|Alexander's Infantry with Beast|
It is the all too familiar human elements present in Jane Alexander’s hybrid sculptures that unsettle viewers, rather than the animal ones. This surprising observation, which contradicts the long-held belief that it is the presence of the “animal” in the human that is the most disturbing to us, belongs to Tenley Bick, an American-based art historian.
He was referring to Alexander’s realistic rendering of the hands, feet and torsos of the disfigured casts of men in her famous Butcher Boys (1985-1986), which affirms that these subjects bear a close relationship to us. It is not just that they look real, but the scale is so lifelike too that when you share a physical space with them, they operate as a sort of mirror. For this reason he proposes that the “experience” of viewing the work is more powerful than the work itself.
For anyone who has stood in front of one of Alexander’s installations, it is likely this idea will resonate, though of course, this could be said of viewing any artwork in person. Nevertheless, whatever misgivings you may have about her work – the main one being that she has been replaying the same motifs for the past two decades or more – when you are standing alongside one of her hybrid human-animal creatures you are grounded by a pervasive sense of horror that invisibly binds you to them. Certainly, my lack of enthusiasm, or even critical distance, quickly gives way to other less tangible sensations when faced with Infantry with Beast (2008-2010), an installation at the Stevenson gallery, where two works from her retrospective survey that showed at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York are being exhibited. The installation features a grey army of naked soldiers with dog faces that are lined up on a red carpet as if at a military parade.
This sense of revulsion or unease isn’t just connected to the fact that these figures look like us; it is the inhuman behaviour they invoke that paradoxically makes them essentially human. It’s a seeming contradiction but it makes sense; what makes them more human is their very inhumanity, as Bick notes.
This sense of inhumanity is ironically articulated via the features of the sculptures that are non-human, the animal. In Butcher Boys it is the horns that protrude from the subject’s heads, their blunted noses, and in Infantry with Beast, the dog features that situates them as the titular “beasts”.
These animal characteristics have infused her idiosyncratic sculptures since 1985 and have mostly been attributed to her desire to articulate the country’s distorted social body or, more precisely, the state of inhumanity that prevailed at the hands of whites – Butcher Boy figures are undeniably white males – during apartheid’s darkest days.
For almost 20 years she has worked with the same vocabulary. This may be why there was very little interest around her show at Stevenson. Nevertheless, across town the Nirox Project Space at Arts on Main was filling up with a diverse array of therianthropes (humans turned animal) or a reversal of this process, a form of anthropomorphism, where the animal is made human such as the fluffy toy trapped inside a glass case in Wayne Barker’s Escape, or Rosemarie Marriott’s eerie Pappa, a large doll fashioned from gembsbok pelts.
They are part of a group show curated by Ann-Marie Tully and Niel Nieuwoudt that is wryly titled Zoo. It presents a diverse collection of work that teases out many of the different, complex strands attached to our relationship to animals and how we appropriate them as symbols in cultural expression as a means of exorcising, confronting, or even suppressing the truth about humanity.
This motif is ever-present in South African culture. It is a feature of our literature, notably the abandoned dogs waiting to be put down in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which operates as a metaphor for the status of whites in a post-apartheid scenario, to more current works such as Lauren Beukes Zoo City, which was the inspiration for Tully and Nieuwoudt’s Zoo. Our theatre-makers favour animals too – think of the stage adaptation of The Three Little Pigs by Tara Notcutt, James Cairns and Rob van Vuuren.
This phenomenon isn’t just limited to our country, but it has operated here in quite a particular way; animals are our national symbols (the first new banknotes post-1994 carried animal illustrations), which is why tourists bypass our urban reality in favour of capturing snapshots of the Big Five, and they carry baggage from our colonial past.
This latter aspect informed Ed Young’s Giraffe sculpture – a taxidermy giraffe with a long red scarf, that embodied the hunter’s trophy. It first went unnoticed at the Joburg Art Fair last year, before being relocated to Arts on Main, until it was removed – it existed at Zoo as an absent work evoked through a title inscribed on the floor. At its first location, it evoked the curio shop culture in the nearby mall, which Young exploited to comment on the culture of the art fair – the giraffe loomed as an oversized memento of a contemporary African fair.
For an older generation of artists wrestling with complicity with a corrupt political system, like Gavin Younge, who used goat vellum and cowhide in his work, Alexander and the likes of William Kentridge, whose play Ubu and the Truth Commission featured animal puppets, the animal motif has served as a means to confront our brutal history and upend colonial rhetoric by recasting the opressor/perpetrator as “animals”. At a base level the animal represents “the other”.
This quality might account for Die Antwoord’s interest in Alexander’s work; their visual and band persona is centred on a parody of the “othering” of the white subject, which is why they were attracted to Roger Ballen’s distinctive aesthetic in his dark fictional photography that is rooted in a study of deformed impoverished Afrikaners living on the fringes and has always featured animals. The animal inferences embedded in Alexander’s vocabulary achieve a similar end, by creating this distance between the human and not-human, while evoking the historical baggage that prevents whites from really claiming the position of the “other” – one they seemingly have no legitimate claim to. Die Antwoord’s desire to reference Alexander’s seminal piece, Butcher Boys, implied that it had new relevance in the post-apartheid era. But what does it signify now?