Friday, 23 August 2013

The Animal in the Gallery

Over the years a veritable menagerie of live animals has been introduced into gallery spaces in the name of art. In an exploration of the topic Travis Riley meets some birds, a coyote, a fox, an elephant and 12 horses.

In his work Untitled, 1967 shown at Rome’s Galleria l’Attico, Jannis Kounellis exhibited paintings with artificial flowers and birdcages containing live birds. In images of the exhibition the cages are shown stacked on either side of a canvas with three, cotton, leaf-like forms stuck to its centre. The cages form a considerable part of the material of the installation; black and white photographs show the walls of the gallery space marked with a grid of shadows. What the pictures cannot show is the inevitable clamour and aviary aroma that comes with the presence of the animals.

In 1969 in the gallery’s new location, an old garage, Kounellis showed the now exalted work Untitled (12 horses). The horses were tethered to the white walls, spaced around the perimeter of their underground quarters like cars in a dingy showroom.

A conspicuous art historical reference, the horse is usually shown in one of two obverse forms: either tame and with rider or emphatic and wild. Though they have been tethered, in this case the horses are not under specific human subjugation. Instead they tower over the viewer. Equally, however, they do not strike heroic poses, but meander listlessly. They remain elegant and muscular, but under the harsh glare of the gallery lights their presence – emphasised by the inevitable and unmistakable fragrant tang of the stable (somehow smell is the most truthful of the senses) – is actual and substantial and not metaphorical or embellished.

In 1974 Joseph Beuys landed in Kennedy airport was swaddled in felt and carted to the René Block Gallery, East Broadway, in an ambulance. There Beuys spent three days in the space with a wild coyote, a performance entitled I Like America and America Likes Me. The wood-floored gallery had a corner filled with straw and Beuys carried with him a shepherd’s staff and a grey felt blanket.

The most publicised image from the performance shows Beuys standing bent forwards and wrapped head-to-toe in the felt, the crook of his shepherd’s staff protruding from the top. The coyote has hold of one end of the felt, and is at full stretch initiating a tug of war with Beuys. Other photographs, however, show Beuys seated alongside the coyote, which by this (presumably later) point in the performance, seems reasonably unthreatening.

At the end of the performance Beuys is said to have hugged the coyote before again being swaddled in felt and taken back to the airport. The animal replaces Beuys’ experience of America and as such represents all of America. It seems that as Beuys came to terms with the American animal so the animal got used to his presence too.

In 2004 Francis Alys released a fox in the National Portrait Gallery for a night (The Nightwatch). Its wanderings were recorded on the surveillance system and shown on a grid of monitors, five by four, so the viewer in the gallery’s café could imagine themselves the night watchman, casting a drowsy eye over the spaces of the gallery, presumed empty; a cup of tea in hand whilst on the screens a fox warily skirts the paintings, bottlebrush tail bristling.

The fox does not disrupt the silence of the gallery nor really the stillness. Its diminutive scale heightens the impression of an absence of movement, especially when compared to the daytime state of the spaces. The animal’s imperviousness highlights (by contrast) the omniscience of the surveillance system. Towards the end of the work the fox hops up on a writing desk, and curls up like the gallery’s domesticated in-house cat.

In 2003 Douglas Gordon brought Minnie the elephant and her trainer into the Gagosian gallery. The elephant performed a number of simple tricks under the carefully choreographed eye of a camera (which in the final work appears to sweep across the gallery floor in smooth circuits; when the camera isn’t fixed on the elephant’s legs the viewer has no choice but to look up at the bulk of the creature). The work is titled Play Dead; Real Time and is currently on show as part of the Tate’s ‘Artist Room’ series.

The work, shown originally in the same space as the filming, transcends its initial play on scale ploy, and ultimately the close-up encounter of the elephant across the three screens of the installation proves a surprisingly moving experience. The mass of the elephant seems at its greatest when, from lying down, it climbs first to its knees and then to its feet; an effortful gesture enacted in the guise of play.

Though these four works bear the similarity of the introduction of a live animal into a gallery space, distinctions of location, intent and presentation (including the actual presence of the animal) are marked. By situating the viewer in the space of the animals Kounellis’s Untitled (12 horses) is deliberately confrontational. The brute strength of the horse is intimidating, and the change in gallery space is substantial and unmediated. The other works, by comparison, appear shy.

Beuys’ I Like America…  exists most effectively in anecdote form, and it is through this mechanism (and not surveys of the initial performance) that it has attained its considerable recognition and through which its transformative symbolism is best viewed. Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time and Alys’s Nightwatch introduce an already past event. The animal precedes the viewer – when you arrive in the gallery it has already been there.

Unlike the controlled perspective of Gordon’s camera and Beuys’ documentation, Alys’s fox is surveyed covertly; it is possible to imagine its presence as incidental. The fox’s solitary movements, which tend towards suspicion rather than curiosity, have little relationship with those of the gallery visitor. As such it temporarily reshapes our relationship with the National Portrait Gallery’s gilt frame filled spaces.

Just as the fox’s ephemeral presence serves to change the space around it, in each of the above instances, through this principle of presence, the animal acts to provide an extraordinariness that in turn brings to light otherwise unnoticed qualities in the ordinary.

Travis Riley

Tate Britain, London SW1
Artist Rooms: Douglas Gordon: Play Dead; Real Time
6 May - 29 September

Single-channel excerpt from Play Dead; Real Time

Single-channel excerpt from The Nightwatch

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