Agnes Janich

Review 7

I lick and I think

Dorota Lagodzka by CCA Zamek Ujazdowski


Upon entering Zacheta, I hear barking: barely discernible, yet evident, it echoes in the main hall. Right in front of the entrance door I bump into the a sculpture by Elzbieta Janczak-Walaszek A snowman talking to the dog. But this lifeless dog is just listening - to the snowman and the omnipresent barking. I leave my coat in the cloakroom and hear a crow's voice rambling in what might be English. I raise my head and register a crow-like human hovering on the branch above. It's Kristof Kintera's I see, I see, I see.


Before commencing my visit, I find out where the barking comes from - in an area by the main staircase, leading to a corridor, is Agnes Janich's 5 channel video installation Man To Man. A silently marveling German shephard, a joyful and keen to play puppy, a bitter, insecure old dog. One of the films, much different from the others, evokes anxiety and fear, especially in the context of the barking dogs around - shovels full of bones un-scraped yet of body parts. Amidst these corpses, dogs are wandering. This setting provokes the worst fantasies - those of pseudo-shelters, where dog fat is produced, and those of animal treatment in China, where dogs spend their days in tiny cages, waiting to be stripped naked when alive. However, the bone heaps bring to mind heaps of corpses dumped into mass graves. This connection isn't far removed from the artist's intent. Man To Man was inspired by the Auschwitz doghouse, a place where animals were treated better than people and, just like them, trained to perform inhuman tasks. Regardless of its historical references, the work shows the suffering of dogs in shelters. It draws attention to individual pain.


The show All Creatures Great and Small doesn't into 3 typical white cubes arranged on the gallery's ground floor. Many works may be encountered by chance or omitted, since all signs indicating the exhibition's spatial plan are missing. Many visitors must have missed a lot of works. Most of the works, however, are presented in the show's main room, with two tiny cubes in its corners. The visitor is forced to begin his visit in this very room before he can choose the direction - either to the spatious white room or a dark one. The main white is inundated with TV screens, still topped with large-screen projections. They show plenty interesting video works, such as A room between a cat and a dog by David Clearbout, Emma, Emma & Sutia Chlebnikowa by Gabrielle Stelbaum, Maxfilm by Yach Paszkiewicz, Arachne by Bogna Burska, Kitty by Fischli & Weiss. An amassment of works is one of the key features of this show, which, in the curator's intent, was supposed to mirror the dynamics of the animal world. In many instances this idea dynamizes the space and fosters dialogs between the works. Unfortunately, in the first room too many works disturbs the perception of any of them. One can't focus on one film squeezed between two others. Completely different works placed too close to one another create a new hybrid installation.


Bogna Burska's video Arachne features a tarantula traversing a female boudoir full of pink muslin, flower tapestries, strings of pearls, mirrors and flowers, subtly reminds the viewer of the haptic qualities of both her body and her surroundings. Unfortunately, the dynamic Maybe Tom invented Jerry? by Gabriela Vanga really defocuses the viewer from Burska's film. Among plenty works gathered next to one another, Dominik Lejman's art and therapeutic activities are curious. According to Marek Wasilewski, the artist treats formal qualities of a picture as tools of visual anesthesiology. He claims he uses it to comment on the omnipresent esthetics of the pretty picture and create something more than narcotic calm. Lejman was often commissioned to do art for hospitals. In one of New York hospitals his video installation hangs permanently. He worked also for hospitals in Cleveland, Warsaw and Bialystok. The project Tiny spectacles, shown in Zacheta, was realized as part of Art in the Hospitals of Europe through Culture 2000. Its aim was the presentation and interaction of art in pediatric hospitals. Since 2002,  it was realized in Brussels, Paris, Madrid and Warsaw. The artist shows pictures of animals, isolated and sick, to the little pensioners. As Marek Wasilewski writes, the history of the zoological garden follows the same path as that of the hospital and prison. All three are institutions which realize their goals through supervision, control and isolation. One can see Tiny spectacles as, first and foremost, art therapy through indirect contact with animals.


Next to Lejman's video works by Olaf Brzeski and Czekalska & Golec can be found. Their protagonist is the children's character, Snoopy. Olaf Brzeski transformed him into a monster of sorts. Old, wrinkled, with a deformed skin, this plastic Snoopy sits on a little old stool, showing his teeth in a grimace macabre. Right beside it hangs Tatiana Czekalska's and Leszek Golec's ReCollection - tiny baby t-shirts featuring religious scenes with Snoopies inserted in. Both works create anxiety through contrasts of form. However, they are also humorous thanks their inherent absurdity.


Behind them is a tiny cell where one has to stop smiling. It's because of the screening of Jean-Charles Hue's document The Pitbull Carnival on dog fights, a ritual banned in many countries yet performed in just as many. The Pitbull Carnival shows sibling fights which animals perform due to the degeneration of their psychics or physical intervention. This work relates to training dogs in the Auschwitz doghouse, the subject of Janich's work. It also refers to training people such as soldiers to kill creatures of the same species. This film is more about people than animals, for it shows the sick ill of a pair of Mexicans to the pitbulls. They train the dogs to torture and kill them, and mourn their death.


An identical cell opposite the main hall evokes a completely different ambiance. The calm, monotonous storyline of Javier Tellez's work The Lion from Caracas shows the procession of a taxidermized lion through the streets of a favela. The much expected conclusion of the film doesn't take place. The Lion from Caracas is surely one of the best works on show. This conclusion provokes an unmissable question - what if more works were given the privilage of Tellez's work, in a separate cell, without the distractions coming from other oeuvres? It's worth noting that the latest work by this artist, Letter on the Blind for Use of Those who See, which was presented last year in CCA Torun. It took part in the show Don't Look at the Sun, corresponding to All Creatures Great and Small. In this video, blind people approach an elephant on a big, empty town square, one by one. The work shows unique contact between a human and an animal. The Lion from Caracas is a completely different movie, but both talk about the clash between a difficult and grey everyday reality and an unusual experience. In both films the human fascination with the haptic qualities of an animal's body is key. The kids from the slums put their little hands into the lions mouth, tough his claws, his tongue and even his lifeless glass eye, while the blind and the elephant apprehend one another. The elephant allows the people to touch him, they in turn treat him with fascination and awe. He experiences their touch, they can feel his overwhelming bodyness.


Still under the impression of the majestic lion from Caracas I navigate towards the corridor, where a badger looking into a mirror by Wunderteam draws by attention. Despite its subject, the work is not free from an anthropocentric standpoint so typical for humans treating an other as an object. The animal here is taxidermized.  In this sense the work refers to what Maria Brewinska called shauvinism of species in her text accompanying the exhibition. What's interesting is that the curator hadn't decided to show more works of that kind, i.e.showing animals used as an object. The shows features not one work featuring an animal killed on demand of the artist, such as Katarzyna Kozyra's The Pyramid of Animals ( owned by Zacheta ) or a piece by Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan or less known, but just as cruel Tinkebell. Insted, the badger is paired with others works from the Afterlife series, such as a bald fawn, a hunter's salon and a customs officer showing us the leg of an elephant turned umbrella bin. Though the curator doesn't declare to be unshauvinistic, she relates her interest in animals to animal rights' issues. In her text she writes people tend to refer to common human values. However, more and more often they refer to a unity with animals too. This seems evident in contemporary art. Talking about animal rights, one can't omit vegetarianism and veganism. Despite them being perceived as ridiculous, the curator wasn't afraid to touch on them. At the opening, Czekalska & Golec did a performance consisting of the distribution of leaflets with a list of meat-inflicted diseases as named by the WHO. This type of activity from the border of art and activism is called artivism at times. The curator's perspective is both interesting and brave, since animals' rights movements are usually marginalized. Lately, though, they stopped being the domain of rebellious youth. Animals' issues belong to the non-anthropocentric discourse, becoming one of the most, if not the most important trends in thinking of modern culture, ethics, ecology and social issues.


Not always, however, using animals in art is about killing them. Many artists, being anthropocentric without knowing it, use animals for their goals. Such interesting examples are e.g. Joseph Beuys and Pilar Albarracin. In the Zacheta show, Beuys's famous 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me is paired with z performance of the Spaniard Pilar Albarracin, She-wolf from 2006. There the artist, dressed in wolf's skins, closes herself in an empty room with a she-wolf, trying to dine with her. She eats, mimicking the animal, tears red meat with her teeth, pours red wine for herself and her companion and rolls in red wine. The work is an attempt to come close to nature, man's longing for it, and an animal side of the human condition. Isn't it, though, contrary to harmonious coexistence with nature? No one asked the she-wolf wether she wanted to participate in the performance, and the coyote surely didn't understand the political nature of Beuys's work. These wild animals probably felt stranded in cold architectural surrounded, forced into interactions with people. Despite not being objectified here, they are still dependent on people's actions.


A completely different type of action is Eternity's Kisses by Carolee Schneemann. We can see her hugging and kissing a cat. The film takes are natural, resembling an intimate embrace of a pair of dear friends or lovers. The cat is humanly natural here, while Albarracin's playing she-wolf is nothing more than a spectacle. Maybe the nature/culture divide is really forced? Human beings are just mammals. Darwin proved that humans are just one of the creatures which came to being thanks to evolution of species. Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey proved apes to be both social and emotional. Joanna Erbel talks about the role of non-human actors, such as dogs and doves, in the structure of the city. Animals are indispensable players in human relations, with their own place in culture. The character of human-animal relations can say a lot about culture. As Mahatma Ghandi said The greatness of a nation and its ethical construct can easily be understood through its treatment of animals.


The perfect pair of Beuys's coyote and Albarracin's she-wolf is an entry point to an array of works. Right next to She-wolf is Albarracin's La Cabra ( A Goat ), in which Albarracin performes an orgiastic dance with a bag of meat resembling a dead animal. Slowly, slowly, vermillion paint appears, staining her clothes and body. Her movements are both forceful and erotic, as if she was intoxicated by this sensual experience. The scene is also an overwhelming spectacle to dynamic music. A perfect idea was placing it next to Schneemann's Eternity's Kisses and Vito Acconci's Sphere, also picturing a cat. Back to the pair of Albarracin's She-wolf and Beuys's coyote performance, we follow a long array of works related to Beuys. A perfomance poster of How to explain painting to a dead rabbit? and a series of Beuys's drawings featuring a rabbit. Next is Wlodzimierz Pawlak's How to explain Beuys's death to a rabbit?, hanging beside John Bock's Guest, where a rabbit is eating peculiar vegetable and kitchen utensil constructions. They resemble traps, which creates anxiety on the side of the viewer, worried about the animals' journey through a human dwelling, a foreign territory.


Many works in this shows present the multitude of relations between animals of different species. Plenty works, however, tackle the human-animal relation. According to Darwin's theory of evolution, as presented in The Origin of Species, and prof.Peter Singer's ethics, human beings are just and animal species, not some sort of super-animal. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the theory of evolution and the 200th anniversary of of Darwin's birthday. This might be the reason of a rise of interest in these topics. Maria Brewinska refers to both On Human and Animal Emotions and Freeing Animals by Singer. She writes the reason for this show was a need to transgress anthropocentrism, to oppose the perception of human beings as having the highest ontological status. However, the show concentrates on animal relations, with human-animal relations being subject of just a few the works. Plenty works  are just observations of animal behavior. In Fischli & Weiss's film, a cat is drinking milk. It shows a domesticated animal finding joy in the animal-human relation, the relation with an owner which surely gave him milk to drink. Douglas Gordon's video Fucking Frogs shows them in darkness, trembling and staring at one another, probably unaware of being watched. This work, just like The Polish Forest by Marek Wasilewski and The Cow by Dusan Skala, blurrs the border between art and docu-drama. In Jozef Robakowski's Thoughts Upon Licking, just like in Fischli & Weiss's film, we can see a cat busy doing something. Here, however, the artist doesn't just document the animal - he anthropomorfizes it. While the artist's cat, Rudzik, washes himself, we can hear a male voice I lick, I lick, I lick; while he pauses, we can hear I think, I think, I think. This work questions the long-standing truth that only human being think. The 1st person verbs show us the consciousness of a cat, aware of his actions at any given moment. If animals think, which all cat and dog owners can observe, why would they not think? Since humans are so slow in believing in their own commonness, Robakowski explains straight-forwardly I lick and I think.

© 2003 - 2018 Agnes Janich