Pocket Review: Artist Animal by Steve Baker

Steve Baker
University of Minnesota Press, 2013

Whenever I would mention reading Steve Baker’s Artist|Animal, a series of interviews and essays about the use of animals in contemporary art, the response would be—almost to a person—“Oh, Damien Hirst.” Certainly that’s the first name that came to mind when I initially read the publisher’s blurb. In fact, Hirst gets only a brief mention in the introduction; his most well-known animal work predates Artist|Animal’s 21st-century focus, and his treatment of the animal form as a straight medium is also outside the scope of the book, which is largely concerned with the ways that artists and their animal subjects interact. Even when the animals in question are no longer alive, such as Angela Singer’s taxidermy constructions or Catherine Bell’s squid, Baker is interested in the relationship between them. The result is an interesting, often theory-heavy, but definitely thought-provoking collection.

His primary thesis—the question “Can contemporary artists be trusted with animals?”—would place the book firmly in the animal ethics camp. But Artist|Animal’s definition of “trust” takes many forms. There are the obvious issues of cruelty, but Baker gets these out of the way with his description of Kim Jones’ horrific 1976 Rat Piece, which supposedly referenced his experiences in Vietnam and involved setting three live rats on fire with lighter fluid. Baker lays this out for us as a kind of baseline, and moves on. The rest of the artists interviewed for the book fall solidly on the side of mindfulness and compassion—the latter, of course, interpreted through the various artists’ sometimes expansive egos, but still always present:

For the most part, at least, their art treats animals as creatures who actively share the more-than-human world with humans, rather than as mere symbols or metaphors for aspects of the so-called human condition.

Each artist interview is interspersed with a short philosophical essay, and Baker brings in a variety of thinkers to help illustrate his musings on biosemiotics, from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to Jacques Derrida, Iris Murdoch, Jim Dine, Cary Wolfe, and a host of others. The range of artists presented makes for a sort of sampler of 21st-century avant-garde work, providing a vivid window into what Baker carefully defines as a school of thought all its own, posthumanism. In addition to Olly and Suzi, whose projects involve drawing and painting animals close up in the wild, there are Catherine Chalmers, whose photographs and films of insects and amphibians render them oddly beautiful (hers is the marvelous frog on the book’s cover); Eduardo Kac, who created—and became deeply attached to—a genetically modified rabbit that would glow green under a black light; Mary Britton Clouse, whose accidental superimposition resulted in the gently quirky Portraits/Self-Portraits series, combining her face with those of her rescued chickens; Catherine Bell, who performed a filmed piece that involved the ink of 40 squid; Britta Jaschinski, whose photographs of animals fully uncoupled from their habitats questions the way we think of traditional “wild animal” images; illustrator and animal activist Sue Coe; and many others.

Baker steers away from any overt ethical screeds, in the same way that he avoids Monsanto politics in the discussion of Kac’s altered rabbit, or environmental issues when talking about the works of Olly and Suzi or Sanna Kannisto, whose art is dependent on being set or performed in the animals’ natural habitats. But if you aren’t moved by Sue Coe’s depiction of cruelty in the sheep industry—or even Catherine Chalmers’ insistence on letting the cockroaches she uses in her American Cockroach project live out their full lives, even though she dislikes them—then no amount of preaching is going to make a difference. He is more interested in the bigger philosophical picture: the intersection of bioethics and censorship, the different ways there are to see animals and be seen in return, and the idea of art as the product of disruption and uncertainty.

The nature of the various projects means that they often toggle between seriousness and whimsy; Lucy Kimbell’s response to the dilemma of animal testing (“My body, your bodies, are a charnelhouse; stacked in it are the corpses of millions of rats and mice and guinea pigs”) is to stage a Rat Fair where scientists and hobbyists can interact, and which includes “The world’s first Rat Art Award.” Baker is content to let the work speak for itself and the ethical reader make up his or her own mind about it, although it’s clear where his sympathies lie. (“Jones noted of the rats he burned in 1976: ‘When they were burning and screaming, I bent down and screamed with them. I don’t know whether it helped them or not.'”—certainly I’m not the only reader willing to test this particular theory by setting Jones on fire and screaming along with him to see if it helps or not.)

Readers will find some of the artwork more accessible than others. Mainly this is a good thing—much of it is conceptually weighted to start with, and Baker, as any worthwhile theorist, encourages viewers to question the status quo and their own suppositions. And in fact the work that is most easily approachable—Sue Coe’s illustrations for her book Sheep of Fools, written in collaboration with Judith Brody—comes in for some criticism from outside as being too sentimental, too humanist.

And that is where Artist|Animal loses some of its relevance for me: its continuous insistence on the concept of posthumanism as a kind of artistic divide necessitates an over-reliance on postmodern theory in what doesn’t necessarily need to be that kind of text. There is enough here to combine a healthy art criticism with popular interest. And while I understand that Baker is, in fact, a theorist and not a pop culture writer—and that this is part of a series entitled “Posthumanities”—the debate can bog down what is otherwise an intellectually rigorous but still accessible text. Citing Wolfe on Derrida as appearing “at the furthest contemporary reach of ‘posthumanist posthumanism'” isn’t doing this narrative any favors—whereas explaining why Wolfe pits the thinking of Kac and Coe at opposite ends of the spectrum (“Animal advocates with little interest in art do this all the time, and although Wolfe inverts that move, it’s essentially the same move”) is useful rhetoric to encourage a casual reader to think a little more seriously about what the artist’s incorporation of an animal body might mean.

Theory has its place in the discussion of modern art, to be sure. But in a book that aspires to cross over from an academic to popular audience—as I have no doubt Artist|Animal does—the extended posthumanist argument may be a debate for another cohort. Steve Baker has an opportunity here to reach readers who are already inclined to ask good questions, from viewers of conceptual art to animal ethics advocates to those who, like me, fall into both camps—Peter Singer-reading vegetarian animal rescuers who identify as more crazy cat lady than PETA activist. But even with its retro-1990s leanings toward pomo encyclicals, this is an enjoyable and interesting book. Take what you want and leave the rest, check out some new artists, and ponder the explorations of ways that, when one looks at an animal, the animal almost always looks back.


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