Archives for posts with tag: speciesism

Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1) 2012, Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams. (Installation view, 18 January – 16 February 2019, Serpentine Galleries). © 2019

Grace Wales Bonner’s Serpentine Galleries exhibition, A Time for New Dreams, includes the work daybed by the artist Rashid Johnson. Johnson’s artwork makes use of zebra skins. I wrote to the Serpentine Galleries to offer a critique of how the artist uses other animals for his own means and received the following justification;

‘In both Daybed works, one could read Johnson’s use of the zebra skins as a critique on how humans have appropriated and used other cultures and related materials for their own means’

But how can a critique of cultural appropriation be made by an artwork that itself appropriates, in this case, the bodies of animals? The reply continues,

‘For Johnson, this concern is located specifically within certain colonial histories of the West and the exoticisation of artefacts and materials from Africa and Iran, notably the zebra as native to the former and the Persian rugs to the latter’

I would argue however, that it is the very (symbolised) exoticisation of the zebra by the artist that makes him unable to see it as a (dead) animal, an animal that was sentient, that wanted to live. This is why he see no contradiction in using the body of an animal in order to critique appropriation. The anthropocentrism and speciesism taking place here is a parallel to European exoticism. The animal is not seen for what it actually is, as a living creature with a natural habitat, but instead what it is in art. Here the artist is only concerned with human cultural appropriation rather than the appropriation of non-human animals. But what is the morally significant difference between human and a non-human animals?

Yesterday I went to see the Goldsmiths BA show (department of art undergraduate exhibition). At least three artists were showing taxidermy and animal skins; Lisa Miller, Taniesha Kitchen and Kathryn Edwards. I got into conversation with Lisa Miller. Here are two photos of her installation space focusing on fur pelts and feathers.

Lisa Miller

Lisa Miller took time to talk to me about her work despite having to prepare for her performance that was about to take place in her space. I put her on the spot by asking her about her use of animal skins, pelts, skulls and feathers that form part of her installation that also includes video.

She answered by saying that her use of animals was related to, or authenticated by, the relationship she and her father have with nature. That, rather than being estranged from the source of our supermarket food, her father as a hunter of deer, or rather a conservationist (by culling) had a more intimate understanding of animals in the natural world. She said that the animals died with dignity and that if they didn’t die in this way the population would be too numerous to live in their limited environment.

In answer to these points I said that the animal in question did not care about the dignity of its death. The animal simply wanted to go on living. Regarding conservation and managing deer numbers, I am sceptical that this is what motivates most people to hunt.

I agreed with her that most of us have little or no knowledge of the processes involved in how our food gets from the farm to the supermarket, especially of the cruelty involved. This intimate relationship with animals however, does not alter the fact that we do not have the right to kill other animals simply because they are not our own species. Just as we do not have the right to kill other humans because they are a different race or sex to us. And even if the motivation to hunt and cull animals is a welfare or conservationist one, we are being speciesist in doing so. It is speciesist because humans do not have a greater claim on life than other animals. What if the global population of humans was destroying the environment (as it is)? Would it then be justifiable to cull humans?  Why is it different with non-human animals? I believe there is no morally significant difference between humans and non-human animals and so they cannot be treated as less important.

For these reasons I believe it is wrong to use animals as our resources, for food, clothing or for art.

Taniesha Kitchen

I could find no information on Taniesha Kitchen so I have been unable to contact her. She showed two stuffed animals with nails driven into their bodies and covered in a latticework of thread. A wolf or dog-like animal and a rabbit. The wolf appeared quite small and had proportionally shorter legs still, making it look like it had been ‘altered’. At one point it was difficult to see if they were real animals, once living, but interestingly, in this case I find my criticism doesn’t wholly rely on cruelty or using animals as resources. I find the artwork objectionable in the way that somebody would find a racist or sexist or homophobic image objectionable. The animals these sculptures allude to have evolved over time to have incredibly sophisticated bodies superbly adapted for their environment with a biology and physiology that science is still trying to understand. No aspect of what they are can be improved upon or made interesting by driving nails into their bodies.


Kathryn Edwards

Kathryn Edwards fills a room with altered taxidermy. To give her the benefit of doubt you might think that perhaps she is unaware of just how much artwork, very similar to this, is constantly made and shown. This notion is soon dispelled however, when visiting her website/shop and seeing that she is already immersed in the world of taxidermy.