Move over, painting chimps. Today's art-making animals are cutting-edge creators who turn up everywhere from the National Zoo to MoMA
Last year London’s Grant Museum of Zoology staged what organizers thought was the first inter-species show of paintings by animals.
Baka, a Sumatran Orangutan who resides at Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, showed impastoed, calligraphic slashes in the manner of Kline. Samantha, a Western lowland Gorilla who lived at the Erie Zoo in Pennsylvania, had an allover composition of candy-colored strokes evoking late de Kooning. Boon Mee, an elephant in Thailand’s Samutprakarn Zoo, took a more figurative path, with an astounding rendering of a flower pot.
That such primate and elephant art hews so closely to Western art conventions reveals more about our expectations than their talents. Boon Mee, for example, was guided by a keeper who manipulated her ear like a joystick in order to steer her trunk. The result may still be impressive, but it hardly reflects the creature’s natural tendencies—or the latest science.
Today animal artists are not viewed so much as novelties but as sophisticated creators with skills and senses that can enhance projects in ways humans never can. Anthropomorphism is out, and biological determinism is in.
Among residents of the National Zoo in Washington who have made art in such programs are a banded armadillo, a naked mole rat, hissing cockroaches, a leopard gecko, lions, grizzlies, the Elegant Crested Tinamou, a toucan, and Tian Tian, the giant panda.
The projects are designed to tap into natural behaviors. Sloth bears, who feed by blowing away dirt on the forest floor and sucking up termites, were given a straw-like apparatus to blow paint onto the canvas. Frogs received an organic paint-like substance created from the powdered algae mix they use as food.
Though treats are sometimes used to encourage animal-art makers, zoo staff describe their movements as voluntary and instinctive. “Animals can choose whether or not they want to participate,” Courtney Janney, a keeper on the Asia Trail, explained. “They all do, willingly, so they’re enjoying it on some level.” The zoo was selling mammal and bird art to raise funds but has suspended the painting program for now due to budget cuts.
Complementing these zoological initiatives are innovative projects in the mainstream art world. Enlisting animals for art is hardly new—Dieter Roth essentially invited insects to dine on the chocolate works up at MoMA right now; Carolina Miranda reported in our pages about artists like María Fernanda Cardoso, who has worked with jumping fleas and self-camouflaging katydids. But these days, more and more contemporary artists are bringing more science—and more animals—into the equation.
“Applied Design,” MoMA’s current show of cutting-edge design acquisitions (better known for its video game contents), includes three such projects. For his Honeycomb Vase “Made by Bees,” Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny placed a vase-shaped beehive scaffold in a bee colony. In a process that took 40,000 bees one week—the artist calls it “slow prototyping”—the creatures built a hive around the form.
Susana Soares channels bees’ odor sensitivity in diagnostic tools that can help detect disease and monitor fertility cycles. Fertility Object from the BEE’S project, a prototype, features different glass chambers where bees congregate depending on smells they perceive in human breath that reflect ovulation status.
Another prototype in “Applied Design,” Geoffrey Mann’s Attracted to Light, uses cinematic technology to capture the paths of moths through air. With 3-D printing, the creatures’ trajectory is translated into the form of a lamp.
Tomás Saraceno has long been fascinated by spiderwebs, which he has used as a conceptual departure point and raw material. In his current show at Esther Schipper in Berlin, titled “Social .. Quasi social .. Solitary .. Spiders … On hybrid cosmic webs,” he enlisted various species to create the artworks, passing the form from one spider to the next in a variant of the Surrealist “Exquisite Corpse” game. With their multiple, unrelated authors, the resulting structures are hybrid webs that would never be found in nature.
Björn Braun used a similar strategy for the nests shown at Meyer Riegger’s stand at New York’s recent Independent Fair. He foraged nests from the wild and presented them to finches, along with manmade materials like ribbons, leather, and multicolored thread. The new team of birds incorporated the unnatural objects into the natural ones with a rococo flourish.
Catherine Chalmers has harnessed the instincts of insects in her art throughout her career (including the cockroaches we covered in 2001). Most recently she’s been working with leafcutter ants in the Costa Rica rain forest, on projects that will ultimately include photography, video, drawing, and sculpture. For one series, “Antworks,” she brought plants native to a more sandy-soiled area and documented ways ants cut and carried them. In another, “Offerings,” she placed flower petals on their trail, along with a camera. In her videos, the scenarios become narratives—including one of an art show in which the ants parade their creations.
David Nyzio’s 2001 exhibition at Postmasters showcased the sculptural abilities of several animals. Sheep helped out with the salt licks.
Beavers applied their carving talents to sculptural columns with a Brancusian twist.
Looking at the spectacular dams, nests, webs, and other elaborate constructions found in the natural world, it remains difficult to leave our art-world sensibilities behind. Indeed some scientists are convinced that animals have the emotional complexity to perceive beauty, make esthetic choices, and produce forms (or song) for art’s sake. At a time when researchers are just beginning to decode the meaning of animal sounds, there is clearly more to learn about their art practice–or, at least, about the reasons we are so invested in the idea that they have one.