Monday, June 18, 2007

The Postmodern Animal

Title: The Postmodern Animal (Reaktion, 2000)

Steve Baker, professor of art history at the University of Central Lancashire. Also author of Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation (p-back, 2001), and co-author of Killing Animals (2006). A forthcoming book is Art Before Ethics: Creativity and Animal Life. Baker is a founding member of the Animal Studies Group, which produced Killing Animals. He also collaborates with visual artists, and foregrounds "interviews and correspondence" with artists in his description of his research.

On the way to investigating the intersections between postmodern philosophy and postmodern art on the question of "the animal", Baker looks at several artists whose work deeply questions the boundary between animal and human (to the point of discarding the concept of "the boundary" altogether). He settles on the category "botched taxidermy" to describe what he sees as the most successful of these artistic attempts - for him, this phrase sums up the spirit of experimentalism and play inherent in any exploration of "the animal".


1. What is the Postmodern Animal?:
Introducing the work of artists Mark Dion and the team Olly and Suzi, who will reappear multiple times during the course of the text, Baker establishes some of the concerns of the group of artists he will be looking at, including the issue of authorship (Olly and Suzi and Dion all include live animals in some of their artmaking processes) and the crucial intersections with philosophy (both philosophers of the postmodern and these artists are concerned with "breaking consensus and complacency" surrounding the place of the animal in relation to "the human").

Olly and Suzi,
Shark Bite, 1997

Finally, Baker describes the characteristics of the modern animal, who, he says, didn't really exist (modernists were too concerned about looking "cool" in front of their friends, and the nineteenth century's anthropomorphized animals were decidedly not cool).

2. Animals and Ironies: Here, Baker descibes one kind of postmodern animal: the ironized animal (which, it turns out, he finds not nearly so successful as the animal when honestly or sincerely engaged with). Examples discussed include two paintings by Malcolm Morley; Julian Barnes' novel Flaubert's Parrot (1984); and Peter Greenaway's movie "The Falls" (1980). These ironies, Baker has it, "run against the grain of the animal" (36) and bespeak an artist's detachment from his/her subject (37), ultimately having "little to contribute to the creative work in which the postmodern animal might figure" (38).

3. The Human, Made Strange: In this chapter, Baker looks at the strain of thought in much postmodern philosophy which is "keen to distance itself from notions of expertise" (see Deleuze and Guattari), and wonders how this distancing might affect artistic ideas of the postmodern animal. The art examined here seeks to question dualities - sometimes, as in Joseph Beuys' live coyote project (in which he shut himself in a gallery room with a coyote for three days), breaking them down in the art-making process. Paula Rego's painting of woman-as-dog also fits into this type of art, with the suggestion being that the woman's transformation is positive rather than frightening. Here, Baker introduces his concept of "botched taxidermy", or the postmodern animal's look of "a fractured, awkward, 'wrong' or wronged thing" (54), reflecting the concerns of the postmodern era. As examples of this, Baker cites work of Mark Dion, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Thomas Grunfeld, Bruce Nauman, Damien Hirst.

Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1994

4. The Unmeaning of Animals: Baker examines the problem of "meaning" in animal art, pointing out that "it is by no means clear what can usefully be said about these baffling subjects...the problem is that, if anything, they signify too much" (80, emphasis in original). In this context, the question of meat comes up - artists who use meat as a "knowingly staged effect" (87) are playing with attraction and repulsion in the viewer, playing with the "meaning" of this corporeal substance. In relation to this question of repulsion, Baker discusses abjection in animal art, finally saying that although human artists (such as Mike Kelley, in his photograph Nostalgic Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood [1990]) may seek to use "the animal" to effect a "primal" or degraded state, this ultimately leaves the art looking "paradoxically proper" in its stance, placing itself in unfruitful opposition to the animal (91).

5. Leopards in the Temple: Baker looks at Donna Haraway's ideas of the cyborg and at concepts of posthumanity in philosophy, especially Deleuze and Guattari's idea of "becoming-animal" (which, he says, "does away" with the animal boundary and "all of its associated philosophical and psychoanalytical baggage" [103]). The thought possibilities afforded by this model, Baker says, are advantageous because they "describe an experience of the world that does not dissolve bodily identity, but which means that identity is not the thing to which the participants in the alliance of becoming-animal attend" (133).

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

6. The Animal's Line of Flight: Given all of these great pomo ideas, how are artists to represent the "form" of the animal without falling back into a non-critical engagement? Most of the examples in this chapter come from photographer Britta Jaschinski and from Francis Bacon, who, Baker says, following Deleuze, all make use of "movements, trajectories, or lines of flight" in and out of recognizable identity (145).

7. The Artist's Undoing: Baker uses Will Self's novel Great Apes to get into a discussion of dislocation and lack of "fitting" in postmodernity, and how these concepts can be explored through the question of the animal: "the animal can give concise form to the tension between the post-romantic subject's recognition of its own dividedness, and its necessary work of coming to terms with loss by drawing its new and peculiar self together in order to get on with life" (165).

8. Fear of the Familiar: In this chapter, Baker looks at art's conflicted relationship with the pet or the common animal (pigeon, squirrel, feral cat). This is fascinating - he points out that these categories of animal produce loathing or hatred or revulsion, even among artists who purportedly wish to deeply interrogate concepts of category. These kinds of animals are "blamed" for their very existence or quotidian nature, while "wild" animals are privileged as representatives of the same essentialist "nature" that artists normally wish to dismantle. Baker writes that postmoderns have strong feelings against the pet because "while artists want art to be wild, it usually isn' domesticates the wild, and domesticates the animal" (172, emphasis in original).

Mark Dion, Ursus maritimus, 1995

Reviews: I couldn't find any.

Books to follow up on: Primary:
Sue Coe, Dead Meat (1996); Peter Greenaway film, "The Falls" (1980); Will Self, Great Apes (p-back, 1998); Caroline Tisdall's book with photos of the Joseph Beuys coyote project, We Go This Way (2000).

Joseph Beuys project, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974)

Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition; Kate Soper, What Is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the Non-Human (p-back, 1995).

No comments: