The Empty Wilderness: Seals and Animal Representation

Introduction: the eclipsed animal

In the discipline of Fine Art upon which this essay draws, landscape has traditionally been seen as an aesthetic subject in which, natural scenery is represented in order to reflect literally or metaphorically, a range of human needs. As a concept, nature is thought to encapsulate the elements of the natural world sometimes including non human-animals but excluding human-animals. Landscape on the other hand is something that is cultivated by man but occupied by all living beings including human and non-human animals. Simon Schama (1995) has proposed wilderness, which is often understood as an area of uncultivated land devoid of humans but occupied by other natural elements including some non-human animals, to be a construction of the human mind. In a post humanist discourse animals, being part of our environment, constructed and non-constructed, shape and occupy our physical and psychological landscapes. An understanding of this ‘functionality of landscape’ and its instrumentalization is key to the inclusion in this text of references to non-human animals and our historical and contemporary interaction with them. All are embodiments of the continuous and non-objectified landscape – that is, the landscape from which we have hitherto and traditionally detached ourselves in order to support and sustain a steadfastly anthropocentric view.

In certain locations on the coastline, boulders become seals, grunting and groaning before sliding into the sea. It is not only the shape of the seal that references its environment so closely, but also the colour of its skin. Historically, for seafaring nations, the seal provided a valuable subsistence for human beings. Tellingly, as with many human-animal relations, this relationship is made visible through traces of the actual animal’s ‘death’ which heralds the beginning of a ‘cultured’ relationship evidenced in its role as food, clothing or as some representation in anthropocentric form. ‘Death’ refers in this case both to an actual physical death and also the death that occurs through obfuscation, where the living animal is overlaid by whatever metaphorical or symbolic purpose is ascribed to it. When investigating human and animal relations, one of the most significant factors of the research on which this paper relies has been the revelation of the cultural obliteration and cancellation of the ‘death’ of the animal. Our observations have revealed how subsequent reconstructions become [mis]representative not only of entire species but implicitly of a notional, continuous and endless life. Akira Lippit (2000)has written an extensive account of how animal death is reflected within metaphysics, in the history of philosophy and literature. His exploration reveals not only how the animal disappears through representation, but also how humans as beings monopolize the act of dying. According to Lippit, animals don’t die they ‘disappear’ thus removing for us humans, the ethical problem of colonizing and consuming their bodies.

 In addition to the above, this paper draws on the results of extensive research, which underpins a cluster of art projects conducted by the authors (as the collaborative art practice of Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson) between 2002 and 2009. The main emphasis is on the work entitled between you and me (2009), the research focus of which is seal–human relations around the coasts of Iceland. In our practice we engage in long-term relational and socially engaged projects. By ‘relational’ we are referring not only to the form but also to the objective in the work: that of reaching across species with a view to encouraging in the audience a cognitive awareness of ‘parallel lives’ or what Donna Haraway refers to as ‘concatenated worlds’ (Gane, 2006, 145). We seek to approach and attempt temporarily to occupy or invoke the space of the ‘other’ – in this instance the animal or animals we are working with – in order in turn to enable what may be a revelatory view of our human selves as ‘other’. Using a variety of media, our work takes the form of installations through which the process of the work’s making is made visible. This is achieved by means of presenting objects and/or documents that in the context of an exhibition lead the audience to the experience of alternative perspectives, allowing a temporary disruption and shift in their thinking. In this and in other recent projects, one of the mechanisms enabling us as artists to address this issue has been to single out ‘individual’ animals as opposed to a notional, idealized animal and to make these individuals (and our cultural relationship with them and others like them), the specific subject of our scrutiny. In order to conduct our enquiry, we propose through our artwork to identify different spaces of encounter in which an animal ‘eradication’ can be seen to occur and either directly or by implication suggest, an alternative, non-eradicative approach.

 The context of the research                                                            

Amongst the numerous reasons for us choosing Iceland in order to explore human-seal relationships, the cyclical change in the commodity value of the seal was central. We talked to people who, within their lifetimes, have regarded and experienced the seal in many different guises: as a valuable catch for subsistence; as government-declared vermin; as a source of bounty because of its alleged role in the lifecycle of a worm that infects cod; and as an object of tourist attention and as a living being with intrinsic value. In contemporary Iceland there are still people who engage in the killing of seal pups for their meat and skin, although these are fewer now due to the failing commercial sealskin and seal meat markets. There are also people who would happily hunt seals only for the sake of a kill, or on the grounds that it has been designated a pest. This notion of the seal as pest was in fact, reinforced by government policy in the 1970s and 80s, when a bounty was put on its head (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2009). Although this law no longer stands, those engaged in salmon fishing still see the seal as a competitor and will thus expediently, endeavour to sustain the myth. In contrast, there are also those who want to protect the seal, as they detect through annual increases in tourism, its potential, in respect of livelihood and income from the animal’s visible role as a large, living, charismatic mammal within its own natural habitat.

During the period of our research we were particularly interested in those people who on a daily basis, are engaged in the life and death of seals – both in the stewardship and the killing of the animals. Consequently, we travelled to a number of locations and interviewed several individuals on camera. The farm Húsey in Northeast Iceland, one of the key places that we visited, is notable for its historical association with seals, which for a long time have been the main resource for subsistence of the people living there. Breeding in the estuary of a large river, the seal cows give birth to the pups on the sand flats where the river divides.When we first visited the place in 2007, numerous seal pups had just been killed inadvertently when large volumes of water were released from the dam at Kárahnjúkar, a new and environmentally controversial hydro-electric power project, thereby causing the river to flood. In the ensuing deluge the young pups were separated from their mothers and drowned. The water had been released without prior warning or consultation with those whose livelihood has for centuries depended on working and living with the natural resources in this area (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2009).

On our arrival at Húsey for the filming of the preparation for the 2008 seal hunt, we were introduced to Silli, a young seal pup that had been found abandoned on the seashore. The farmer, Örn Þorleifsson had been informed of its presence by tourists staying at the youth hostel at Húsey. He told us that abandoned pups in the wild are subject to a cruel fate; skuas and gulls will attack, typically unravelling and pecking their umbilical cord and plucking out their eyes. The care these pups need to survive without their mothers is substantial, as they must be fed every four hours with a specially made mixture to match the mother’s milk. The feeding was done either by Örn Þorleifsson or his wife. The procedure was that approximately 20 cm of soft plastic tube attached to a plastic bottle was pushed down Silli’s throat and the milk mixture pumped into his stomach. Afterwards he would be patted and cuddled to help him burp. During the day Silli would be around the place, often in close proximity to humans, but in the evening he would be lifted into the back of an old Land Rover where he had a bed made out of newspapers. At the time of our visit, Silli was approximately five weeks old and it was expected he would stay at the farm until 12–15 weeks old, or until mid-to-late August, when he would be taken to the seashore close to where he was found and allowed to go free. In the interim between our visit and him being released, there would still be a lot of care involved in looking after him. There is a transitional process necessary to take him from fluids to solid food (herring and/or capelin) and involving his learning to catch fish by himself. All these tasks were overseen by Örn Þorleifsson, who even puts on his waders to accompany the seal when he is first introduced to swimming in the local pond.

Silli happened to be male, and once free, should he survive the winter, would be likely to come back to this area year after year. Had the pup been female, she would return to give birth to pups that might well be caught in the nets laid by the farmer at Húsey the following year. This shift from caring to killing calls to mind a statement made by Donna Haraway. She proposes the concept of ‘killing well’, in an attempt to find a model of harmony, responsibility and coherence within omnivore culture and in human/non human animal relations:

“Human beings must learn to kill responsibly. And to be killed responsibly, yearning for the capacity to respond and to recognize response, always with reasons but knowing there will never be sufficient reason… I do not think we can nurture living until we get better at facing killing” (Haraway, 2008, 81).

Another pivotal interview was with Knútur Óskarsson at the farm Ósar, in Northwest Iceland. Óskarsson, the youngest in his family and the only family member (apart from his mother) to remain on the farm runs a small non-profitable business which includes farming a small number of cows and running a youth hostel situated in the old farmhouse. The tourist attraction for the youth hostel is mainly connected to wild life and an old seal colony, which is on sand flats in the estuary and partly belonging to Ósar. The work and words of this young farmer brought theory and practice together substantiating to some extent Haraway’s comments above. Amongst other things he told us:

I think there is a demand for really interesting places with nature. I think people are really actually quickly discovering something that is a unique – unique nature and in this consuming world we live in, what do people do? They come and consume nature. It is just if you buy yourself a trip to Iceland it is like consuming something…

I am farming this place and what happens is that from time to time we have sick animals that wash up and then again this is not my land on the other side. I own the land on this side but not on the other side but what happens is that baby seals sometimes wash up on my side and if they are sick or dying then I sometimes have to put them out of their misery or kill them if you can say so. If you have a sick animal dying you don’t let it die there because we have seagulls that come and pluck their eyes out while the seal is still alive so I go and put it out of its misery that is what I do but then again I have to be careful because not to go too close because if they want to protect themselves they are quick, much quicker than a human and quick to bite (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2009).

The interview provided us with the audio content for a video work, which is one component of the exhibition between you and me. A slow motion sequence filmed from land, showing a seal swimming up and down an estuary, is overlaid with the voice of Knútur. As she swims, the seal occasionally looks towards the camera, the focus of which oscillates between her head and a low boundary of wild heather bushes, privileging alternately the distinct territories of land and water.

The art and resonance

Over two years we observed and recorded a variety of ‘seal encounters’. For the most part these were more or less candid – some became documentary in nature, many were anecdotal, but a key component in the project became the organization and filming of the mounting of a seal’s skin by a Reykjavík taxidermist. The result, entitled the naming of things, was exhibited as a large-screen video projection as part of the exhibition and installation between you and me (2009). Our intention for this work was to place the proposed audience as much as possible in the space in which the real seal’s skin is being collapsed into a representation of ‘complete sealness’. The idea behind the making of the work was to extend the period of this transformation and have the audience linger amongst the remains and the ‘act of reconstruction’ – between the ruins of the real and the empty promise of the surrogate.

The process began with us having to locate a dead seal. Because we do not sanction the killing of animals for our art, this was not easy. Initially we had contacted a farmer in the North-West of Iceland where much of the research was conducted, whom we’d heard had three dead seals awaiting taxidermy in his freezer. A seal colony is located on his land and his plan is to create a small tourist information centre with stuffed seal specimens as an attraction, supplementary to the possibility of observing live seals there in their natural environment. In the end, with the schedules of the farmer and the taxidermist being at odds, it proved too difficult for us to co-ordinate our trip to the north of Iceland for the purpose of filming. So after various attempts to locate a dead seal in three different countries, namely Sweden, Britain and Iceland, a call finally came from Húsey, notifying us of a seal that had drowned in the farm’s fishing nets.

Örn Þorleifsson, the farmer in Húsey, agreed to freeze the seal for us and keep it until a taxidermist was identified who could do the job. When we did find someone willing to work with us, the frozen seal was sent as frozen meat cargo to Reykjavík. We then travelled to Reykjavík to receive the seal and to bring it to the taxidermist. The first process of the job was to defrost the seal and a couple of days later it was skinned – something we were present for, but chose not to film. We did however take some photographs for the purposes of documentation. The decision not to film the process of skinning was made on the basis that we did not want to sensationalize the dead body through visceral depictions of meat and blood. What we wished to instigate was a challenge to representation itself, by rooting its construction within the familiar and by reapplying methodologies that were, in accordance with contemporary taste – on the face of it at least, ‘palatable’ and non-confrontational. In order to begin to unravel the phenomenon with which most urban dwellers in Western culture are familiar – the sanitized, clinical, human death, a death normally neither seen nor imagined – we focused on the process of transformation where a sanitized, dead body is moulded into a representation of itself. The process of stuffing the seal took just over three hours, although a polystyrene mould had been prepared prior to this. This form was a very basic shape, using measurements taken from the dead seal body. The skin, having already been treated, was wrapped and then stitched up around the polystyrene ‘body’. The claws on the flippers remained when the skin was removed, but metal wire rods were pushed into the front and back flippers to enable positional adjustments of these to be made. Clay was put into the flippers and face for further shaping. Glass eyes were inserted, but the whiskers and nose were those of the seal. Before the seal was skinned we’d produced a rough indication of what kind of posture we required. We had studied the footage of seals taken during our research and we wanted our seal to be on its stomach and slightly to one side looking both confident and alert. For the filming we had two cameras and studio lighting, which brought stark lucidity to the setting of the taxidermist’s workshop. In accordance with our approach generally, we did not otherwise attempt to change or manipulate the environment. The filming was in close up, focusing tightly on the ‘animal’ and the hands of the taxidermist.

In the editing suite it became evident that the complete film itself, despite the tight framing, was too close to being simply an exhaustive documentation of the activity of taxidermy. So we decided instead to focus on selected sequences in which the meeting between the human skin (the hands of the taxidermist) and the animal skin was fore-grounded and where any sense of a beginning and an ending was suppressed. When slowing this footage down, the emphasis in the work changed, from showing the purposeful, methodical act of a craftsman, to a kind of protracted dance or a ‘wrestling’ between the two. What the work begins to suggest is an ‘animation’ in the direct sense of ‘instilling life’, although significantly in the film this remains strategically and problematically an unfulfilled ambition. Through the process of slowing the film, the sound was drawn out and lowered in pitch, an effect which further enhanced this sense of struggle. In this contest between human and animal skin, the dead seal is made subject to an expression of power and control and becomes subordinate to the act of its own re-creation.

An associative way of thinking about a lens-based document that tracks the transformation from the ‘real’ to the ‘unreal’ is to consider the linear process of ‘death’ and subsequent resurrection, which is central to the Christian narrative. Amongst the different orders of Christianity, perspectives differ regarding the body and its representation in relation to the sacrifice and resurrection, with Catholics for example, believing the wine and the bread to ‘be’ the blood and the body of Christ where Lutherans/Protestants consider it only to be ‘symbolic’ of the same. However, according to historical, sacred depictions, the ‘dead body’ has a quality of agency that through a form of transcendence in which light often plays a crucial role, allows for its occasional re-emergence as an image. This effect is encountered most remarkably in the shroud of Turin, a Christian ‘relic’, the authenticity of which has been exhaustively contested but which from any perspective (whether it be of miraculous transmission or photographic prototype) constitutes a phenomenon of image-transferral (Pickenett, 2006).

This association is compounded when considering the materiality of the tools applied in the process of making the naming of things,i.e. light, glass, body. And although a photograph is arguably an object in itself, in the process of its making through light, a presence is recorded, the nature of which still considered by most official institutions to be a reliable, authentic representation, for example in passport photographs, driving licences, police records and CCTV, Judith Halberstam has pointed out that in the contemporary films Over the Hedge, Finding Nemo and Bee Story, the human and non-human characters are featured as “animated and unanimated rather than real and constructed or subjects and objects” (Halberstam, 2007) and by switching the ‘norm’ around so that humans are read as ‘constructed’ and the animals read as ‘real’, our relationship to animals is reworked. So by seeing ourselves as being ‘human’ in a way that is truly novel to us, new possibilities of reappraisal and change in our relations with others are elicited.

In an earlier art project, again involving taxidermy, (nanoq: flat out and bluesome, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2006), which used stuffed polar bears to explore issues of animal representation, we came to realize that the more obvious imperfections in some of the ‘older’ polar bear specimens revealed something uniquely aberrant and yet oddly eloquent, a subtext to the main theme of species-representation and perhaps most acutely, the possibility for the beholder of imagining a life-having-been-lived. In contrast, the newer and more ‘perfectly’ reproduced taxidermy specimens seem to be poorer in this subtle but telling respect. The artist Peter Friedl (2007) orchestrated this phenomenon to a striking effect in his appropriation and exhibition of a stuffed giraffe exhibited in Documenta 2007.

“…Until 2002, Brownie was a favorite among visitors to Kalkilya zoo in the West Bank. She died when the small town became the center of a military offensive and Israeli troops attacked a Hamas camp. Brownie panicked, ran into an iron rod, then fell to the floor and died of heart failure…” (DW-WORLD.DE, 2007)

After the accident, her body was stuffed by a local veterinarian, with no training in taxidermy. The result gives her the appearance of an enormous and much abused soft toy rather than that of a giraffe. At the same time, by a strange inversion triggered perhaps by a manifest indignity we are made more aware of the individual animal that has lived and died than of some other function that taxidermised animals are normally supposed to perform. Such observations led us to take seriously problems inherent in the act of representation itself, those qualities that representation must disallow and the lies therefore that representation must tell – the more polished and ‘believable’ the representation, the better and more deceptive, the lie…

Empathy and notions of weakness

It is all too tempting to find prime causality for our conscious separation from nature in the thinking of the Enlightenment. Whilst Christianity must also accept its role in the laying of foundations and subsequent cementing of a relationship summed up in terms of human dominion over animals, the practices of scientists from the mid 17th Century onwards illustrate starkly and disturbingly how such dominion came to be exercised in the spirit of this thinking.

In the 17th century, the scientist Robert Boyle carried out an experiment on a skylark using a vacuum chamber or air pump, a glass chamber from which air was removed through a brass tube using a valve to control the flow (Boyle, 1660). The idea was to observe and interpret the movements of the creature in its final struggle for breath before the collapse of its lungs. These experiments by Boyle and his contemporaries and successors in the field of natural science were deemed necessary to prove the crucial importance of breath to life. In the experiment mentioned above, Boyle described in detail the last moments of the bird’s life, how ‘she began manifestly to droop and appear sick, and very soon after was taken with [ ] violent and irregular convulsions… the bird threw her self over and over two or three times, and died with her breast upward, her head downwards, and her neck awry (Donald, 2007, 6).’

The human detachment implicit in the execution of such experiments is clear. In the science of the Enlightenment we even expect it, but in another of our interviews we have detected parallels of detachment and dispassionate clarity within a more contemporary, rural account. In this interview, the farmer and seal hunter Jóhannes Gíslason from Skáleyjar, one of many islands in the bay of Breiðafjörður in West Iceland, describes the hunting of seals in the 1950s and 60s. In his contemplation of animal death, presented as a component of the work between you and me,he proposes quite seriously that a seal ‘doesn’t mind drowning’. He says:

Nets were used to catch the seal pups and it was considered good if you caught a pup alive; it was then cut and made to bleed. Most was already bloody meat as most of the pups drown in the nets; this is considered terrible by environmentalists as people don’t like the idea of drowning but the seal doesn’t mind drowning. If you shoot a seal the seal colony will flee, but no seal cow will run away when her own seal pup is drowned, even by her side. It doesn’t upset nature to catch seal pups in nets, as is the custom. It’s just humans that think they deserve better than to be drowned but the seal is not afraid, he lives and dies in the sea; for him this is a natural way of dying (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2009).

One hundred years after Boyle’s air pump experiments, the English landscape and portrait painter Joseph Wright painted Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), an image documenting different registers of empathy and detachment in the depiction of the faces of those present during the death of what has been identified as a cockatoo. Diana Donald (2007) draws attention to the respective hierarchical status of animals when she proposes that by choosing to depict as the subject of this experiment an animal identified as a pet rather than for example, “a sparrow or a rat” an attempt was made to highlight moral dilemmas by simultaneously framing a milestone in the process of scientific experimentation and a milestone in consciousness awareness of human nature – that is of sympathy and/or empathy (Donald, 2007, 6). James Ferguson FRS, a Scottish astronomer who is thought to have been an associate of Wright, recorded that for the purposes of many such demonstrations, an animal substitute in the form of a “lungs-glass” with a small air-filled bladder came to be used, because otherwise the experiment was “…too shocking to every spectator who has the least degree of humanity”(Rupke, 1987, 30).

The seal and its ways have long exercised the human imagination. The history of human relationships with the species is documented in folklore and songs, often recounting a mythic transformation [by the shedding of skin] from non-human animal to human. It is a conceit that uses the relationship between land and sea creatures as a means of reconciling these two worlds. Hayden Lorimer (2008) draws attention to certain ethologists (Lorenz, Fraser Darling, Lockley) who considered human empathy with large mammals to be rooted in facial expressions and the ability to identify with these and use them to interpret changing moods in the respective animals. For Lorenz, seals were especially significant in this regard for their facial expression and ability to ‘shed tears’, whilst others considered the darkness in the large circular eyes of seals as suggestive of emotional depth and that it was this that fostered human affinity. The role of eyes and mouth, have long been recognized as important factors in representations of the memory of human faces.

In our interview with Jóhannes Gíslason (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2009), we were keen to find out how a hunter of seal pups regarded these facial affinities. Although he was aware of the ‘cuteness’ of the prey, it seemed not to interfere with his desire to capture and kill it. We had already observed how the farmer at Húsey was able to nurture and care for the same ‘wild’ animal species that he later killed and ate. Gíslason was brought up with seal being the staple in a subsistence diet and local farm families depended on it. From an early age he had been given seal flippers and faces to chew on. Indeed it was the favourite food of children on these islands. The flippers and the face were first singed, the face cut in half lengthwise, then the parts were boiled and stored in whey, resulting in the bones and cartilage becoming soft and easy to bite into.

The face has been given much significance in animal discourse. It is after all the face and the name assigned to an individual that affords him/her/it an identity and in relation to animals, it is mostly those pets and/or animals that have become assimilated within popular culture that are assigned the status of an individual through the process of naming. Traditionally, farm animals in Iceland are also given names though it must be said this form of individuation is not solely dependent on face recognition. In 2001, the organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) published an image on one of their posters with the heading “Did your food have a face?” The image, not of a face but of the carcass of a face, symbolizes the ‘missing’ face of the animal in the meat industry. Although the campaign is several years old and promotes vegetarianism, it still strikes a chord today. The artist Damien Hirst’s work, A Thousand Years (1990), involves a cow head carcass similar to the one depicted in the PETA campaign. A rotting cow’s head is placed on the floor in one side of a partitioned glass vitrine, the other side containing live maggots. The flies hatch and fly through a small hole in the partition to feed on the carcass. The section that has the carcass head also has an ultraviolet device that kills many of the flies. The work draws attention to the cycle of life and death, simplifying the many indeterminable factors involved in this equation. This work could be said to animalize human attitudes to life and death, whereas the image on the PETA poster attempts to humanize the animal as a call for the humane treatment of animals. Una Chaudhuri (2007) argues that Damien Hirst’s work belongs to a posthumanist programme of re-substantialization, or what the philosopher John Gray calls “removing the mask from our animal faces”(Chaudhuri, 2007, 15).

In popular culture, celebrity chefs have been busy putting the face back on the animal in an attempt to reconnect us with the simple idea that the neatly packaged, disembodied meat on the shelves of the supermarkets is in fact from a living being with the right to a decent life before ending up on our plates. The philosopher Levinas (1906-1995) declared that non-human animals were faceless and could therefore not demand or expect an ethical response (Wolfe, 2003). Although this may seem to be borne out in the example of the seal face-as-food above, one wonders if Levinas’ position is perhaps only relevant when viewed in the context of specific cultures or circumstances and that such a position requires a kind of emotional and rational blinding in order to be genuinely sustainable. Levinas’ study on the ethical face of the animal was based on the dog Bobby, whom he and his fellow prisoners befriended in a German concentration camp. In respect of the Holocaust in particular, it should be noted that the question is often asked as to whether the ethics of animal rights can be taken seriously at all in the context of extreme human rights abuses of this nature. The eating of animal faces as food is only acceptable by most meat eaters in the West, as a part of other cultures or traditions. Christianity defines humanity by acknowledging the unique presence of a soul. In the writings of Descartes and central to ideas of the Enlightenment, the difference between men and animals was considered to be absolute – where animals were likened to machines and a boundary was drawn signifying the soul’s perceived respective presence and absence (Lippit, 2000). With advances in the sciences (in addition to philosophy and animal studies), this boundary is contested. It had hinged on what was known about biological and behavioural characteristics, including intentionality and language. It was Darwin, however, who developed these Western criteria, when the difference in evolutionary progress became the taxonomic tool for measuring and placing species on a hierarchical scale (Darwin, 1859). Different human ‘races’ were similarly placed on the scale creating a human taxonomy, where people of exotic appearance from distant (non-Western) lands were often placed at the bottom of this hierarchy and thereby along with the animals, denied possession of a soul (Elder, Wolch, & Emel, 1998).

Whilst visiting natural history collections around the UK, Europe and the USA, we have noticed that they are peppered with individual animal specimens with a ‘popular history’ – that is, animals that have been local or national favourites in zoo collections for many years, prior to dying and being stuffed and deposited in their local museum. Chi Chi the panda from London Zoo, Guy the gorilla, Jumbo the elephant, and many more – all public and media favourites in their time – occupy a strange but distinctive niche which contradicts the ‘animal-as-representative-of-species’ model, paradoxically and somewhat uncomfortably allowing the animal to retain the celebrity status befitting the former star of an emporium of popular culture, specifically the zoo. Here, where the normal course of events gives an ex-zoo animal a new and more serious currency as it passes into ‘the museum’, these individuals undergo a transformation. Coloured and even tainted by their unwitting colonisation of the affections and imagination of countless human admirers, they are destined to remain forever in a kind of limbo –neither assuming the ‘serious’, representative role of a natural history exhibit, nor sustaining their capacity to delight or command affection. Because we have registered the individual in these cases, the indignity of their having been stuffed and put on public display is made palpable.

Certain species have been historically singled out as lending themselves to anthropomorphism. Daston and Mitman(2005)refer to Stephen Gould – an evolutionary biologist who suggests that phylogeny and domestication are important components in addition to neotenic features in determining which non-human animals appeal to human animals. This anthropomorphic exercise has a dual edge to it. On the one hand it allows humans to demonstrate kindness towards the animal but, on the other, it also shows practical disregard in that, through anthropomorphic projection, the needs of the animal in question become secondary to our knowledge of humans, thereby undoubtedly distorting what we consider these needs to be. Despite our desire for closeness to seals and other sea mammals, the very nature of their water habitat limits not only our understanding but also our opportunities for observation and our attempts at fostering intimacy. In Icelandic culture (and others like it), the sea was, and to some extent still is seen as a source for food and nourishment upon which communities have depended through the ages for their survival. Furthermore, the ocean is considered by many to embody a history of the successful dominion of man over this natural resource, albeit an environment that continues to command respect in acknowledgment of its unpredictability and danger. Contemporary ecological concerns and the disappearance of certain species from territorial waters have enforced a re-thinking of established values, highlighting more intrinsic evaluations of nature.

A proposed meeting of human and animal

Three Attempts,(Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, 2009) isaperformative video work that was initially made for an exhibition in the Seal Centre in Iceland in June 2007 but subsequently reworked as a crucial component of the installation between you and me. Having been made aware of the curiosity of seals and their apparent preference for bright colors, the artist (Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir) is seen kneeling down at the seashore overlooking an estuary with her back to the camera. Our preliminary research had revealed that it was common for hunters to imitate seal sounds when trying to entice the seal pups away from the cow, suggesting that seals were sensitive to certain types of sound or sound frequencies at least. In the initial video performance, a variety of vocal sounds was used, from singing to the imitation of mobile phone ringtones. Initial attempts prompted little in the way of ‘reciprocation’ on the part of the seals and nothing very much altered at all in their behaviour. The technical reasons why the work came to be remade are not in themselves important for this text, but rather the fact that they necessitated another visit, which resulted in giving us more than the remake we planned, to the extent that it became a completely new work. We are very much aware of the difficulties in attempting to remake works and it is something we generally try to avoid. Nevertheless the location was the same, as was the time of year – the same clothing was worn and we even began at the same time of day. Even the weather was similar. The only thing that seemed beyond our control that day was the behaviour of the non-human animals in the water – and sure enough, their response confounded our expectations. From the moment we arrived on the shore to set up the equipment, the seals made an appearance, popping up from the water, looking, playing, diving and reappearing. The ‘control’ had shifted from us to them – it was their game now.

 Our initial reaction was a sense of despair but slowly and convincingly it dawned on us that the only appropriate response was to be ‘with’ the seals in this moment. The performer soon relaxed into the role of the one being looked at, whilst visualizing the image being recorded in the rolling video camera behind – the back of a seated human being on black sand at the shore, the rippling, bright water revealing numerous dark heads popping in and out of view, against a backdrop of distant snow-topped mountains. The process of making this work is described here in order to draw attention to the requisite states of vulnerability and surrender necessary for its execution. This vulnerability is manifest in an image taken in a natural environment, of a lone figure with his/her back to ‘the watching world’. A sense of apprehension experienced by the artist is conveyed in the tentative approach of her performance. The unpredictable behaviour of the participant animals required an acceptance of the relinquishment of human control in this instance, and indeed its desirability.

Three Attempts is the embodiment of a number of principles underpinning our work and its functionality. From one perspective the work seems a novelty – its charm we’ve observed to be infectious and disarming. From another it touches on the absurd – it echoes with pathos and even melancholy. It’s difficult to see the work without acknowledging a degree of sentimentality but in common with absurdity and vulnerability our rejection of sentiment is a cultured, negative response based on the desirability of strength through the application of intellect. At this juncture, we ask what if intellect alone is not enough for us to understand our new and challenged position in the world? Indeed, what if the rationality of our approach obscures or limits the possibilities of wider understanding? All the readings mentioned above are indeed embedded in the work and yet just as crucially, they serve to cohere, fuel and extend another more fundamental reading – that ‘landscape’, if it is to mean anything in the future, must cease to be an objectifying term, which denotes something to be looked at or used whilst simultaneously functioning as a register of our detachment from it. Just as we increasingly understand that other animals are specifically such in relation to the constitution of their dwelling, so we must recognize our own interdependence with habitat and the danger that by sustaining our unfettered and exploitative use of ‘resources’, including land and ‘animal others’, we resolutely keep our backs turned against the illuminating and rewarding conversation we might otherwise have.

What is clear is that the cultural deployment of animal representations in general seeks or manages to frame and delimit our understanding of the animal whereas art of the kind proposed in the above examples may test these preconceptions and force them open for reappraisal. Because most representations are constructed to perform some agenda of our own – in the case of animals, to entertain; to inform; to provide food; to remember; to stand for all others of its species; to symbolize human behavioural characteristics, etc. – in this process, the animal itself is occluded. It is eclipsed by its avatar or likeness, which is always a simplification and therefore must accordingly signify a loss. The work the naming of things scrutinizes and we believe reveals the flawed nature of the presumption and pitfalls in our attempts to close up and enforce a reductive approach in our world-view. In juxtaposition to the other works (the interviews, Three Attempts etc) in the exhibition between you and me,it allows us the space to think through and thus challenge what we have come to believe it is to be ‘animal’, what it is to be ‘human’, and what indeed is ‘landscape’, and to consider the consequences of the abbreviated forms with which we populate our intellect and our experience. Since it is upon these accepted but polarising constructions that we human animals base our behaviour towards other species and to our environment, at this time it seems appropriate to dig deep and deploy necessarily unconventional methods in order to reappraise their contemporary validity.


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