Gaze and Perspective: Curators’ Foreword
There’s no such thing as animal perspective. To have a perspective means to have taken a standpoint, to have made a choice among various possible ways of seeing.
In anthropology, the science of human beings, which seeks to define the human by differentiating it from the animal, among other things, having choice constitutes one of the essential conditions of humanness. Human value is blatantly violated when a person is deprived of choice. Western philosophy largely denies that animals have such choice of their own point of view. (1)
Yet, there is one group of people in our society, in particular, responsible for thinking those things which do not exist—They are the artists. Is there really no such thing as animal perspective? What must the world look like for such a thing to be thinkable? What consequences would this have for our self-perception, if we also admit to animals a choice of perspective? These are the questions to which the artists of this exhibit offer answers. In 2009 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s epochal work On the Origin of Species (1859). While he was by far not the first to have formulated the idea of an evolution of species, he presented the mechanism of selection and adaptation more convincingly than any scientist before him. Sigmund Freud, in his words, included Darwin among others, with Copernicus as one of the greatest narcissists of humankind. Copernicus drove the Earth from the center of the solar system; Darwin robbed humankind of the illusion of its likeness to God. Perhaps, though, while exploring the exhibit, visitors will come to find that Darwin’s theory, rather than mirroring an illness, might offer the basis for a sense of deep security: Among animals we are at home—perhaps our behavior should more closely reflect this knowledge.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz maintained there can be no direct access to reality. We are, in contrast to God, always limited in our perspective on the world. The fact that all of our knowledge is dependent on our individual point of view has been dubbed by philosophy as Perspectivism. (2) Art historian, Erwin Panofsky maintained in his well-known lecture, “Perspective as ‘Symbolic Form’,” that the biases particular to an historical period are mirrored in the forms of artistic expression. (3) Accordingly, the “world feeling,” specific to an historical epoch finds its own perspective, one suitable to its time. But what perspective would be suitable today? We bear witness to industrial and cultural globalization, the world is like a small town in the Internet, digital surveillance technology is pervasive—are we moving closer, somehow, to Leibniz’ God, who sees all, beyond perspective taking? At the same time, human-made climate change, the rapidly increasing destruction of habitats and the shrinking of the gene pool through the extinction of species make it imperative that we begin to look at the world anew, from a different perspective.
Our view of animals as has long been shaped by western values—the perspective through the scientist’s microscope, through the budgets of the agricultural industry, through the sight of hunter’s rifle, or the bars of zoo cage—this objectifying gaze is in desperate need of revision.
The exhibit, “Animal Perspectives,” responds to this call for new ways of interacting with nature and animals. We see that animals leave new, unfamiliar traces behind in art of a globalized world. What you will find at the center of this exhibit is not “the animal” as use object or raw material, not “the animal” as abstract representation of its species or of particular characteristics, but the animal as particular, individual, unmistakable subject and counterpart of the artists.
The exhibit brings together contemporary artists who have developed their own perspectives on animals: whereby, “perspective” takes on a variety of meanings, as a particular way of seeing animals, naturally, but also the attempt to take on the personality of an animal, to look through the eyes of an animal. Or, alternatively, perspective is understood in terms of the categorization of animals within a visual order, a conventionalization of perception, as for example in the attempts to reintroduce the wolf in central Germany and the parallel efforts to transform the image of the “big bad wolf” into a positive view of the this ultimately shy predator. Finally, perspective also constitutes the view into a far-off future or a far-removed past of the common development of human and animal, not only in terms of evolutionary biology or archeology, but in those of the creative imagination.
When we understand “perspective” as multi-layered and many-sided, the term slowly but surely loses its exclusively human authority, as we have come to recognize in Postmodern thought. When, instead of the “correct” way of seeing the animal, there are a variety of ways of seeing, animal perspective can serve to relativize the anthropocentric gaze and open up neglected aspects of the human-animal relationship. Only then might we begin to see that animals, too, have perspective—most assuredly in the sense of perspective on and for the future. In the relationship between humans and animals, which encompasses both otherness and relatedness, the gaze plays a significant role, as John Berger’s book Why Look at Animals? has already shown. (4) The exhibit “Animal Gaze” presented last year at the London Metropolitan University, confirms that we are not alone in our assessment of the situation. (5)
But the show at the Georg Kolbe Museum and in the project room (Souterrain) does not limit itself to eye contact alone. The selection of expansive, spacial works—in particular sculptures, installations, projections and media presentations—challenges visitors to take up new and vary their own positions. This aspect of the exhibit was made possible by the decision to display works in the museum’s garden and to present works at various sites within the city, so that a round-trip tour of the exhibit incorporates the parallel show “Becoming Animal, Becoming Human” at the Neue Gesellschaft fuer Bildende Kunst (NGBK) on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. Ideally, the exhibit will move visitors not merely within the space of the gallery. Perhaps, underway, they will encounter the wild boar of Grunewald, the city foxes of Berlin Mitte, or the starling atop the dome—and look at them with new eyes.
In addition, the film series showing in Arsenal cinema at Potsdam Platz in cooperation with the exhibit, as well as a symposium offering lectures, discussions with artists and the screening of artists’ videos, all provide an opportunity to bring even more perspectives into play. The simultaneous display of animal sculptures of the Modern period “Bestiarium. Tierplastik des 20. Jahrhunderts” [Bestiary. Animal sculptures of the 20th century] at the Georg Kolbe Museum adds an historical dimension to the exhibit which otherwise focuses on contemporary productions.
Perspective results from a combination of gaze and standpoint; in encountering the artworks both must be examined, shifted and made conscious. Those who discover that their own point of view is changeable will find it easier to acknowledge other points of view, possibly even non-anthropomorphic: animal perspectives.
No doubt there are limits here, too. While media theorist Vilém Flusser earnestly worked on the elaboration of an octopus philosophy, we must certainly agree with author Thomas Nagel that we will never really know what it is like to be a bat. (6) We humans share the planet with animals, but that does not mean that we inhabit the same world. This principle also holds true, however, in relation to our fellow humans: the limits of the world are not merely those generated by differences between species. We know just as little what it is like to be another person.
But in this exhibition we are never talking about complete identity or total foreignness; it is always a question of points of overlap, as Jakob von Uexküll recognized already a hundred years ago. (7) These points of overlap, these shared sectors have to be measured. Nothing is gained here with sweeping, categorical judgments. If one merely searches for metaphors or justifications for one’s own behavior in the animal world, evidence will be found for any and all aspects: from intolerant loners to apparently weak-willed herd animals, from colony-forming social creatures to the brutal might-makes-right of the stronger, from self-sacrificing nurturing to cold egoism, from versatile adaptability to dull instinctual behavior – every ethical model can be found.
The fine arts offer an escape route from universalization, fables and comparisons. In contrast to scientific procedures of generalization, the strength of art consists in collecting individual positions. (8) If we manage to bring these individual standpoints together in a concert of voices and gazes, then our concept of the exhibition will have been successful.
The “Animal Perspectives” exhibition brings together a whole menagerie: pets and wild animals, insects and mammals, inhabitants of the ocean and birds, livestock and parasites. To this list can be added some fantastic hybrid creatures combining various species or creating entirely new ones. The majority are dogs, who appear in four works in all. Birds and pigs appear in three works, while sheep show up in two. The loners in our ensemble are the wolf, bear and deer, frog, cat and mouse. Jellyfish, ants, bees and parasitical worms are also dealt with on their own; however, they show up in swarms or collectives and are hardly to be perceived as individuals. The ways in which animals make their appearance in the works differ conceptually. Some turn up in portraits; in other works, living animals are introduced as partners in the artistic process. Organic material from dead animals serves as the raw materials for some artworks. Or animals are, as in Susanne Lorenz’s work, the primary recipients of the work.
Classical works of sculpture as well as drawings, photography and video are to be found as well. Artists work with light and sound. The exhibition makes perceptible the construction of the gaze between animals and between humans and animals; visual axes are set up which make the participant aware of underestimated relationships. And shifts in perspective are also integrated which require assuming a bird’s-eye view or that of a frog, or – as with Chloe Brown – the movement back and forth between a horizontal and vertical line of vision. Physical requirements of the viewpoint are revealed by hanging: eye-level varies from person to person, but even more so between humans and animals who are, additionally, occasionally equipped with quite different sensoria and perceive strongly divergent elements of the world around us.
Tones at frequencies we cannot hear, ultraviolet colors difficult for us to even imagine, smell cosmoses, hormonal exchanges of information, sense organs that recognize magnetic and electric fields, orientation in three-dimensional space under water or in the air – these are only some animal perspectives closed-off to us. Add to this, different priorities of interpretation, independent animal cultures for creating conventions of signs and traces, non-rational strategies for adapting to the world– where in incommensurability philosophy and the natural sciences come to feel the limits of their analytical instruments, there the superiority of artistic imagination, intuition and the playful development of hypotheses begins. Art can reveal its strengths here and elaborate new perspectives.
Some artists look at animals, while others let the animals themselves look. The gaze returned is a powerful instrument in inter-species communication but certainly not the only way to approach the animal-other. Annie Dunning, Volker Eichelmann and Julia Schlosser remind us that animals also have a perspective on things, even if for us they always remain trapped in our common visual and perceptual constructions. They divide, create and interpret their world just as we do ours. By reaching back to early photographic experiments with panorama cameras, Dunning’s installation allows us to take part in the experience of the bird’s-eye view directed to the heavens. Eichelmann employs the medium of collage to bring into focus the looking-presence of the animalistic in human spaces. Schlosser, on the other hand, helps observers assume the perspective of a dog playing in the midst of others. The back-and-forth play of visual relations is also an object of Edwina Ashton’s contribution whose individual objects distributed across the exhibition space initiate a sweeping gaze, an arbitrary seeking movement of looking at and for.
Else Gabriel and Hugo Fortes each turn their gaze to their own pet. Through precise, empathic and understanding observation, they make it clear that animals have a view of us but also that, as with other people, the internal world of animals remains inaccessible to us. Chloe Brown, Wim Delvoye, Thomas Grünfeld, Katharina Moessinger and Deborah Sengl work with taxidermy and thus directly integrate parts of dead animals – a technique which not only derives from natural history museums but is also reminiscent of the medieval cult of reliquaries which operated with the aura of the authentic in a similar fashion. Ina Sangenstedt’s contribution makes this connection visible.
While Brown attempts a rather melancholy reanimation of the body, Delvoye’s tatooed pig cynically demonstrates the simultaneous humanization and objectification of animals. Moessinger’s commentary on our dealings with pets makes the proximity of tragedy and comedy, characteristic of all taxidermy, clear; in contrast, Sengl’s hybrid creatures provide sculptural multistable-figures (Kippbilder) of another type: depending on which perspective you take, you see either predator or prey. With his hybrid creatures, Grünfeld in particular contrasts the traditional, good-naturedness of the Bavarian jackalope with the faith-in-progress of modern gene technology.
Fairy tales and fables, sagas and myths provide an important cultural-historical attempt at generating contact between the species. Mariel Poppe, Ina Sangenstedt and Susanne Starke all orient themselves on interspecies contact by turning to literary, religious or art historic sources which they then re-interpret. Glusgold’s photographic image of a woman with a bear can be read by turning to elements from Grimms’ fairy tales as an equally erotic and bleak profile of mysterious femininity and harkens back to a male-chauvinistic equation of woman and animal which still – or, in more positive natural religious terms: once again – determines some ways of looking at animals. If the children’s counting-off rhyme can be considered a part of the folkloristic literary heritage, then the piggy, to which Bell develops a close, mother-like relationship, also belongs in this context. Chimeras, hybrid creatures, body parts of a great variety of animals which are also combined with human bodies are found in the figurative and written traditions of numerous cultures from all ages and regions. Works from Thomas Grünfeld, Susanne Starke, Deborah Sengl and Mariel Poppe all take up such hybrid fantasies.
The methods of Catherine Bell, Annie Dunning, Anselmo Fox, Katharina Meldner and Bärbel Rothhaar differ fundamentally from the examination of animal iconography. In their works, they collaborate with living animals. Through the participation of the animals in the creation, novel forms and works develop which, as a result of this collaboration, could not be built entirely on human traditions.
Even if they are rarely perceived aesthetically, the assistants of the last three artists – snails, ants, bees – play a central role in cultural history and each possess a rich symbolism. Edible snails (escargot) have been bred for consumption since antiquity; their shell, like that of the mussel, symbolizes nature’s productivity upon which Fox loads the ballast of Western architectural history. As colony-forming insects, ants have served as models for many rulers and political forms; Meldner gets involved in their particular form of exploration. Red hair inspires bees, which for millennia have been used for the production of honey and wax, to more creative collaborative work.
Snails, ants and bees are rarely recognized as individuals but rather always as masses, as swarms. Dunning also makes clear the relationship between individuals and groups: pigeons fly in large flocks; among domesticated carrier pigeons, however, we find not only legendary individuals but talented musicians. Nero thematizes a totally different form of togetherness. Parasites have always been metaphorically connected with the world of art; closer observation of them also demonstrates that the notion that our bodies are single, isolated creations is a mental construction. My body is actually its own highly-complex eco-system and in no way a discrete entity in the way in which philosophy of the subject considers it.
Similar to Dunning’s aerial pictures taken by flying pigeons, Stiller also takes us into a three-dimensional world. His deep-sea perspectives of jellyfish make it impossible to differentiate between above and below, thereby emphasizing the confusing quality of the animal perspective. Christian Boltanski’s contribution, which lends a voice to the ostracized, is similarly confusing when he has the bark of an abandoned dog piped into the museum garden. No animal is to be seen and it remains unclear which direction the sounds are coming from.
When we look at animals, they look back at us. Animals are looking at us. While going through the exhibition, one thing above all should become clear: there is no animal perspective; there are many animal perspectives.
(1) Neuroscientific standpoints which hold that humans are not agents with a free will are gaining recognition. Cf. Wolf Singer: Ein neues Menschenbild? Gespräche über Hirnforschung. [A New Idea of Humankind? Discussions on Brain Research.] Frankfurt 2003.
(2) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Monadologie in Monadologie und andere metaphysische Schriften. Editor and Translator, U. J. Schneider. Hamburg 2002, S. 110-151.
(3) Erwin Panofsky: Die Perspektive als ‚symbolische Form’. In Fritz Saxl und B.G. Teubner (Eds.) Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg. Vorträge 1924-1925. Leipzig/Berlin 1927, pp. 258-330.
4 John Berger: Why look at animals. In Ibid.: About Looking. New York, 1980.
(5) Animal Gaze, London Metropolitan University (18.11. to 12.12.2008), thereafter in Plymouth und Exeter.
(6) Villém Flusser: Vampyrotheutis infernalis. Ein Abhandlung samt Befund des Institut Scientifiquede Recherche Paranaturaliste, together with Louis Bec, Göttingen 2002. Thomas Nagel: What Is it Like to Be a Bat? In: Philosophical Review, Nr. 83, 1974, S. 435-50. On the other hand, employing the concept of Heterophenomenology Daisie Radner seeks to create possibilities for empathy with unknown creatures. (Daisie Radner: Heterophänomenologie. Wie wir etwas über die Vögeln und die Bienen lernen. In: Dominik Perler and Markus Wild (Ed.): Der Geist der Tiere. Philosophische Texte zu einer aktuellen Diskussion. Frankfurt 2005, pp. 408-426).
(7) Jakob von Uexküll: Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen. Bedeutungslehre. Hamburg 1958.
(8) Cf. on this: Jessica Ullrich, Friedrich Weltzien and Heike Fuhlbrügge (Ed.): Ich, das Tier. Tiere als Persönlichkeiten in der Kulturgeschichte, Berlin 2008.
Friedrich Weltzien, Jessica Ullrich. Research assistance: Antonia Ulrich
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human