Menangerie at ACCA – animals held captive by art

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is a rusty, angular chunk in Melbourne’s growing Arts Precinct. It protruds from hard granitic sand between The Malthouse Theatre and The Victorian College of the Arts. The building is apparently built defiantly not to relate to nature – no tree or garden is envisaged by the architects – apart from the very human height-sized graffiti scrawled all around the base of the velvety surface.

Portrait of ACCA from

Portrait of ACCA from

Yet the latest exhibition devised by ACCA’s Artistic Director, Juliana Engberg, is wonderfully about nature; humans as they relate to animals. It is called Menangerie and it is an ambitious exhibition of animals held captive by art. At first impression, the exhibition feels a little like visiting an eccentric, art-loving Great Aunt. 

Menangerie is a sprawling collection of many artists from many places. Much of the work is familiar, which I found disarming. I had seen Robert Gligorov’s  (and his Tumblr) mouth releasing birds and Ricky Swallow’s comforting bird in a shoe in previous Melbourne shows. There is also history (see Great Aunt) in the darkened Highland stags and dogs oils of Edwin Landseer and the various aged horse and hound hunting paintings from the likes of Howitt, Orme, Hall and Vernet.

There’s humour in the pithy quotes written on the walls and in the images like Elliot Erwitt’s dog leaping into the grey Parisisan sky and the sculptures such as a cat staring at a fallen chandelier in The day the sky fell down by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. There’s a covered bear and other melted ceramics by Paul Wood and endearing drawings of abandoned or lost animals by Anastasia Klose. The pieces are fun and engaging and reinforced my understanding of human superiority. There are some evocative fertility drawings by Patricia Piccinnini and some amusing horse impressions by Lucy Gunning.

I wandered around feeling safe for most of the time until I found myself looking at a video called Deeparture by Mircea Cantor. The name, Deeparture, is a pun, a play on words. The video is not play, at least I did not think so. A wolf, initally quite calm, and a deer, again, quite relaxed, are inside a white gallery cube. The creatures are not alone, of course, they are observed by the camera crew, presumably the artist. As the short piece continues, the audience sees that the creatures are in the same space at the same time and they are not happy about it. Both animals pant, perhaps from heat or lack of water, and perhaps because they are naturally not the best of companions.

The commentary in the catalogue suggests ‘we make attempts to relate to the animals both by drawing on our cultural knowledge of each and ascribing them with human characteristics.’ pg 42 Menangerie catalogue  2014 by Annika Kristensen.

As regular readers of this blog will understand, I am not a great believer in wide spread use of ‘anthropomorphism’, prefering instead the evidence of my own senses. I think most people have had enough contact with animals, their pets or creatures kept at school, to recognise basic animal mood signals. Why should a dog not have fear or a cat enjoy comfort? Why is it humans only who are allowed emotions? Clearly a dog wagging its tail is in a better frame of mind than one with its teeth bared, hackles risen and furious bark. If we dressed the dog in a suit and put a hat on the deer, that might be considered expecting the creatures to be acting as human. Yet, placing the two of them into an art gallery may be considered as anthropomorphism as we expect them to perform a piece of art for us much as any human performance artist must in the same surrounds.

Kristensen continues,

‘Unable to speak of their own accord, we instead seek to understand animals in anthropomorphic terms. Cantor’s use of close-up camera angles and his choice to present the film without sound heightens this inclination. The animals become a blank canvas upon which to project human emotions and our own psychological desires.’

But, Annika, these are living creatures. They are not empty blanks. They are not puppets. Both animals have observable reactions to being alive in this this space and this time and neither have any choice in the matter. They were transported to the gallery and filmed without their permission. There appears to be no reward of any kind – no steak for the wolf, no succulent fruit or grasses for the deer. They are prisoners for the sake of an artistic expression. I would guess they were filmed separately and that is what we see most of the time. Then they are introduced to each other and, as I said before, neither of the beasts look happy about it. Whether or no the viewer expects an attack, as AK surmises, this is not a suitable pairing for a caged show, a zoo exhibit or even a short video.

In an Initiartmagazine story about Cantor, the author writes and quotes Cantor himself,

‘ … inside a pristine white gallery space, what interests the artist is not scenes of bloodshed but a perpetual climax of “something-might-happen”, but then it would never happen.  “It’s the power of the humanity, the ability to control.  That’s why we are above other creatures, because we can control and sublimate the tension, turn it into something higher, let’s say love. But then the question is how.”  The encounter of the wild and the civilized reflects back on us as a conscious contained subject.’

Assuming the human control, the creatures are both fed and watered before transportation to the white cube. Their needs are sated and they wait for their release, not enjoying their situation but not desperate to escape. It is a fascinating video, unpleasant and shocking but completely compelling and provoking. Has the artist turned the tension into something else? Love? Perhaps not. Empathy? The need to write a piece for a blog and think about it? What have we learned? That humans are superior to animals because we can control them. Is that superiority or just bastardry?

Can we apply our human instincts and ascribe ideas into the head of the creator of this piece? I leave it to you!

Menagerie is a fantastic show missing only the bullfight, but then, one cannot have everything. Get along and see it if you can.

Please leave a comment - would you travel this way??