Animot: Reflections on the works of Erin Perry & Amy Thompson
by David Khang
On July 18, 2008, The New York Times Magazine featured an article by James Vlahos titled Animal Pharm. The article begins with some common pharmaceutical examples: Clomicalm is a little pill to keep our little poochs from loneliness or separation anxiety. Slentrol, as the brand name suggests, is an anti-obesity pill, solely for dog. And Reconcile is chemically identical to Prozac – except that it is chewable and comes in beef-flavour. This latest (by-in-large North-American) trend – that includes medicating our domesticated animals – prompts many questions, but one question that we may ask in the context of this exhibition by Erin Perry and Amy Thompson is the artist’s relationship with animals. A corollary question is the centuries old debate over what, exactly, separates humankind from other animals. i In the past, the strictly Cartesian view posited that animals are only capable of reacting, and unable to properly respond – emotionally, thoughtfully and consciously; hence, the coupling ‘animal-machine.’ (A contemporary example of this animal-machine connection is illustrated by Donna Haraways’ funny and punny use of the word pairing, lapdogs and laptops.) But if this is true – that animals are so different from humans, James Vlahos asks, then why do they develop mental illnesses that so closely resemble human mental conditions? While this becomes a rather specific scientific question, it opens up larger philosophical questions of inter-species relations.
In a series of lectures in 1997 titled L’Animal que donc je suis or The Animal that Therefore I am (after the Cogito – “I think, therefore I am/Je pense donc je suis,"), Jacques Derrida traced this ostensible difference, the Great Divide between the reactive animal and the responsive human (-as-exception) within the animal kingdom. In the now famous vignette, the famous philosopher, standing naked one morning in front of his cat, the cat gazing at him, while the naked Derrida – feeling shame – wonders what the cat sees in his nakedness, asks if the animal can respond, or whether it is even possible to know if a response could be distinguished from a reaction.
Some ten years later, we hear from Donna Haraway, who follows up on Derrida’s reflections on the animal, in her latest work titled When Species Meet (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008). ii Haraway applaudes Derrida – first, for being curious, as well as humble enough to be attentive to what he does not know – the epistemological limits of his own philosophical and linguistic traditions, and second, for recognizing in his little cat “the absolute alterity of the neighbour,” while not falling into “the trap of making the subaltern speak” – or perhaps more properly, meow. But in Haraway’s view, Derrida falls short, in that he never considered what the cat might actually be “doing, feeling, and thinking” through alternate forms of engagement – such as looking back, and meeting the gaze. Haraway asks us to seriously consider such interactions “scientifically, biologically, and therefore, also philosophically and intimately.” Haraway illustrates her point by providing examples of biologists, behavioural anthropologists and ethologists who have explored this territory in depth: Gregory Bateson, Jane Goodall, and Barbara Smuts, to name a few.
As Haraway points out, it takes complexity – not just celebrating complexity, but becoming worldly, then responding: thinking of real animals with a responsive gaze (perhaps as Amy Thompson’s photographs could be read), and/or dreaming of animals subconsciously and constantly and perhaps allegorically (like Erin Perry – whose work you see in the front window, hallway + the back gallery). Perry’s pychic concerns (as is Haraway’s) is one in which the of human and other animal subjects have no clear boundaries, the body that separates one organism from another is too literal, too artificial – one that is in fact constantly mediated symbiotically by genomic, viral, and other vectors that contaminate such clear delineations. For Thompson (as for Derrida), the salient moment is when the animal gazes back – the moment that hails us all, to linger in that moment, to consider an alternate way of being, in an alternate Relation.
I consider Amy Thompson’s photographic series titled “Faces” to do exactly that – to force us to consider alternate Relations. Through a simple substitution of who the proper subject of the portraits are, thus crossing up the habituated signals of how we read the genre of photographic portraiture, Thompson plays with our anthropomorphizing tendency. The dissonant pairing of the familiar (ie. genre) with the unfamiliar (ie. the forceful gazing-back from the birds), not unlike the evocation of disease in Hitchcock’s movie “Birds”, forces us to reconsider not only inter-species relation, but also how this might cross over into intra-species relations (for instance: the avian flu virus, which has forced us to reckon with, and fear, these seemingly other and othered beings, in the case of the avian virus – the virus of Asian origin, as in the case of the HIV virus – the virus of African origin). Nothwithstanding multiple and layered readings of her work, Thompson’s photographs are firmly planted in the societal reality of human effect on animal life; as a volunteer for a local wildlife organization, Thompson used her contacts as an opportunity to create a series of photographs of birds in convalescence. Yet, unlike the raging debates between conservationists and developers, Thompson’s photographs manage to avoid the simplistic binary and partisan readings of the nature vs. culture debate. (to this end, perhaps we could apply Haraway’s use of the neologism, “naturalcultural”). And unlike Disney/Pixar animations, these birds - with their confrontational gazes, are not warm & fuzzy, but rather, unnerving. And this raises the afformentioned Derridian question of the proper subjecthood of the Animal. Not only do the confrontational compositions of the photographs demand that we grapple with these questions, but I believe that the gaze has the potential to act hypnotically, pulling us into an experience that seems closer to a fantasy, or a dreamscape with the workings of our subconscious.
Dreams and reveries are reference and access points for many of Erin Perry’s work. From eye covers made of shark meat, to an image of over-sized gecko curiously poised over a stiff and supine human figure ostensibly in captivity (or frozen in fear?), Perry’s works are potential entry points into an uncanny subconscious that can act as allegory for human relations, but also for us to become the animal that swims in Perry’s dreamscape. iii If these works are portals to Perry’s (and our) dreams, the dreamscape that they open up to is both (un)familiar and (un)canny. The dream is one where the neatly compartmentalized worlds of untamed wilderness and domesticated home front form an uneasy and chaotic union. In this landscape, we recognize the objects, yet we do not readily recognize the relations between the objects (what do we make of a giant gecko, a stiff suited man, 2 chairs, and seemingly random poetry of broken relations written by the artist’s sister?) We are forced to reckon, or to re-cognize their relations. The divide between human and animal are mediated by the collective animus (or perhaps more accurately, anima in the Jungian sense) – between individuals, and between species. Perry, in and through her work, claims to balance “the contradictions of desire/repulsion, comfort/discomfort, life/decay, gravity/humour.” Notwithstanding the repulsion (or perhaps because of it), the desire to engage in these painstakingly crafted objects is strong (and I do consider Perry’s drawings as ‘objects’). In contradistinction to works that are dispassionate and benignly ironic, only deep sincerity and commitment to exploring the interiority of one’s own (and our collective) psyche remain. The result is work that allows time and space for contemplation.
In the complexity of being and becoming with animals – that involve differentially situated species, landscapes, animals, plants, microorganisms, people, and technologies – Thompson & Perry add to a chorus of voices that includes Derrida & Haraway, to ask questions that are necessarily varied, and to demand possible insights that are of commensurate diversity. Haraway states: “Once again we are in a knot of species coshaping one another in layers of reciprocating complexity… It is a question of cosmopolitics, of learning to be… in responsible relation to always asymmetrical living and dying, and nurturing and killing.”(42) iv
In the Introduction to When Species Meet, Donna Haraway uses the notion of alter- or other globalization – a movement that is not anti-globalization, but rather, is “a way to nurture a more just and peaceful process” in multi-species relations. In the local context, I suggest to you that Erin Perry and Amy Thompson are alternate species of artists on the Vancouver art scene. Erin Perry left Vancouver for Rhode Island for her MFA at RISD, undetected by the Vancouver art community radar, and Amy Thompson, as far as I know, has no intentions of becoming a visual artist as we have recently come to understand the title (with respect to showings, collections, etc). Yet they are perhaps indicative of a growing number of young emerging artists who are not on the map (or perhaps never will be), yet if given opportunities, would make us all more curious to their participation in the artistic alter-globalization of the Vancouver local. Access, with its mandate to provide an alternative exhibition space, is proud to be the first to introduce the works of Erin Perry & Amy Thompson to Vancouver.
“The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking then, perhaps, begins here.” v (397) - Jacques Derrida
David Khang is a visual and performance artist who selectively writes and curates as part of his collaborative and discourse-oriented practice. Khang received his BFA from the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design (2000), and MFA in Studio Art with a concurrent Emphasis in Critical Theory from the University of California, Irvine (2004). Khang lives and works in Vancouver, where he is a Sessional Faculty at Emily Carr University.
i A well-articulated discussion on these issues is summarized in Kelly Phillips’s article in the January 2008 issue of FUSE Magazine, titled “A CURTAIN CLOSES ON THEATRE OF THE WORLD,” a reflection on the controversy surrounding the exhibition House of Oracles by Huang Yong Ping at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2007 (Vol. 31, No1).
ii Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
iii Perhaps not unrelated to Perry’s preoccupation with animals is her biographical history: when I was presenting a work at the Western Front in 2006 – a work in which I tended to and raised monarch butterflies from the caterpillar stage, through the pupae, then to adult monarchs – Erin was instrumental in guiding me through this process, for it turns out that her dad is a lepidopterist / butterfly farmer, and for a good part of her childhood, Erin helped to bring butterfly lives into this world. I thought, “wow, how cool is that – to have a dad who is a butterfly farmer!”
iv D. Haraway, 42. During the evening of the exhibition opening, my friend George McCutcheon noted that the eyes of Amy Thompson’s birds could be anatomically categorized, depending on whether a bird was a prey or a predator.
v Jacques Derrida, “And Say the Animal Responded?” trans. David Wills, in Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, ed. Cary Wolfe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 121-46, 138.)