Agnes Janich

Review 12

Animal abuse - for art's sake

Angelika Przybek

Sept 24th, 2012


Thanks to art, we discover beauty. We get shocked. It's an artists' tool to express their ideas and emotions - and impact society.


Sadly, art is often abused to create pseudo-art, where not only the content, but also the form is shocking. This applies particularly to situations where a live animal is used and at times killed in full view of the audience.


There are many instances of mistreating animals for the sake of culture. Most of them surfaced thanks to the media and certain enraged audience members. In other cases, animals' rights watchers intervened. Artists always used art as an excuse to explain their performances. Art is art, they said then they drowned hamsters, starved dogs and killed lobsters, starkly facing the audience.


It is difficult to define the borders of art. Attention-grabbing by means of cheap shock value is the easiest choice. If not for their controversial behavior, statements or works, many artists would remain unknown to the disinterested viewer.


Not everybody knows that art, or entertainment, if you will, using animals is our everyday piece of bread in luxury fur coats and trendy leather goods. In circuses which cruelly mistreat animals while showing them to us surrounded by glamour. Inhuman training methods and condemning animals to a sad existence are standard operating procedures there.


At home and in the gallery


When the Empathy Association began its 2003 campaign against the use of animals in entertainment, something budged. A public debate ensued. Public television stopped emitting live circus performances. Still, our home art still exists in the form of taxidermized heads of hunter's trophies and floors pleated with their skins.


Unfortunately, art happens often outside of our homes as well. And is beyond human understanding. It becomes more and more challenging to understand not just the artist, no matter how ambitious he may seem, but also his collectors.


Damien Hirst occupies a special place in British culture. He is one of the now-established artists that emerged in the '90s. He tends to his fame by various controversies and scandals.


For the love of God!


One of his best known works is Natural History, made of taxidermized animals (a cow, a sheep and a shark) in formaldehyde and behind glass. One of the pieces from the series, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a 4m long tiger shark, sold for $8mln in 2004. Upon seeing his works, his own mother is said to have exclaimed: For the love of God! What will you come up with next? For the Love of God became the title of the next work. One cannot help but be astounded by why would anyone want to own something like this.


In Wroclaw as well, an animal was the subject of a show, Happenings: to kill and to eat. The actor hung a living lobster on an angling rope, had him miked up so that the audience could hear its heartbeat, and killed it in full light of day. On the next day, he threw hamsters into an aquarium. To be sure, they weren't trained to swim. Luckily, his actions were put to an end by an Animal Rights Watch social servant. The author of this "piece of art" was the Spanish actor Garcia. His art was supposed to convince people to abstain from eating meat.


Katarzyna Kozyra showed Animal pyramid (taxidermized horse, dog, cat and rooster) with a similar aim. To add to it, she showed footage from a slaughterhouse from the killing of an animal. The work raised outrage. People couldn't get it out of their heads. One can not omit the Costarican artist, Guillermo Vargas, who showed an emaciated dog as his art piece. The idea was: "Here, everyone is outraged at the fact of a dagga dying from exhaustion though no one would notice it on the street." Photo documentation from the show caused an outpour of critical reactions, mainly in private blogs and forums.


At Zacheta, a different kind of art was being shown. Agnes Janich's 4-channel video installation, Man to Man, showed dogs from lovely puppies to abandoned street dogs. The work talked about animal experience in shelters and the individual suffering of every one of them.


Pilar Albarracin's famous She-wolf was also on show. The fur-clad artist locks herself up with a she-wolf, trying to share a meal. It was an attempt to get closer to nature since no one can be slaughtered for the sake of art.


For the sake of film


Sadly, the history of cinema is also laden with animal deaths. A cat died, eaten by rats in Man behind the Sun. A few sheep were burned alive for Flissacks and a horse cast in a ravine in Ashes". Similar incidents follow. Can art be just a simple observation of an animal's life, its functioning, its emotions? Animals are so precious that with them around, art creates itself. It need not consume their life. Human beings above their status of a privileged species and forget how dependent they are on the animal world. It is worth remembering Mahatma Gandhi's words: the greatness of a nation, as well as its moral stance, are all in how it deals with its animals.


© 2003 - 2018 Agnes Janich