Archives for category: Artists

speciesisminart

Olivier Richon’s photograph, ‘The Quarry’ (1995) shows a dead deer attached to a pole in a minimal gallery-type space. His solo show Acedia, at Ibid, Hoxton Square, London has a loose general theme of hunting connecting several of the works. I immediately wonder if the artist is pro or anti hunting, or interested in the debate. Of course, I can’t find out by glancing at the work, if I could, the artist would run the risk of being criticised as didactic, polemical, uninteresting. Instead, what we see is a beautifully lit, carefully composed photograph of a dead deer. It’s as if something poetic is being said but we will never be sure quite what.  In order to produce such an image however, the artist reveals something about himself; that he assumes ownership of the deer. The body of the deer is being used by the artist to say something about his work.  Whatever the artist is trying to say is mediated by animal exploitation and death. Once we see this, it is hard to find anything in the photograph, or any allusion, more interesting, urgent or important than the question of the artist’s own treatment of sentient creatures. Olivier Richon would probably find it crass to discuss his exhibition’s subtle and beautiful photographs in terms of whether or not he is pro hunting, but the reality of the quarry is to be chased to exhaustion and torn apart.

Yelena Popova graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2011 winning the Red Mansion Prize and residency in Beijing, China. Since leaving she has had solo exhibitions at  Zabludowicz Collection London, Figge von Rosen Gallery, Berlin, Trade Gallery, Nottingham  Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham as well as numerous group shows. This interview was initiated by a comment Yelena Popova put onto facebook and my response to it.   You can view her work at www.yelenapopova.co.uk

Yelena Popova: Our neighbour is a hunting historian and enthusiast. In a series of conversations (with lots of visual materials and gear) he unfolded the beauty of hunting for me. I am converted, throw your stones.

Peter Walsh: Here’s a stone. What about chasing down and tearing apart other races or other sexes or those with a different sexuality, is there also a beauty in that? I expect not, it’s just when it’s a different species to your own that it beautiful. There is no morally significant distinction between humans and non-human sentient animals – so if you condone this violent injustice to animals you shouldn’t complain about any other social injustice.

YP:  I agree with your argument, but perhaps for the sake of art and beauty one hunted fox a year (!) is more agreeable then flocks of suffering and murdered for food cows, sheep and pigs?

PW:  I guess I’m interested in what this art would be like, that took the form of a hunted animal (1 per year), who would find it beautiful and would it also be interesting art? Have you ever used animals in your art for this reason?  If you really agree with my argument it follows that you would agree that it was acceptable to hunt a person from another race (1 per year) for the beauty of art or hunt another sex or sexuality, or in fact a member of any other group that wasn’t our own.

YP: Peter below are some quotes from the book The Hound and The Hawk by John Cummings:

On intimate knowledge of the animals, the mastery and the craft:

‘The huntsman was trained at the varlet stage to distinguish between the tracks of the male and female deer, size depth of the slots indicated degree of maturity. The relative position of the fore feet and rear feet also helped in assessing the size and condition: if the prints showed that the animal had placed it’s rear foot onto or in advance of the mark already made by the fore foot, it meant that it was a lean beast, since flesh on the ribs and flanks would not prevent this. German hunters made examination of tracks an exact and subtle science, in which depth, breadth crispiness, relative position, presence of specific ridges or balls of earth etc, all played a part indicating not only whatever a best was chaseable, but the age , of the tracks and the pace and the state of mind of the animal.” The huntsman’s job was not only to choose and prepare animal to be tracked but also watch and protect the healthy population of the animals on the land. To know them and to care about them.

About your argument: People don’t kill each other for food. Animals do. It’s life and death in the animal kingdom. Dogs eat meat! so if the killing of the beast in nature is happening anyhow, then  (allow) hunting as a (sporting) event, a spectacle, a group action etc.

PW:  I don’t understand the relevance of the skill and knowledge of the huntsman in a discussion about ethics. If it is ethically wrong to hunt then surely no amount of ‘intimate knowledge or mastery of the craft’ changes this? Does a mastery of the mechanics of the gallows make hanging acceptable and ethical? Does the intimate knowledge of his human prey make the actions of the serial killer noble and beautiful?

Why is there one set of ethics for humans and another for non-human animals? I don’t share you belief that huntsmen care about animals. All the ones I met during my years as a hunt saboteur were in it for the sport and ritual. Everything from dressing up in uniform, meetings with sherry before starting, the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, hunt balls. These are not the actions of people who care about animals.

Wild animals have to kill and eat one another, that’s nature. We humans don’t have to kill animals to live – that’s the difference -we are unnecessarily cruel to animals on a global industrial scale.  But not just for food, as you point out – for spectacle too. I don’t understand how one can justify using animals for spectacle or art.  Can you expand on this?

YP: My hunting fascination is predominantly formed by those conversations with the hunting historian and his books. I attach two images of Maximilian’s tapestries from the Louvre for example

http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/hunts-maximilian-month-september

So I do appreciate that contemporary hunting is different. Like the Fox Hunting issue in England for example is not just about cruelty to animals it is also a class antagonism, right? But I felt that hunting, because of it’s rich history and tradition, current debate on animal rights and the change in our relationships with the landscape and nature is a very complex and interesting subject. I also think any mastery or knowledge is worth something and it is a shame when some knowledge or tradition being erased. Perhaps our ability to generate (abstract) knowledge and pass it to generations makes us different from animals?

No I can’t justify using animals for spectacle nor art, could you justify feeding meat to your dog? Humans’ are cruel to animals to feed other (domesticated) animals? What are your views on domestication actually?

Some things are given: like some humans, dogs, cats, and prey birds eat meat. And given that, (meat consumption) could be performed as a ritual full of symbolism, meaning, mastery, art and other social & economic connections, I would prefer that to hidden away industrial scale mass murder. In other words, I think hunting as it existed perhaps in medieval time is a much fairer and more beautiful game than contemporary animal farming.

PW: The tapestries are indeed amazingly beautiful and rich in detail. But I think I experience the content differently from you. In the first scene there is a large group of huntsmen both mounted and following on foot with dogs. They have chased an exhausted, terrified and desperate stag into the water and are descending upon it. When I view this scene I feel an anger that makes me want to fight against this injustice, I also see a link between the suffering of the stag with other forms of oppression in society, because I see no difference between humans and other sentient animals in terms of their entitlement to live. What I find beautiful and noble are the interesting facts that we know about stags, facts about their hearing, sense of smell, field of vision- all superior to those of humans for that matter. In fact I made a video Angus Steakhouse in relation to this issue. https://vimeo.com/20582315.

I don’t think we should preserve hunting simply because it has a rich history, surely we also have a rich history of sexism and racism? But I agree that it is of historical interest to preserve a knowledge of the cultural aspects of hunting, preserved in books and museums and the tapestries you refer to.

I think you raise an interesting point on the question of keeping companion animals or pets and the food they consume. I’m in agreement with Gary Franccione here that it is wrong to keep pets and reproduce them. However while domesticated dogs do exist we have a duty to rescue them and to keep them. Incidentally all five of his dogs are vegan. He writes about this issue in his July ’12 blog http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/

In regards to your final point, I don’t understand how meat consumption could be included in performance as art, or otherwise (other than documentary), without there being an exploitative speciesist element to it.

YP: To sum up: some issues are very complex, and I am interested in this complexity. Hunting is one of them. Our simple statement that hunting is ethically wrong and cruel would not  do much, but if we manage to put all the questions, facts, contradictions, histories, personal stories, links together then hopefully the wider group of people might be interested in hearing that, participating in the debate and make up their own mind about this issue. I don’t think one line propaganda works. I try not to take a fixed position on any issue, no matter how ethically urgent it is. Things are never black and white, there is a huge spectrum in between. See my video Unnamed https://vimeo.com/44829339 about radioactive contamination or Particulate Matter https://vimeo.com/38277605 about coal mining.

I have just visited an exhibition at The Curve gallery at the Barbican featuring the work of artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. The show features a flock of zebra finches sharing the gallery space with electric guitars placed horizontal and face on stands. The birds fly around and perch on the guitar strings causing the sound to be amplified around the gallery. When I visited the exhibition I noticed that high up at the far end of the gallery the flat ledges over the rear exit were proving attractive to the finches. These ledges could have been used as a resting place for the birds providing a safe height and vantage point over the visitors below. However the ledges had been temporarily altered by the gallery; formed into a makeshift sloping arrangement to make it impossible for the birds to perch on them. Well almost impossible, a couple of birds were trying to cling on but after a few seconds would slide off, particularly if they moved at all. This sloping device and the covering of the ceiling lights and pipes with netting seemed a deliberate move to make sure that the birds provided the maximum entertainment for the viewers.

With the ledges and ceilings impossible to use, this left just a series of small nesting boxes attached to the gallery walls for the birds to nest in. Again with sloping roofs these boxes did not provide enough nesting or perching space for all the finches in the gallery, resulting in the birds having to descend to the only other horizontal levels; the flat guitars. The pathetic attempts of the birds trying to build nests on a hard solid surface by intertwining blades of grass between the metal strings is presented here as art. This act was broadcast on youtube with the Barbican’s website telling us that it is ‘One of YouTube’s most watched clips of the month – Over 600,000 hits in just 4 weeks’.

We are told on the exhibition handout that: ‘The zebra finches in this exhibition have been provided by a specialist in the supply of animals for artistic projects. The welfare of the birds has been carefully reviewed by the relevant authorities.’ I find it interesting here that the word ‘welfare’ has no bearing on whether the ethical issues have been reviewed, whether the birds are considered as beings with interests. If they are, then surely it is wrong to place them ‘away from their natural habitat and coerce them to make art for somebody else’. This is a quote from a random Internet blog I came across that was otherwise disinterested in either art or animal issues. I found it impossible to disagree or with the blogger’s succinct comments and unable to say anything more profound about the artwork. It seemed that once you agreed that these birds were out of their natural habitat and being put to work for the spectator’s enjoyment then any other critique or comments on the artistic value of the work could only be of secondary interest.