Exhibition Project
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Animal Perspectives
John Isaacs

What a pitiful creature – whoever is not overcome with compassion at this sight has no heart at all. After seeing this abused creature, feelings well up which are defining for humans: empathy, care, compassion. And yet British sculptor John Isaacs has created a rather hideous being. Apparently a chimpanzee, its fur is thin and the few strands of hair it has are standing up and disheveled. The animal sits on the floor like an infant, its glance, which does not betray its age, staring off into emptiness. Its features seem to emanate melancholy. Or are we merely reading that into the animal face?

Additional details of this peculiar sculpture quickly begin to emerge. The naturalistic, even deceptively realistic construction reveals breaches: The hands and feet of the ape look as if they had been attached. Their skin color is darker, the surface smoother. Isaacs has actually affixed imitation human hands to all four extremities of our closest relative in the animal world. We then notice that this sad figure is holding a syringe in its right hand, and it looks like it is going to inject itself with something. What does that mean?
The creature is a hybrid, an animal with human body parts. Perhaps this is a laboratory animal, on which transplantation experiments have been carried out, and as a result is now dependent on injections of immune suppressors to control the body’s attempts to reject the foreign tissue? Or an evolutionary middle stage, an hominid form somewhere between human and monkey, possibly the result of a genetic hybridization? The mangy fur might indicate a side-effect from medication or an unnatural behavior or even constitute a symptom of a mutation.

Perhaps Isaacs is illustrating the human being, a naked monkey – this popular simplification of Charles Darwin’s epochal thesis in The Origin of Species. However, the formal and substantive contradictions built into his work add complexity to the message. The hands look like mannequin parts, consequently disturbing the illusion of the monkey figure’s veracity, and the syringe indicating a Kafkaesque unanimal-like behavior evoke another thematic: the issue of dignity.

With its fur this nameless chimpanzee has also, apparently, lost its natural elegance, its dignity. Standing before this work, the strongest impression is hopelessness. Human dignity is legally protected while animals are still legally considered things. In contrast to this legal definition, Isaacs’ work urgently points out, being human is based precisely on granting animals, in their non-humanity, this deeply humane quality – dignity. To be human is to recognize the capacity for suffering in fellow creatures.

Friedrich Weltzien

Untitled, 1995, Wax and other materials, Courtesy Arts Council Collection, London

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