Painted or sculpted, animals have been a pillar of classical art, but in recent years they have literally invaded the gallery space: taxidermied, in formaldehyde, or alive; these encounters with animals are consistently different from those proposed by past representations, for they raise a number of new pivotal questions. The animal body, the animal voice, the animal gaze and the animal trace are, in contemporary art, all new questioning entities. But what questions do they pose? Upon witnessing this animal invasion, one may ask: why now? There isn’t a straightforward answer to this. But for the time being let’s say that a multiplicity of events and shifts in philosophical and cultural perspectives have progressively made way for the animal to reach the core of the debate in contemporary art practice.
We come to life surrounded by animals. They’re among the first things we reach for as they hover over our cots in the shape of colourful toys; as stuffed teddies they spend the night with us, making us feel safe and warm; thereafter, as we grow older, they are ever-present through illustrated books, photographs, wildlife documentaries, films, as pets and pest, at the zoo, in the city, in the countryside, as entertainers or sports partners. Partly, it may be because animals are such an integral part of our daily lives, from the very beginning, that we somehow end up taking them for granted, and that we come to see them as accessories to the human condition.
Through the challenges raised by post-colonial studies, the concept of otherness has become central to the contemporary debate. The binary oppositions of ideals that kept Western civilisation stable in illusory definiteness are splintering, raising the possibility for a radical and critical revision of our certainties. The woman, the slave, the queer, the black and the savage have all been re-learnt through a continuous and infinite process of unlearning and reconfiguring. It therefore follows that the animal, the ultimate otherness of the animal, another subject of power relations, would also become part of the discourse. The challenge posed by the animal, however, is a radical one. Unlearning the animal means effectively to suspend one’s knowledge of nature in order to reconfigure it, or perhaps to let it reconfigure itself; it means to deconstruct the certainties offered by nature, in order to acquire a critical awareness of the relational modes we establish with animals and ecosystems, and simultaneously to find the courage to envision new ones.
My ‘year of unlearning‘ of the subjects of the animal and nature was 2004. During that winter, Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project ‘brought the sun‘ inside the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern. The installation featured a massive, semicircular, suspended form made up of hundreds of extremely bright mono-frequency lamps. The ceiling, having been turned into a mirror, completed the form into an extremely bright disc, while virtually exploding the already gigantic space of the Turbine Hall into a something of a baroque trompe l’oeil. Experiencing the amplified, eternal sunset proved overwhelming, so much so that audiences’ behavioural responses dramatically shifted from the conventionality of gallery-visiting to a less formal relation. Some sat on the ground, lay on their backs to relax, or played as if outdoors – instinctive responses seemed to momentarily override conformist patterns.
Weather is a very English affair, of course. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson famously remarked, ‘It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.’ However, things are slightly different today, and casual comments about the weather have acquired a more uncomfortable undertone. Through the 1980s and 1990s the hole in the ozone layer became a piece of contemporary mythology. Only ‘seen’ on TV and newspapers through computer-generated imagery, it seemed too far removed from the hustling and bustling of our industrialised daily lives to represent a real threat. We listened to the alarming reports, but didn’t really think we would ultimately pay a price. It meant the end of the 1980s fashion for excessively sculptural hairstyles, on the assumption that restraining our use of CFCs could help – but that is as far as we went in our worrying. Then, with the new millennium came the threat of global warming, heralded by short-term prophecies of devastation. Apocalyptic images of London and New York flooded by raising sea levels or coated in layers of ice began to circulate, bringing the mythical tale of imminent eco-disasters much closer to home than ever before. Things changed. Global warming is a symptom of the inadequacy of our current relationship with nature; a confirmation that ecologically, the industrial model cannot be supported by the planet; and as an index of this crisis, it simultaneously proposes an invitation to change our ways before it’s too late.
Indeed, through awe and wonder, the spectacle offered by The Weather Project also delivered an environmentalist subtext. As the artist explains, ‘I came up with the idea in January when it was snowing in London one day and warm the next and people were talking about global warming.’ Paradoxically, Olafur got us standing in front of an artificial sun, as – intoxicated by its beauty – we became oblivious to the fact that its very hypnotic appeal reassessed the fact that our distancing from nature may be a very real thing. In the futuristic visions of the film Blade Runner, following a nuclear apocalypse, the sky is constantly obscured by plumbeus clouds – it perpetually rains. Would Olafur’s sun be the only one people ever saw if those circumstances became real? Most disturbingly, in the film, animals have become an extreme rarity and have largely been replaced by mechanical replicants. Considering current fears that we may be on the brink of witnessing a sixth mass extinction, one driven by human activities, we are left to wonder whether the film’s fictional vision had prophetic overtones?
Through the mist which filled the Turbine Hall, and which largely contributed to the sublime effect of the work, Olafur also subtly conjured the seemingly indissoluble overlapping of nature and technology which so characterises modernity and postmodernity and that may be the result of, in the words of Donna Haraway, our acquired posthumanist cyborgian status. Technology has historically and conceptually played a pivotal role in our distancing from nature and in distinguishing us from the animal. It is therefore rather fascinating that Olafur’s proposal of an artificial sun should affect human behaviour in such intense ways that only the authority of nature would be expected to command. What does this effectively tell us about the contemporary essence of the human condition? ■
Giovanni Aloi is the author of Art and Animals, of which this is an extract. He is also Lecturer in History of Art and Visual Cultures at Queen Mary University, Roehampton Universoty, The Open University and Tate Galleries. He is also Chief Editor of Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.