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Becoming Animal


  • Archive, Archive Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • May 29, 2005 - February 2006
  • Galleries

In the first large-scale art exhibition to explore the closing gap between human and animal existence, MASS MoCA presented the work of 12 artists from five countries in a major show that opened on May 29, 2005. Becoming Animal: Art in the Animal Kingdom included large-scale sculpture, paintings, drawings, video installation, and major new commissions from Mark Dion and Natalie Jeremijenko and Phil Taylor and work by Jane Alexander, Rachel Berwick, Brian Conley, Sam Easterson, Kathy High, Nicolas Lampert, Michael Oatman, Motohiko Odani, Patricia Piccinini, and Ann-Sofi Sidén (in her largest showing in the United States).

“In a world that is increasingly urban, technological, and transnational, animals are nevertheless insinuating their presence into human life in all sorts of surprising new ways, ” said the exhibition’s curator Nato Thompson. “We are gaining knowledge about the subtleties and range of animal communications. The human genome project has illustrated just how close we are—biologically speaking—to the simplest forms of animal life. Mad Cow disease and bird flu have made us hypersensitive to the complexities of cross-species viral infection and food chain issues. The artists in Becoming Animal are fascinated by this thin membrane separating human and animal life, by the character of animals, by our love for animals, but also by the human capacity to treat animals with disdain and willful negligence.”

Occupying the second and third floors of MASS MoCA’s Building 4, the exhibition ran through February 2006. The exhibition was accompanied by a 132-page hard-cover, full-color catalog with essays by exhibition curator Nato Thompson and Christoph Cox, and can be purchased here. Major support for the exhibition and related programs provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and Citigroup.

New commissions
Mark Dion created a site-specific installation titled Library for the Birds of Massachusetts. The installation featured 12 Zebra finches housed in a 17’ tall aviary, along with a dead maple tree with ornithology books, bird feeders, and nets hung from the tree. Dion’s art seeks to uncover the structures that govern the natural world, dissolving the boundary between nature and culture.

Natalie Jeremijenko and Phil Taylor’s For the Birds is the second part of her ongoing Ooz projects (Zoo spelled backwards). Through Ooz, Jeremijenko “reverse-engineers” zoos producing new interactions between animals and humans. For the Birds consists of a series of electronic perches placed in MASS MoCA’s courtyards for birds to land on. When a bird lands, it triggers an accompanying audio track that will invite human interaction. Through the day-to-day use of the perches, Jeremijenko believes that the birds (predominantly pigeons) will learn to use the perches to rudimentarily communicate with MASS MoCA visitors.

New commissions are supported in part by The Nimoy Foundation.

Works in the exhibition
Jane Alexander’s Bom Boys, Lonely Boys, Fancy Boys, Sexy Boys from her African Adventure series comprises 15 images displayed in five sections which follow a geographic sequence from the countryside to the city center of Cape Town. The images present corpse-like humanoids who are devoid of race or identity. The appearance of these mutated individuals (children with stylized animal heads) suggests a landscape and populace haunted and alienated by their past.

Lonesome George, discovered in the Galapagos Islands in 1972, is the last known tortoise of his sub-species. On the edge of extinction, and despite the work of scientists, this male tortoise did not successfully mate. Rachel Berwick’s installation Lonesome George features two video projections, two large triangular sails, and full-scale cast elements from the tortoise shell measuring 3 ½’ long and 2’ wide. As the tortoise pulls into its shell, there is an exhale, and fans inflate the sails. Lonesome George has only so many breaths left before extinction. (Update: Lonesome George died in 2012 marking the apparent extinction of his species.)

Brian Conley’s Pseudanuran Gigantica (2001) simulates the mating call of a Tungara frog with a large inflatable sculpture connected to a sound system. This immense balloon-like apparatus is triggered by the viewer’s physical presence. Taking on the role of the female mate, the audience is serenaded by their male counterpart. Ironically, Pseudanuran Gigantica (meaning Fake Frog) does not actually mimic a real mating call of any frog. Instead, the interpretation of a frog’s vocal cords are actually a by-product of an artist’s invention, making this lover’s call more human than animal.

For his series, Animal, Vegetable, Video, Sam Easterson attached micro-video cameras to the top of various animals’ heads and to some plants. The viewer is presented with an awe-inspiring journey from the vantage point of an aardvark, chicken, wolf, water buffalo, tarantula or even tumble weed. Through these videos the viewer is able to access the literal physical perspectives of these various animals/objects creating an awareness of the daily existence of these plants and animals. Easterson claims that these videos possess the ability to protect and preserve these species: “If you’re able to see from the perspective of these animals, you’re far less likely to harm them or their habitats.”

Kathy High’s multimedia/inter-species installation Embracing Animal consists of four “tube-scope” video sculptures that present images and situations of “trans-animals.” Videos of animal/human interchanges, transformations, werewolves, and vampires play on four mini-LCD monitors that are situated in the bottom of 40″ high test tubes. Alongside this display is an elongated cage that houses rescued transgenic lab rats who have been microinjected with human DNA. Sculpted heads of the vermin who have been terminated are also on display, accentuating the clinically morbid atmosphere that Embracing Animal creates.

An unabashed vegetarian and animal rights enthusiast, Nicolas Lampert began his Machine Animal collages in 1995 as a reaction to the onslaught of the human/machine world onto nature. In Locust Tank (1995), a World War II military tank fuses with the locust regarded as a bearer of plagues. Lampert uses his extensive library of photocopied materials to produce, at times, dingy hybrids and landscapes. His Machine Animal collages range from seamlessly crossed machines and animals such as Locust Tank (1995) to more flagrant jarring juxtapositions.

By knitting together hundreds and, at times, thousands of cut pieces, Michael Oatman produces entirely new worlds. In his collage The Birds, Oatman equips these innocent creatures of the sky with semi-automatic weapons, Lugers, machine guns, grenades, and bazookas. With a wink at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller of the same title, Oatman’s work is more Bugs Bunny than Psycho.

Motohiko Odani’s video Rompers (2003) depicts a surreal reality where mutant frogs bound through a psychedelic forest with human ears flopping on their backs, and genetically modified hybrids frolic around a sweet-looking child perched on a tree branch. As her reptilian tongue flicks out of her mouth to eat a fly, the viewer suddenly becomes aware of her yellow eyes, protruding brow, and claw-like fingers, and the unease that Rompers communicates increases. Staging a scene barbed by subtle references to children’s television programs, adult videos, fetishism, and biotechnology gone awry, Odani insinuates that this fantasy land may be more of a dystopia than a paradise. His Erectro (2003) is a stuffed fawn that stands rigidly upright, supported by cyborg-like aluminum appendages attached to its legs. In this piece the artist presents an image that reflects the historical dioramas of out-dated museum displays, as well as the disturbing effects that technology has on the creature of the wild in contemporary society. Odani’s contribution to the exhibition was supported in part by The Japan Foundation.

Patricia Piccinini’s The Young Family (2002-2003) is a silicone sculpture of a new unidentified species, which simultaneously combines features that appear human, mammal, bovine, and primate — seeming both familiar and alien. However, the ugliness of these figures is further humanized by the emphasis of community that this work displays. Nestled on a cocoon-like leather pedestal, the mother lays tired with her litter of suckling newborns. Using grotesque transgenic hybrids to portray these images of love and creation, Piccinini challenges the perceptions of our surroundings and personal relationships.

The QM Museum (2004) is a retrospective of works pertaining to the Queen of Mud persona, a performance character that Ann-Sofi Sidén has developed over the course of her career. Originally, the Queen of Mud was a performance character that Sidén took on when she would walk through art fairs, covering her naked body with thick mud. After this initial performance, Sidén then produced videos where the Queen of Mud appears at talk shows and perfume counters. The QMM Museum will consist of an elaborate 12-video projection archive featuring her film QM, I Think I Call Her QM (1997). Sidén’s work in the exhibition was supported by The Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, American-Scandinavian Foundation and the Consulate General of Sweden.

Kathy High, Embracing Animal, 2004
Glass tubes, DVD, four mini LCD monitors, live rats, steel mesh, plywood and Lexan cage