Humans have always been curious about what distinguishes us from other animals, prodding the boundary with stories of selkies, shamans, Fionn mac Cumhaill or Dr Dolittle, and philosophically through the theories of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, David Abram, Donna Haraway and others. These have all argued for better communion between the human and non-human world. Pioneers in exploring this theme through art have included Marcus Coates (who features in this exhibition), the organisation ONCA, and Rosemarie McGoldrick’s series of Animal Gaze projects.
Animalesque, however, adds something extra – a metaphor for empathy in a wider sense, and for exploring how we relate to any kind of ‘other’ in the world – be it another species, or another race, gender or point of view within society. Curated by Filipa Ramos and first shown in Sweden, Animalesque treats visitors to a smörgåsbord of installations, sound, sculpture, text, video, textiles, drawing and collage, by an international mix of seventeen artists. The arrangement is loose and relaxed; the experience multi-toned and engaging.
Pierre Bismuth, Carsten Höller, Chris Watson and Amalia Pica zero in on language as one uncertain basis for distinguishing between humans and other animals, presenting respectively a re-dubbed Jungle Book film (2002), a German Count’s love story mediated by birdsong (1995), wildlife recordings (1998/ 2019), and a wall of colourful communication ‘lexigrams’ learned by chimps (2018).
The animal side of humans is then suggested in Pierre Huyghe’s film of his hybrid girl-monkey invention from 2014 (unsettlingly linked to Fukushima), in Mary Beth Edelson’s floor-to-ceiling collage of iconic personalities transformed into natural spirit-women (1972-2011), and with provocative simplicity (backed by collaborative research) in Marcus Coates’ wall texts on traits we share with primates (2015).
Other species went before us and may come after we’ve gone, and the sculpted figures by Paloma Varga Weisz (2000/ 2016) hint at some future hominid who may inherit the mess left by our own demise. Which brings us to the elephant in the room – or rather, the hippopotamus. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s giant sculpted hippo, first shown in Venice in 2005, seems to symbolise the dignity of all that is ‘other’, which we ignore at our peril. And the peril is signalled loudly, in a periodic performance by a member of the gallery staff, providing a literal and metaphorical ‘whistle-blowing’ response to environmental change and other alarming news headlines of the day.
The exhibition could be criticised for representing the animal world mainly through birds and terrestrial megafauna, and for being a highly anthropic, even appropriating, engagement with the ‘other’ rather than a truly empathic one, or one that reflects any genuine acts of ‘co-creation’. There is little on the actual ‘crossing of the threshold’, which a ‘shamanic’ element might have introduced. In one of the most impactful pieces in the exhibition, however, Simone Forti approaches this movingly in her simple ‘embodied drawing’ of a bear’s mark-making (2010).
There is certainly enough here to prompt us to challenge the orthodoxy that dates back to Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, in which humans are at the top of everything. Perhaps we will leave instead with the question posed by Frans de Waal: ‘Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?’
Animalesque is on at BALTIC until 19 April 2020.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.