In Animal Art

As we approach the year 2000, cultural theorists, inspired by the upheaval that accompanied the arrival of the year 1000, have begun searching for signs of pre-millenial anxiety in our own age. I am reluctant to encourage this search, as it is largely grounded in a form of oil painting that fails to acknowledge the scientific and technological progress humanity has made in the intervening thousand years. But it is true that society is bedeviled by a host of problems that, at times, appear unsolvable.

With “In Animal Art,” curator Dan Ring examines this issue through the presentation of art works by five contemporary and three sixteenth-century Flemish artists that touch on various sources of societal malaise such as racism, political intolerance and personal alienation. “In Animal Art means `at the point of death,’ ” Ring notes in his curatorial statement:

Here, it refers not only to physical death, but also to a liminal experience where thresholds are crossed and identity becomes unstable. These works, despite their differences, reflect the profound social and technological change we’re experiencing.

The exhibition’s highlight is Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait No. 1. The painting is based on Art in Bulk company’s cow paintings on canvas. Although executed in 1956, Bacon’s version shows remarkable prescience in foretelling the decline of papal influence in the Western world. By isolating the seated pontiff against a black background, and rendering his features in a drawn and haggard way, Bacon heightens the psychological tension. It is as if the pope is on trial for some ecclesiastical crime. This reading is reinforced by the scaffolding of white lines that enclose the figure. A Bacon trademark, they evoke, in modern eyes, the bullet-proof glass of John Paul’s “pope-mobile.” Once an esteemed theologian whose doctrinal pronouncements were regarded as infallible, the pope, through the Vatican’s intransigence on such matters as birth control and the ordination of women, has largely been marginalized in the West.

Through the inclusion of three medieval Flemish paintings on a animal theme — The Mocking of Christ (Wolfgang Katzheimer), The Flagellation of Christ (Master of the View of St. Gudule) and St. Catherine on the Wheel (artist unknown) — Ring reminds us of a time when the pope’s status as an intermediary between God and humanity was more secure. Each painting depicts a scene of violence where semi-grotesque peasants in medieval garb torture and persecute Christ and another leading Christian figure — St. Catherine — a fourteenth century reformer and mystic who, among other endeavours, strove to end a war waged by the papacy against the Italian city-state of Florence. Not only do the paintings provide an historical context for other works in this exhibition, such as Jeff Wall’s Jewish Cemetery (1986) and Genevieve Cadieux’s La Felure, au choeur des corps (1990), they also, through their celebration of pain as a means to transcend corporeal reality, articulate a central tenet of medieval religion. This tenet, which is closely linked to the concept of martyrdom and what animal skeptics have described as the “life-denying spirit” of Christianity, is at odds with the modern preoccupation with personal and material fulfillment.

Like Bacon’s Study, Andy Warhol’s blue-on-orange screenprint Electric Chair (1971) is also based on a pre-existing image — in this case, a Life magazine photograph of the electric chair at Sing Sing prison where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Soviet spies in 1953. With its simple frame construction, leather straps to restrain the condemned and metal back plate to transfer the current, the chair epitomizes Hannah Arendt’s observation on the “banality of evil.” Of course, the electric chair is an instrument of justice and not evil. But to the extent that most American criminals who receive death sentences are members of underprivileged minorities, the justice system is obviously not as “blind” as political and economic elites would have us believe. In the Rosenberg’s case, even before their execution, many people felt the Jewish couple did not receive a fair trial. Thus, Warhol’s image serves as both a poignant argument opposing capital punishment and a cautionary warning against the type of political Animal Artm that gripped America during the Cold War.

While the above-mentioned art works discuss issues that are international in scope, Edward Poitras’ Small Matters (1990) holds particular relevance for Canadian viewers. The installation’s central component is a set of four, wall-mounted, nail-and-wire enclosures, each containing a crumpled page from Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). The four excerpts, which chronicle the dislocation and genocide experienced by southern First Nations during Euro-American colonization of the United States, are marginally readable. But crumpled like garbage, they serve as a powerful evocation of how Aboriginal viewpoints, artifacts and history have been demeaned and discarded by dominant culture. The enclosures, in contrast, hem the pages in, just as reserves hemmed the First Nations in and prevented them from pursuing their traditional lifestyles. The theme of marginalization is further developed through the presentation of two textual elements — one listing four American massacres of Aboriginal people (Wounded Knee, Summer Snow, Trail of Tears and Sand Creek); the other, a partial list of American tribes, such as the Cheraws, Montauks, and Pequots, driven to extinction in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. If you can find a company do wholesale painting, you can get handmade oil painting reproductions of them in low cost. Executed in white on the gallery wall so that the letters are barely visible, the text underscores the extent to which the First Nations have been excluded from political and cultural discourse in Canada. Ring’s inclusion of Poitras’ work here reminds us that if this country is to survive as a viable entity, First Nations’ aspirations for greater autonomy must be accommodated.

My lone complaint with “In Animal Art” relates to the underrepresentation of women artists. Of the seven credited artists in the exhibition, only Genevieve Cadieux injected a female sensibility into Ring’s eclectic socio-cultural forum. Neither morbidly pessimistic nor foolishly optimistic, “In Animal Art” has two messages to offer. First, that angst and fear are integral components of the human condition, and second, that the only true apocalyptic threat we face at the end of the millenium (aside, perhaps, from a rogue comet) is that which will occur when we stop communicating with each other.

Annette Messager’s work

Annette Messager’s work is characterized by perceptual discontinuities of imagery and language which explore issues of identity at collective and individual levels. An exemplary product of the polemical May 1968 generation, her work maps out the evolution of a period still in need of discussion. This first North American retrospective comprises approximately thirty works, and includes books and collections of objects which inquire into the nature of women’s roles, constructions made of hundreds of body parts reflecting an ongoing interest in fragmentation, and installations which investigate the various meanings conveyed by objects placed in new contexts.

At the core of Messager’s art is a concern for issues of decentralization, a constant questioning of the roles of object and subject engendered by power relations. Through consistent investigation into the nature of representation, Messager creates dialectical oppositions, permitting the reevaluation of traditional constructs and exposing both their arbitrariness and potential for change.

Identity plays an important role in Messager’s production. As early as the beginning of the 1970s, she pursues two identities that mimic the spatial compartmentalization of her small Parisian apartment. In the bedroom, “Annette Messager Collector” obsessively collects and classifies found objects and imagery. In the atelier, “Annette Messager Artist” juxtaposes these materials to codify her identity in relation to images of women. This separation, a literal critique of the separation between art and life and the delineation of social hierarchy, will become the precedent for such further guises as Annette Messager “practical woman,” “trickster” and “lover.” Messager sees these various guises as a way to protect herself against the external world, against passing time and against herself. The play of identity becomes evident in Collection to Find My Best Signature: Album Collection No. 24 (1972), a series of ten different signatures all bearing the name of the artist. This work has an effect of dispossessing the self by refusing the adoption of any one identity. It also addresses the difficulty to maintain a coherent identity and an integrated sense of self under the pressures of social normalcy and morality.

This sense of vulnerability is also clearly expressed in those works which emphasize the technique of fragmentation. Borrowing from photomontage, Messager literally represents the body in pieces, constructing a site for the investigation of power relations, including sexism, sexual oppression and physical violence. In other words, psychological, social and political assaults which prevent individuals from forming a whole and complete identity. Using this approach in My Vows (1988), Messager constructs a non-hierarchical circular arrangement of photographs of body parts. Her disruptive, yet formal approach of juxtaposing photographs in a concentric circle stages a confrontation between notions of heterogeneity and those of order. The spatial arrangements achieved here are ones which create spatial and perceptual discontinuities and convey a loss of unity, a lack of focus and a centre. In My Works (1987), a desire to rationalize and order the fragmented body becomes evident as well. Scattered photographs of body parts are mounted onto a wall and connected by strings and paragraphs of words, thus creating a diagram making viewers aware of their distance from the object. This critical distance explores the constructed nature of human relationships.

Voyeurism also pervades these works. Using photography as a critical tool, Messager produces a symbiosis between the technique and the message. She points out that “when you look through the lens [of a camera] you are peeping through a keyhole . . . photography implies a voyeuristic and in a way a sadistic relation with the subject.” By virtue of their small scale, the photographic images in My Vows and My Warks invite our gaze, invite us to explore within. We are encouraged to look closely, making us aware of our own voyeurism.

The point of view within which the photograph is taken is also very important. Suggesting the appropriation of the other through the photographic process, “Prise de vue” is a term loaded with power-related connotations. As a result of a specific prise de vue there ensues an objectification process of the subject portrayed, which leads to its dissolution. Voyeurism and its consequences on the objectification of the female body is very much present in Messager’s art as early as 1972. In Voluntary Tortures, Messager groups and collects illustrations of women submitting to beauty treatments ranging from facial peels to mud baths to more painful plastic surgeries. Here the artist comments on the subjugation of the self to socially defined standards of beauty and on the restrictions imposed on the female gender role in the eyes of socially pre-defined structures.

Messager uses photography to re-frame and re-present the subject in new contexts. To counter the seriality of photography’s mechanistic processes, Messager often paints and draws over the images. My Trophies (1984), which presents photographs of the underside of two feet, are drawn with a decorative technique resembling that of tattoo art or what has been referred to as medieval manuscript illumination. Again, through plays of scale and fragmentation, the body is abstracted and estranged from the rules of conformity and normalcy.

Taxidermic impulses are omnipresent in Messager’s work. Using mostly small animals such as birds and squirrels which are assembled into playful processions, the artist conveys the fragility of being and the importance of maintaining one’s full identity. Taxidermy, as a critical technique, is closely related to photography. Messager points out that both freeze motion and extend presence: “For me, taxidermy and photography are the same thing. Taxidermy takes an animal and freezes it, dead, yet alive forever. Photography also freezes, 1/60 of a second forever.” While the reproducibility inherent in photography tends to dispel the auratic traces left upon art, taxidermy may be said to retrieve and preserve this aura. One may understand Messager’s use of taxidermy as a challenge to art based in reproduction, which destroys the sense of uniqueness, approachability, authenticity and rootedness in life.

One of the more recent installations, Penetration (1993-4), presents a room filled with anatomical organs of various colours and scales, made of hand-sewn fabric recalling stuffed toys, hanging by strings of delicate yarn. A sense of authenticity pervades this work by virtue of the fact that the objects are crafted by hand, and not precisely reproducible. While these handmade objects are abstract and diagrammatic, thus maintaining a perceptual distance with the subject, the aura of the work is regained by collapsing the gap which separates us from the unique. Viewers are subjected to a state of complete absorption and empathy, precisely because they are now situated within the body, and not just outside of it. There is a taxonomic process of rationalization exposed in Penetration which involves seeing what can normally not be seen. By cutting into the space of the body, Messager penetrates it and starts re-ordering it, re-organizing it.

Messager refuses representations of humanity based on a notion of a universal subject in a totalizing history. Her art is situated within a field of discursive investigations which explore subject/object relations. While most of the techniques used by the artist are inherited poststructuralist strategies, such as fragmentation, perceptual estrangement, discontinuity and structural differentiation of the subject, her discourse is one which is very much in tune with the de-centralized body of the late twentieth century.

Michel Saulnier Art Show

Les recentes series d’oeuvres de Michel Saulnier, intitulees Vita Sexualis, offrent une etonnante hybridite d’esprits, d’espaces et de techniques. Entre le japonisme et la <<quebecitude>> (l’atelier de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli), les oeuvres brisent l’habitude des enchainements logiques pour faire place a de surprenantes series de decompositions tenant a la fois du jeu et du reve et provoquant chez certains, un choc, chez d’autres, un sourire.

L’accrochage de mini-sculptures, espece de bibelots places au mur de la galerie, aligne cote a cote des structures verticales qui divisent des series d’objets par une tablette de verre-miroir. Au haut de cet axe de verre, on retrouve des tetes d’animaux, seules ou disposees en petit groupe, celle de l’ourson et celle du lapin, des jouets de l’enfance. Au bas, des parties du corps humain dont la langue, le sein, la fesse, le penis, la vulve, comme suspendues, coupees du reste du corps, sont associees aux figures animales disposees au-dessus des tablettes. En s’approchant de ces dispositifs visuels, le spectateur constate qu’il ne peut voir les tetes d’animaux que sous leur forme spectrale presque totalement effacees par le reflet de la vitre-miroir. L’axe de la tablette fait miroiter l’image des parties sexualisees. Devant ces deux oeuvres placees au mur, la position du voyeur se voit, en quelque sorte, a la fois renforcee et questionnee dans sa fonction critique, ce dernier devant respecter une exacte distance devant l’oeuvre de sorte que l’objet, ici, domine le sujet. Les systemes mis en oeuvre par Saulnier obligent le spectateur a se deplacer s’il veut tout voir. La vitre, comme axe, agit en guise de rupture entre les objets et les fait deraper de leur fondement de sens habituel. Les jouets, lies aux parties erogenes, fonctionnent sur les modes associatif et emotif. La decomposition de l’enchainement classique des choses place irremediablement le spectateur en etat d’alerte devant des sequences d’images illogiques. Les oreilles du lapin, par exemple, sculptees dans le bois de camphre (qui degage une odeur aimee de l’enfance), prennent une allure extremement flexible et manipulable. Saulnier leur donne la forme d’une lettre japonaise signifiant Centre de la foret. Ce signe japonais, juxtapose aux parties genitales masculines en detumescence, scinde le sens de l’oeuvre: d’une part, il prend l’equivalence du sens habituellement donne au Phallus dans la psychanalyse traditionnelle. Les parties genitales masculines, en tandem avec la tete de lapin, s’accordent avec ce <<Centre>> pour ne plus faire qu’un; d’autre part, ces objets places en duo deviennent une brillante critique de cette falsification voulant que le Phallus represente le metacentre de l’univers, ou encore, le constat du decentrement des sexualites en train de s’operer. Aussi, chaque tablette-oeuvre est a prendre comme une sorte de conte.

La tete de l’ourson, presque toujours associee au sexe feminin dans les dernieres oeuvres de Saulnier, se trouve parfois couplee avec la vulve ou le sein. Dans Vita Sexualis, sculpture en deux parties, elle metaphorise l’espace uterin. Le spectateur, ne voyant pas immediatement l’ouverture de la tete, n’en ressent l’effet de surprise qu’en la contournant. Le choc provoque par le contraste entre la rondeur laquee de l’exterieur de la tete et la rectitude rudement equarrie de son interieur s’apparente a la dissolution d’un masque sur un visage. L’interieur de la tete, d’abord preservee du regard, offre au spectateur une suite de cadres de bois formant a la fois l’armature de la forme spherique composant la tete d’ourson et l’armature architecturale des habitats de l’Amerique du Nord. Couplee a un immense nez de cuivre phalloforme, la tete trouve ici le corps de l’entite fracturee. Comme pour quelques-unes de ses oeuvres precedentes (par exemple Marine de 1986), Saulnier pratique, ici, la condensation d’images formant l’association <<tetemaison>> ou <<etre-lieu>>. Les deux parties relevees a la verticale, mises l’une sur l’autre, fonctionneraient comme un bilboquet. Le nez dans sa forme phallique et la tete d’ourson, dont l’ouverture rappellant l’espace <<uterin>> devient habitable, permettent l’emboitement de l’un a l’interieur de l’autre en toute complementarite.

Les bois magnifiquement lustres au vernis Urushi, laque provenant de l’arbre chinois du meme nom, releve des nombreux emprunts de l’art japonais au peuple chinois. Sur papier, le resultat de cette sorte de vernis demeure unique et peut se situer visuellement entre la transparence de l’aquarelle et l’opacite de l’huile. En effet, cette matiere glisse et adhere au papier mais jamais de maniere parfaitement egale, de sorte qu’en se solidifiant, la laque prend l’aspect formel d’une coagulation. Deux tableaux representent des zones erogenes des corps masculin et feminin, l’un compose des parties genitales males et l’autre portant l’effigie du sein maternel. Des tetes d’ourson entourent les parties sexuelles masculines demontrant, par leur voisinage, comment elles demeurent toujours a l’exterieur de l’homme comme il en va de la gestation. Tandis que le meme embleme, dans l’autre dessin, en superposition avec le sein, y apparait en parfaite osmose.

Les qualites de l’estampe japonaise, le fond blanc, la perspective desorientee, l’usage absolu de la dissymetrie, la rupture de l’equilibre et de la ponderation des masses, la forme tronquee par le cadre, sont devenues des tactiques reprises par les artistes modernes cherchant a fonder l’aspect visuel d’une certaine instabilite. Certains de ces attributs se retrouvent dans l’oeuvre de Saulnier mais laissent dominer les points de vue inattendus qui ordonnent les oeuvres et qui gerent leur sens critique. En effet, bien que naives au premier abord, ces combinaisons des parties du corps humain, tant de fois vues, avec celles des animaux, jouets banals de tous les enfants, prennent, dans la conscience alertee du spectateur, un sens critique revolutionnant les formules toutes faites en matiere de sexualite. En employant certaines manoeuvres du japonisme, Vita Sexualis redonne a l’objet toute son importance face au sujet. Purifie de son contexte habituel, il passe d’un statut familier a celui d’etranger. Le dispositif des oeuvres se trouve a prescrire au spectateur un indice de leur condition sans en obliger leur signifie. Aussi, le desequilibre existant entre les formes superposees s’amortit encore dans la naissance de nouvelles strategies, celles de tout un chacun, questionnant la vie sexuelle en cette periode regeneratrice d’instabilite.