What follows are some thoughts on a new exhibition at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery entitled Art for Animals, by multidisciplinary artist Jeff Meldrum.
I like Jeff’s work in this series—it raises interesting questions in an ethical, thoughtful, and funny way. Through installation and documentation, the artist is examining his relationship to land and making art connected to nature.
In Art for Animals, we see photographs and videos captured by a trail camera in a northern boreal forest. Bird sounds can be heard faintly in the background. Visually, the lush palette of deep greens and blown-out bright summer light creates a dynamic setting for colourful and blocky sculptures that stand out, totally different than the forest ecology around them. In the photographs we see rare moments of interaction with the sculptures by forest animals like deer, elk, and bears.
In large part, it is the trail camera that makes our experience possible. These interactions would not have happened if a human was nearby. As such, the photographs are documentation, and Art for Animals is a kind of performance.
Art for Animals is considerate of the animals and their experience. This aspect of the exhibition is important to note—ethical and considerate relationships with animals are not always present in artworks that people create with them.
In 2016, circus entertainers Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey stopped using elephants in their productions. The decision was motivated in part by evolving social opinion on the rights of animals. The stage weary elephants were retired to a habitat, no longer forced to perform. The same year in New York City, a bothersome art exhibition was remounted featuring Sir Gabriel, a donkey trained for the theatre and opera, who was placed on display in a small gallery room. Some food and water were set on the hard wood floor, and a Baroque chandelier hung above the animal’s head providing some light.
Beside the fact that the donkey can not consent to its participation, let alone understand the meaning of its confinement or the baroque chandelier hanging above it, the organizers were rather disrespectful to the animal. They closed the show after only one day because the donkey was braying and making a mess that was unpleasant. It was closed when people felt discomfort. The donkey’s discomfort was not considered. Sir Gabriel was not collaborating on this project.
French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s piece From Here to Ear, installed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art in 2016, is another interesting case.
In this piece, 52 zebra finches are kept in a gallery room with 14 electric guitars and amplifiers. Flying about and perching on the instrumens, the zebra finches create unusual music, a composition created from a set of controlled variables and a random element. The result sounds nice, even familiar in some ways, like an experimental shoegaze band.
From Here to Ear was widely celebrated as a beautiful and uniquely creative artwork. The birds’ welfare had been considered—zebra finches are a domesticated species accustomed to people and enclosed habitats. They had access to food and water just as they would have as pets.
I wonder if the zebra finches enjoyed or understood the correlation of their movements with the resulting music. I think the musical elements that make the piece relatable to us—harmony, tuning, the familiar idiom of electric guitar—were unknown to the birds. While the zebra finches’ would have had their own unique experience, the artwork was really meant for us. The birds had to perform for us and on our terms.
Using animals in art raises important ethical questions. Likewise, artworks installed in natural environments should be considerate and minimally disruptive. Respect informs artistic meaning. An artwork made with nature or in nature inevitably makes us ask how respectful the relationship is, and this contributes to what the artwork is communicating.
A 2011 television advertisement from Japanese cellphone company NTT Docomo is an interesting example. In the advertisement, a team of artists create a beautiful and unique musical instrument in a forest. Hundreds of resonant wooden blocks like xylophone keys form a long path for a rolling ball. The resulting sound is a near pitch-perfect performance of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 147: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
From a technical perspective, the piece is astonishing. I imagine the particular Bach composition was selected for its familiarity, and for the diatonic simplicity and measured tempo that could be recreated by the mechanical system. Any deeper meaning to the choice seems unlikely, though it feels a little strange, the juxtaposition of a serene forest with a sprawling music machine playing 18th-century German religious choral music.
In this case, the installation was temporary and unlikely to have seriously harmed plants or animals where it was built. At the same time, there was little value for the animals to hear this music, besides which most of the forest was likely scared into hiding by the production.
Remembering Sir Gabriel the donkey, who was confined in a room under a Baroque chandelier, the NTT Docomo advertisement also interestingly superimposed the Baroque onto nature, by playing Baroque music to an abandoned forest. This amusing similarity aside, in the case of NTT Docomo, the result is far less problematic.
NTT Docomo’s forest xylophone may have done little harm, but just like Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s zebra finches, the performance is just for us.
In this regard, Art for Animals is interesting. The animals’ experience has been considered. They are not confined or inconvenienced, and their participation is on their own terms. What literal or narrative meaning can we find in what the animals are doing? Their performance is not pressed into the service of delivering something meaningful to us, on our terms. The one piece with bears mauling a large novelty cheque is an exception. In this case the animals’ performance completes a joke that only we can understand.
Other than general curiosity, there isn’t much we have in common with the animals in this exhibition. No people were present to share those moments, and we don’t know what the experiences were like.
Art for Animals doesn’t require its subjects to serve us, to deliver meaning or narrative. The artworks show us something rare and funny. The exhibition is a record of considerate interaction between an artist and the natural environment.
On the subject of ethical relationships with nature and land, artist Jeff Meldrum has shared some of his thoughts, which will close this essay.
“There are uncountable numbers of beings that call this place home every day of the year, from the herd of Elk who make use of it as a corridor between the larger forest to the south and the agricultural land to the north, to the underground mycelium network that crosses survey lines to connect neighbouring quarters. I am a newcomer to the forest, existing as a temporary interloper in time. As such, my relationship to this land, the animals, and the other beings that call it home feels more like one of reciprocity and responsibility than of possession. This land existed long before I found it and will exist long after I am gone. Facilitating and maintaining a functioning ecosystem that will outlive my time here is more of a priority than the act of ownership. The animals are not mine to pen, and the land will provide what it can, not what I instruct it to. I make art on the land as an attempt to arouse the curiosity of the forest animals, to facilitate a cross-species connection and to learn from the animals that call this land home.”