The relationship between humans and the natural world oscillates between tenderness, evident in intimate relationships such as those of pets and owners, gardeners and carefully cultivated plots, and the antagonism which characterizes industrial-scale cultivation of land, natural resources, and animals for consumption. “Adaptation: Between Species” is a group show featuring 21 artists, each of whom attempts to communicate with the animal world, discover the animals within themselves, or establish scenarios in which creatures become unwitting collaborators. The exhibition texts situate the show within a discourse concerning the current state of human engagement with the natural world. Multiple sub-texts run through the show, ranging from natural disasters to post-colonial identity politics.
Dominating the main space is John Bock’s Gast (2004), a video that depicts a rabbit hopping freely in the artist’s apartment, which is littered with sculptures composed of quotidian household items. Bock’s camera follows the rabbit’s movements as his own costume manipulates them. Attached to his slipper is a contraption holding a carrot too temping for the rabbit to resist. Glimmers of Joseph Beuys’ performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) are evident in the way Bock’s awkward shoe alters his movements, and in his commitment to tracing the whims of a rabbit, reversing Beuys’ mandate by learning from rather than teaching his companion.
Gast’s playful reverence for a rabbit’s whims sit comfortably alongside other works focused on human-animal relations including: Shaun Gladwell’s kangaroo road kill funerary rituals depicted in Apologies 1–6 (2007–09); Cory Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op.11, for which the artist spliced together popular videos featuring kittens from the Internet so that cats stepping on piano keys seem to play Arnold Schoenber’s composition of the same name; Francis Alÿs’ Nightwatch (2004), surveillance footage of a fox let loose in London’s National Portrait Gallery; and Marcus Coates’ performances in which he contacts spirit animals on behalf of his audiences.
A refreshingly critical perspective on our impact on the lives of other species is added to the mix by Mark Dion’s Maquettes (2008). Three large crates serve as plinths for miniature museum-like displays. The first features vignettes where figurines of wildlife appear to be bathed in oil or are scavenging garbage for food. The sad creatures trapped in tar are particularly poignant, invoking as they do thoughts of the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico that lays bare carelessness our species shows towards others. Furthermore, the entire set-up implicates the art world into a system depends on and drives the need for oil. The crate-plinths attest to the labor and cost of art transportation, and the nomadic lives of art, artists, and curators, complicit in the demand of inexpensive fuel. In her exhibition essay, Helena Reckitt, Senior Curator of Programs, suggests that perhaps we dote on domesticated animals to appease our guilt over eating other animals. Dion’s work points to the unintended and sometimes catastrophic consequences of our needs on the lives of other living things. Perhaps this is another one of those uncomfortable truths that we are trying to compensate for with catnip and doggy daycare.
The show’s stated premise is to respond to contemporary desires to go “back to nature.” There are works included that seem better suited to another framework. Hew Locke’s Tyger, Tyger (2007) is a striking self-portrait. The artist has masked himself entirely with costume that references the Redcoats of the British Army from the Napoleonic Wars, and is covered with little plastic heads that could be trophies of war or an allusion to child soldiers. Locke himself is crowned with a tiger’s head. The title and tiger headdress not withstanding, this piece is less about interacting with the natural world than it is problematizing national and personal identity through fantastical self-fashioning, and socio-political caricature. One might understand the relationship of Locke’s photograph to others pieces in the show as a conflation of various investigations of Otherness. It’s easy to imaging this exhibition broken into multiple shows with more specific thematics; relations between species, mankind versus nature, and conflicts within human cultures.