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'Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art'
at UC Riverside, Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside, California
Preview by Suvan Geer

The concept here couldn't seem more benign. But larger issues are tucked in the engagement with cute critters.

‘Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art’ is a tease of a show. The concept as stated, “Artists exploring human interaction with animals” couldn’t sound more benign. But tucked within the artists’ engagement with critters as diverse as cockroaches and ants, dogs, monkeys and bears there resides an uneasy sense that there are large, really important issues imbedded in the interplay. What they are exactly, however, often remains elusive.
Certainly there are politically positioned art works like Fritz Haeg’s “Animal Estates,” which present pamphlets and datum arguing for the reintroduction of native animals into the urban world. The conservation issues such works raise are essential and clear. But human and animal interaction is such a common occurrence that many of the artists’ actions recorded in photographs, paintings or videos can at first glance seem without special significance.
We only begin to sense the ramifications of many of the artists’ actions in the science-as-art approach of artist/researcher Beatriz da Costa, who mounts little GPS air pollution monitors on homing pigeons to learn about air quality. Her display for the exhibit is a DVD of her projects and three taxidermied birds with their backpacks. Turning her collaborative “bird journalists,” as one video calls them, into stuffed, explanatory displays extends and ironically becomes complicit with the detached, Natural History mentality of scientific representation we so routinely view and accept. It’s a mindset that begins to resonate uncomfortably in an exhibition where wheeled leather luggage pieces by Carlee Fernandez unfold nearby, all pointedly still wearing their fur, face and horns.
Without naming the philosophical disconnect between humanity and the rest of the animals in our world, some pieces touch threads of the moral/religious versus scientific debate still being waged 200 years after Darwin. For example, what does it say about the importance of having a soul or the still disputed capacity of an animal to have real emotions when the movie celebrity bears and monkeys in Jill Greenberg’s large photographic portraits radiate more genuine feeling and presence than similarly glossy pictures of most film stars?
Evolution and human/animal kinship are at the heart of Rachel Mayeri’s cunning “Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends.” It’s a two channel video installation that juxtaposes color footage gathered in the field of a social group of baboons against a black and white, film noir scene of actors in a barroom. It’s both unsettlingly familiar and amazingly clarifying to watch the sexual dynamics of both sets of primates mirror each other as individuals silently try to hook up, get accepted, or rejected and pissed off about it.  
Such intellectual connections between the human and animal world are enlightening but often it is in the less constructed interactions between artist and animal where we are asked to consider the deep gulf between humans and animals. For some artists in the show critters are akin to living tools that can be used to generate images that we then ponder for meaning. Sean Dockray’s “Ameising 1” is a beautifully ethereal video line drawing made by software he created that draws a virtual pencil line along the paths ants take in and out of their nest. It changes over time, fading in areas they only wander through and darkening along the main paths.  It’s a fascinating visual study of what remains an alien purpose of great delicacy. In John Divola’s black and white prints of “Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert” the animal component leads us to consider the mystifying, exhilarating “otherness” of a species that will repeatedly bound after cars for its own good reasons. His is a freeze frame photographic puzzle of an animal’s self motivated action that a human participant can document but not really claim to comprehend. Yet that gap doesn’t stop him, or us, from projecting all kinds of meaning onto it; from imagining a game of catch, to the artist’s willingness to see “evidence of devotion to a hopeless enterprise.”
That kind of human projection is typical around animals. They have served for millennia as a source, ground and metaphor for all kinds of human thought. Around their habits we build our myths; on their bodies we test our medicines; from their traits we name our virtues and vices. Being like us, and unlike us, we can often best see ourselves reflected in their lives and shadows. One charming example in this exhibit is the recently deceased Nicholas Primat’s video, “Portrait de Famille (Family Portrait).” In it the artist sits silently, hands folded in front of his bare chest, staring unsmilingly at the camera while being energetically groped, sniffed, patted and tasted by a highly inquisitive little band of spider moneys. It’s a good natured inversion of the physical inspections humans routinely subject other species to, all the more amusing because their exploration is so clearly motivated by inherent, naked curiosity. Like sentience, that’s something else we clearly have in common. 

Published courtesy of ArtScene ©2009

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