Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Animal Attraction

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?

Infantry with Beast presents a shift in her vocabulary in the sense that these hybrid figures don’t appear as brutally formed as those in Butcher Boys, but the political analogies remain present. The dog faces are quite cute; there are no scars on their bodies that may suggest the violent, physical imposition of the animal, rather these dog soldiers look fresh and innocent, though collectively they are haunting and do present a danger en masse. This is the army of a new era, where the animal presents a kind of naivety that gives rise to a mob mentality that is harnessed by a political authority. These are the foot soldiers who surrender their individual sense of morality to perform orders from above – in this way they can retain their “innocence”.

Representing military personalities as animals is a popular response. In Zoo, Isaac Zevale continues this tradition with General Cock and After the Fight, a striking black and white image that recalls a tradition in political posters presenting a man with a bull’s head holding an AK47. In Faun A, Bevan de Wet presents a soldier that is half horse. So established is this tradition that Phumulani Ntuli can forgo figuring the animal at all; in the Raid series he presents AK47s covered in coloured lace. In this context it is as if the gun operates as the trigger (pun intended) for the animal, non-human self to emerge.
Germain de Larch's Hipsters at Home

As this work and Alexander’s evince, the sense of otherness the animal motif might evoke doesn’t only refer to a physical otherness, but an idea of the ungovernable, a kind of behavioural excess that humans are capable of, but also one which we bracket as existing outside of our moral code, despite the fact that it ironically, or perhaps logically, is justified when embedded in political systems, such as apartheid.
This idea is given expression in much of Alexander’s works, such as the 2007 installation Security, which features a wingless bird or armless person that is imprisoned on a patch of lush lawn surrounded by a double-fenced metallic enclosed with razor wire. In between the two fences are thousands of machetes, sickles and red workers’ gloves. In this way, extreme, excessive violence is not only contained by these artificial boundaries, but also paradoxically permitted to exist.

Tully and Nieuwoudt exploit this notion of the ungovernable as one that gives rise to exclusion and inclusion in the context of space in the title of their show, but also in its framing within the Maboneng precinct, which is a small bubble of hipsterfied gentrification in the east of a dilapidated area of Joburg’s inner city. This gentrified area is perhaps the titular zoo; it is less chaotic and uneven than its surroundings and has been so carefully “curated” as to maintain a particular vibe. This area is hailed as a place of freedom, in the sense that suburbanites who visit, or live here, are willing to risk their perceived safety and cross boundaries, but limited to this small enclave defined by glass fronted buildings, they could be the caged animals you would spy on in a zoo.

This thematic strand offers a new purpose for the animal motif in the changing landscape of our country’s urban centres, but unfortunately it is only directly addressed through a number of works, including Germaine de Larch’s Domesticity series, which presents “hipsters” at home. In one image a couple stand behind a security gate. Domestic animals keep them company in these self-constructed cages, expressing this deep connection between humans and animals, which prevents humans from completely severing ties from the animal within or without.
Mntambo's Praca du Touros

This intertwining of the human and the animal is a predominant theme of Nandipha Mntambo’s art, which has largely been characterised by cowhides set in resin that are cast on the artist’s body or that of her mother. In this way the human and the animal become inseparable; the human an extension of the animal, though the hides are mostly fashioned into clothing, a second skin which is, ironically, one of the devices thought to set us apart from the animal world. These garments-cum-sculptures drive home the social codes inscribed on the body, which become so ingrained that they appear to be derived from nature.

In her video-works and photographic series derived from them, such as Ukungenisa (2009) and the Praça du Touros series (2008), which are on show at the Zeitz Mocaa Pavilion, Mntambo presents the uneasy relationship or confrontation between the animal and the human by staging a bull fight in a defunct stadium.
As with her cowhide sculptures, the animal and the human are not distinct from each other; she is dressed as a matador and wears a cowhide garment.
In these works and the videowork that followed Paso Doble (2011), the matador embodies the male character and the animal – articulated via the red dress of the dancer or the red flag in the ring – as the female. The battle between the animal and the human is between the sexes, though in Paso Doble, where a shifting chimera emerges in the shadow the dancers create on the floor, their interconnectedness is emphasized. It appears this struggle is one that takes place within.
“Performing as an animal has been an eye-opener. There are elements of myself that I don’t really understand, don’t necessarily like, don’t know who to handle,” said Mntambo in an interview in 2011.
As with Alexander’s work the animal motif operates as the means of confronting the otherness that exists within and as such animals function as a mirror on which we reflect on ourselves.

This accounts for the sense of horror Alexander’s work elicits and confirms Bick’s proposal that what frightens us about it is the recognition that we are being confronted with aspects of the human that we struggle to reconcile with, and not the animal.

This means, however, that the presence of the animal itself is denied, though it looms large. In other words, Mntambo is as interested in cows as Alexander is concerned with wild dogs.
This has been a source of frustration for Tully, setting her on a course to create works presenting animals in such a way that they can be read on their own terms, without any metaphors pertaining to human behaviour being imposed on it, or acting as a screen for us to project our worst characteristics that, incidentally, do not define animals at all.

Tully has tried all manner of approaches to sidestep this contradiction. In the Let Sleeping Dogs Lie series (2013) she presents figurative studies of animals in such a way that they become the central subject. However, they also are works that don’t look too different from those that employ the animal as a symbol.
“I haven’t found a way to do it yet,” she says, laughing. - published in The Sunday Independent, January 19, 2014.

Alexander’s exhibition is on at the Stevenson gallery in Joburg until February 7. Nandipha Mntambo, at the Zeitz Mocaa Pavilion in Cape Town, shows until February 16.

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