This is a video still of the Russian artist Oleg Kulik re-enacting his 1995 performance ‘Missionary’ in the street outside London’s Regina Gallery. He steps into a large fish tank, water pours over the side as the startled fish swim around his feet. The image shows a moment when the artist plucks a fish from the water and holds it into the air whilst talking to it. The fish eventually slips out of his hands, bounces off his face and splashes back into the water.
The gallery press release tell us;
‘…Kulik challenges common notions of what it means to be a human being’
‘The regression into an animalistic state of mind allows the artist to act out a human primitiveness commonly deemed unacceptable in today’s society.’
‘…Kulik exposes the animality of mankind and the fallacy of the concept of human supremacy.’
I would like to look at these press statements one by one.
Firstly, The dominant relationship between human beings and non-human animals is one of ownership, exploitation and cruelty. This notion of what it means to be a human being goes unchallenged when an artist uses animals out of their natural environment, frightens them and harms them. In fact rather than ‘challenge’ Kulik is actually reinforcing ‘common notions of what is means to be a human being’.
Secondly, Kulik’s ‘human primitiveness’, when directed towards non-human animals, is not certainly not, ‘commonly deemed unacceptable in today’s society’. Animal exploitation is acceptable and normal in today’s society and goes unchallenged by the artist.
Thirdly, ‘…Kulik exposes the animality of mankind and the fallacy of the concept of human supremacy.’ Surely there must have been some point where Kulik realized that he was benefiting from his own concept of human supremacy. Maybe it was when he first came up with the idea of using animals in his artwork. Maybe it was when he picked up the phone and ordered fish to be placed in a tank for his performance, maybe it was when he showed disregard for their wellbeing by splashing around in their unnatural environment and handling them. ‘The concept of human supremacy’, is indeed a fallacy but rather than expose it, Kulik uses it for his own ends – in this case his art.