Mark Dion’s Some notes towards a manifesto for artists working with or about the living world, in the catalogue of the Serpentine Gallery’s Greenhouse Effect exhibition in 2000, includes the following:
‘Artists working with living organisms must know what they are doing. They must take responsibility for the plants’ or animals’ welfare. If an organism dies during an exhibition, the viewer should assume the death to be the intention of the artist’.
Lynne Roberts-Goodwin, Bad Birds, 2005
Roberts-Goodwin used birds from the Department of Ornithology at the Australian Museum in Sydney. The birds face away from the camera, all sense of character, mood/facial expression is lost and all hope of determining what kind of bird we are looking at lies in the feather colour and markings. A common punishment for a badly behaved child is to be made to face the wall – is this because the lack of visual stimulation gleaned from staring at a blank surface instils boredom and thus encourages the child to ‘think about what I’ve done’? Or is it so that the inevitably guilt-ridden parent wants to avoid at all costs having to look at their tearfully innocent child’s face and potentially regretting giving any punishment at all?
Carole Schneemann, Infinity Kisses, 1981-1988
I think every cat owner has shared a moment similar to the one Schneemann has portrayed in her film, when cat begins purring even before any kind of human contact, letting owner know it has decided it’s time for some sort of attention. Schneemann claimed this 15 minute long kissing session was a regular morning ritual and these self-shot 35mm images were taken over a 7 year period. Despite knowing that this is a perfectly innocent film, it teeters so worringly on the edge of bestiality, that most heinous and taboo of subjects (even in art) that it is hard not to feel a little uncomfortable watching the all-too-familar human/animal relationship tip steadily into a more sensual and dangerous realm.
Angela Bartram, Licking Dogs, 2007
A second, more confronting video depiction of human/pet relations. Where Schneemann’s Infinity Kisses alludes to sexual undertones, Angela Bartram’s Licking Dogs seems to make for more uneasy watching. Why though? The activity in the pair are the same, only the domestic animal is different. Perhaps the sheer size of the canine tongue, the universal knowledge of what it feels like to have dog slobber all over ones face, adds to the ugliness somehow. There is also the addition of multiple partners here: Bartram engages in licking with more than one (very large) dog, could this lack of loyalty so readily expressed by the average domestic dog be the cherry on top of an already hazardous few minutes?
What both Schneemann and Bartram’s video pieces have going for them is a rare external perspective, a visual invasion of what every pet owner considers to be a private moment with their animal. In this sense every person who has been swept up in 10 minutes of what they consider to be Platonic affection with their cat or dog must deal with a mirror being held up to their behaviour: a perfectly innocent cuddle with ones pet could, to an outsider, look more than a little suggestive.
Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1994
“To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it,” She explained, “In these pictures every woman’s a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful. To be bestial is good. It’s physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable.”
Rego uses a style of pastel drawing not unlike those of Degas, communicating perfectly the sense of raw continuous movement (in Degas’ case dancing, in Rego’s, perhaps jerks and grappling) of a woman seemingly inhabited by the spirit of a vicious canine. I like to think these women are enveloped in a moment of temporary anthropomorphic madness, a forgetting of all ladylike traits and behaviours Western culture has lead us to expect of ourselves. However, the series is known to be inspired by a story told to Rego by a friend.