Rauschenberg’s “Monogram,” or Joseph Beuys’ dead hare, for instance), the use of living animals in contemporary art is becoming more and more common.

In the second week of May alone, two well-publicized art works were presented in two different parts of New York City using living animals as material. Maurizio Cattelan’s 1994 installation “Warning! Enter at Your Own Risk … Thank You,” which includes a live donkey, was restaged at the Frieze art fair; and Duke Riley’s “Fly by Night,” which involves 2,000 pigeons flying about over the East River with lights attached to their ankles, began its six week run.

While many artists and critics maintain that the question of whether this use of animals is abuse or not is difficult to answer definitively, it is hardly debatable that the employment of animals (beings incapable of consenting to spending days, weeks, or merely hours, confined to, and on display in, galleries or museums – or, in the case of Riley’s piece, performing tricks over the East River) is exploitative, reflecting a form of domination that does not simply regard living animals as material so much as it deforms animals into material (into things that legendary artist Richard Serra described, in the statement accompanying his 1966 work “Live-Animal Habitat,” as comparable to objects such as sticks, stones, and paint).

In a historical period witnessing sustained public outrage over the abusive treatment of animals by entities such as SeaWorld, the use of animals as material in the art world raises, among others, the question of whether art galleries, museums, and their wealthy patrons (not to mention the general public) have any reason to regard the cultural production of the art world as being somehow qualitatively superior to such ostensibly “lowbrow” (and abusive) institutions as zoos and so-called marine mammal parks. (In many respects, the claims to aesthetic and ontic seriousness that pervade the art world make their installations and performances qualitatively worse. For, more than simple emanations of the economic order cannibalizing the planet, these institutions serve – on multiple levels of abstraction – as this order’s ideologues and enablers.)

While the use of live animals as objects of art seems to be more common than ever in this second decade of the third millennium, and is central to such iconic works of contemporary art as Joseph Beuys’ 1974 piece “I Like America and America Likes Me” (in which the artist spent three days in a gallery with a wild coyote), the practice is less than 80 years old. The use of living animals as objects of art, as opposed to subjects of art or objects of mass entertainment, can be arguably traced to 1938, when Salvador Dalí (ridiculed for his self-advancing proclivities by other surrealists by the anagrammatic nickname Avida Dollars) presented his installation “Rainy Taxi.” In this work, a precursor to Edward Keinholz’s 1964 “Backseat Dodge ’38,” two mannequins were placed in a taxi. A shark-headed chauffeur sat in front. In the back seat, surrounded by lettuce and chicory, living snails crawled over the female. While Dalí’s use of living animals was not widely emulated at first, by the 1960s the use of live animals in the art world became more common.

The controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch’s religiously-oriented “actions” began, for instance, in 1962. Initially involving the butchering of carcasses, viewers of his performances would ultimately see professional butchers, overseen by veterinarians, publicly slaughter animals. And while it may seem counterintuitive, Nitsch, whose Orgien Mysterien Theater hasn’t incorporated public slaughters since 1998, is regarded by himself, and many others, as an animal protector.  Only killing animals already slated for commercial slaughter, Nitsch regards the horrors involved in commercial farming as “the biggest crime in our society.”

By the mid 1960s, as previously mentioned, contemporary giant Richard Serra was using rats and mice as objects in his “Live-Animal Habitat.” And by the end of the decade, in the year the US symbolically penetrated the moon with its flag pole, Jannis Kounellis produced his now legendary installation “Horses,” an installation that involved tethering a dozen horses to the walls of a Roman garage.

In the years following Beuys’ iconic 1974 piece, live animals continued to feature as objects/materials of art. Among the most controversial of these is Kim Jones’ 1976 “Rat Piece,” in which Jones burned three caged rats to death in a Los Angeles performance. A year later, in 1977, Tom Otterness (known mostly these days for the cartoonish public sculptures for which he’s paid millions) created “Shot Dog Film,” in which he adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied it to a fence, and shot it to death. As the 20th century came to a close, and the 21st got underway, the use of animals as objects, as opposed to subjects, of artworks appeared to be more prevalent than ever.

In the year 2000, for instance, Marco Everistti exhibited his installation, “Helena and El Pescador,” in Denmark. Intended as a critique of the brutality of the world, the installation was comprised of ten blenders, each containing water and a live goldfish. Attendees were given the choice of turning on the blenders and killing the fish, or pardoning them. Two fish were soon liquefied. Ultimately, the blenders were unplugged. And while many have condemned Everistti for placing vulnerable creatures in harm’s way, replicating the brutality he was critiquing, the counterargument – that it is a bit ridiculous to get all bent out of shape by the killing of a few goldfish while socially accepted things, like the vastly more violent commercial fishing industry, and commercial farming industry, among other industries, are busily contributing to the sixth great extinction – is not entirely unpersuasive.

At any event, while it may not be difficult to find some merit in Marco’s “Helena,” or in his more recent work involving living goldfish, or in Nitsch’s work, it’s hard to find much merit at all in the work incorporating animals of international graffiti mystery artist Banksy. Though the most recent one is already a decade old, Banksy has produced at least two artworks that use live animals as material. In a 2003 exhibition, in East London, he included a work comprised of pigs spray-painted to look like police, a cow painted with Andy Warhol faces, and sheep spray-painted in the black and white stripes of concentration camp inmates. And at the 2006 Barely Legal exhibition in Los Angeles, attended by such celebrities as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, his installation “Elephant in the Room” incorporated a then-38-year-old elephant named Tai. Intended to bring awareness to global poverty, the literal elephant was spray-painted to match the pink floral pattern of the room’s wallpaper.

In “Elephant in the Room,” Banksy not only subjected Tai to the violence of capture, being painted, and to the indignity of being displayed as a painted object. On top of this, the paint turned out to be toxic – adding further injury. While “Elephant in the Room” was the subject of protest, and the toxic paint was scrubbed off, considerable irony inheres in using an elephant in such a way in order to bring awareness to global poverty, since poverty is but an effect of an economic order that turns people, as well as nearly everything else, into commodities – into things.

A year after Banksy’s “Elephant in the Room,” the late Mike Kelley (one of the most influential American artists of the early 21st century) produced his installation “Petting Zoo.” Based on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorra, “Petting Zoo” incorporates, among other objects, live goats, sheep, and ponies. And rather than merely looking at these creatures, viewers are invited to pet the animals (according to the statement accompanying the piece, this is supposed to be relaxing). As problematic as “Petting Zoo” may be, however, Kelley’s and Banksy’s works seem benign compared to Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas’ infamous 2007 installation (in which a starving a dog was tied to a wall, just out of reach of a bowl of dog food), or the artworks made from living animals created by Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye.

Best known for his “Cloaca,” a “useless machine” designed to waste food by daily transforming it into synthetic excrement (which was then sold, of course), Delvoye has gained notoriety over his longstanding practice of tattooing pigs. Said to admire pig skin because of its resemblance to human skin (which he also tattoos, on the condition that he receives possession of the tattooed skin upon the tattooed person’s death), Delvoye  describes the tattooed pigs as “living canvas.” “I show the world works of art that are so alive they have to be vaccinated,” he’s stated. In order to avoid animal protection laws he moved his “Art Farm” to China in 2004, where his practice continues. Asked about the charges of animal cruelty levied against his work, Delvoye has responded in interviews that the pigs are treated well – they’re even fed ice cream – and probably prefer to live long lives with tattoos than get slaughtered, chopped up, and eaten.

The year in which the world was supposed to end, 2012 turned out to be a big year for employing animals as an art medium – objects, as opposed to subjects, of artworks. In addition to Miru Kim’s “I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me” (in which the naked artist spent 104 hours cavorting with pigs in a gallery at the international art fair Art Basel), and conceptual artist Darren Bader’s “Images,” which used cats as sculptures, and Belgian artist Jan Fabre’s cat throwing controversy, 2012 included ‪Damien Hirst’s “In and Out of Love” at the Tate Modern in London, which incorporated, and famously resulted in the deaths of, over 9,000 butterflies.

Hirst, who is one of the most commercially successful artists of all time, Banksy, and Delvoye, are not the only internationally recognized “art stars” using live animals as material. In 2014, celebrity artist Cai Guo-Qiang triggered outrage by gluing iPads to the shells of three live African sulcata tortoises in his “Moving Ghost Town” at the Aspen Art Museum. And, a year later, in 2015, French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe exhibited artworks incorporating living animals at both the Museum of Modern Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (His work on the roof of the Met incorporated an aquarium housing a lamprey, among other creatures; while, 30 blocks away, his 2012 sculpture “Untilled,” a reclining nude whose head is made from a buzzing beehive, was exhibited in the MOMA sculpture garden. But these were hardly the first artworks Huyghe has made out of living animals.)

While such establishment art critics as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz (chief art critics for the New York Times and New York Magazine, respectively) would probably express some degree of disapproval over Kim Jones’ “Rat Piece,” or Delvoyes’ tattooed pigs, they nevertheless do not seem to object to treating animals as objects – i.e., to a practice normalizing domination and exploitation. Indeed, Saltz (whose peculiar understanding of feminism involves his “old belief” – as he puts it in his encomium to Hillary Clinton – that misogyny is “hard wired into us, primitive, primal, deep,” rather than historically and culturally produced, as more critical critics recognize) positively raved about the 2015 restaging of Kounellis’ 1969 installation “Horses.” And it should not come as a surprise, I suppose, that a person whose social media portraits depict him in the embrace of Bill Clinton should enjoy the feeling of walking amidst a dozen powerful, yet disabled, animals. That is, it is entirely consistent that someone who appears to delight in power would enjoy the experience of participating in a grand bondage scene. And though they may be provided with better care than the creatures unfortunate enough to be held captive at SeaWorld (each horse was attended by, as Saltz put it, “three loving grooms”), the horses are nevertheless still tied to, and facing, a wall for eight hours a day, on display for the amusement of the public.

Defenders of works such as “Horses,” or last week’s re-staging of superstar artist Maurizio Cattelan’s 1994 installation “Enter at Your Own Risk…Thank You” (which features a donkey, as a type of self portrait, standing about in a manger-like space beneath a chandelier for much of the day at the Frieze art fair), who point out that the captive animals are well fed and treated humanely only illustrate the prevalence of the inability to recognize the state of capture, and being treated as an object, as constituting a harm in itself. Yet, in a social world in which people are not only commodified (i.e., objectified) and confined throughout the ever-lengthening workday, all the while pressured to spend their so-called free time deforming their experiences into further commodities (for the benefit of corporations like Facebook), it is hardly surprising that many see the treatment of an animal as an (art) object as completely normal. Relatedly, it hardly seems coincidental that Sir Gabriel (the name of the donkey at Frieze), as well as Tai (the elephant) also appear in mainstream movies and music videos alongside such figures as Britney Spears. In other words, the aesthetic that these artworks seem to be realizing is not an actual aesthetic at all, but an anesthetic. As opposed to an actual aesthetic (which involves critique), anesthetic, like entertainment, functions to numb people, facilitating the smooth operation of the hegemonic order.

Duke Riley’s “Fly by Night,” which will be performed each weekend at the Brooklyn Navy Yard ‪until June 12, illustrates this anesthetic aesthetic well. Described by Roberta Smith in her New York Times review as a “performance by 2,000 pigeons,” she also compares the “performers” to “sailors on deck” of a ship. Perhaps she should have added that, as has been the case historically in naval projects, these sailors have been conscripted. They did not join this performance willingly. They only participate at all, and take flight, because men, waving large sticks at them, force them to fly about, lights attached to their ankles, for the crowd’s amusement. Smith described it as “a revelation.” And though it may have been visually striking (retinal art, as Duchamp might dismissively put it), as opposed to an anesthetic, a critical aesthetic requires actual criticism – which involves, at the very least,  attentiveness to the pervasive, stultifying influence of ideology.

Uncritical critics like Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, among others, and artists like Riley, et al, may think that they are practicing a new type of aesthetic via their relation to animals. If they examined the situation a bit more deeply, however, they might recognize that, rather than realizing a new aesthetic, the use of live animals as objects, as material, merely reproduces the hegemonic ‘anesthetic’ which enables the production – and reproduction – of the coercion, domination, and exploitation fundamental to the wars, poverty, and ecocide, among other harms, that we are presently collectively experiencing.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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