Are human beings morally authorized to do as they choose with animals — to consume them, rob them of their freedom and train them for the purposes of entertainment? Those are questions asked in an exhibition in Hamburg.
Upon entering a white sterile room, visitors encounter a monumental installation showing a video of a portly elephant. From off screen, a human voice suddenly exclaims: "Play dead!" The elephant then slowly lies down on the floor.
The scene comes from an art piece by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. In 2003, he arranged for a circus elephant named Minnie to be transported to Gagosian Gallery in New York City and then filmed her obeying a series of commands, which included repeatedly lying down and then awkwardly struggling to rise.
The life-size screening perfectly conveys the message of the recently opened exhibition "Animals. Respect/Harmony/Subjugation" in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. The 200 displayed art pieces from various eras and cultural environments aim to shed light on how artists deal with animals in their work.
An everlasting dichotomy
The contradiction in the exhibition's title is likewise evident in Gordon's work. "On the one hand, we admire animals, and on the other, we treat them as disposable or as toys," explains the exhibition's curator, Sabine Schulze. "Gordon's work shows how the majestic animal is repeatedly defeated by society, yet remains wild at its core and to which we have no access."
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This ambiguous relationship is not a new phenomenon, and Schulze points out that prehistoric cave paintings of animals were probably painted with their blood. Evidence of this is the exhibited eight-meter-long copy of artwork from caves in Mutoko, Zimbabwe depicting two elephants.
Another recurring symbol in the exhibition is fish, some of the oldest creatures inhabiting the Earth. They represent the originality and innocence of the beginning of time. Paul Klee's painting "The Goldfish" from 1925 depicts the fish as a luminous being in deep blue waters, a dramatic scene of colors that looks almost out of this world.
According to Schulze, the "out-of-our-realm" perception is also reflected in the current debate on how to treat animals. "We feel we have separated from them, and the call to grant animals more rights and individuality comes from the yearning for a harmonious co-existence."
A new relationship for humans and animals?
However, it seems to be more essential than ever to draw the line between humans and animals in our society. In antiquity, the boundaries were fluid — ancient mythology is full of half-man and half-beast creatures who were worshiped and feared just like gods.
The sphinx is a good example. With a human head, a lion's body and a pair of wings, the legend says that she would eat anyone who couldn't answer her question. It was only King Oedipus who realized that the puzzle was an allegory to the transience of the human life.
The question of where humanity begins and animal life ends is central to the exhibition and the contemporary debate in a time of mass consumption. We pamper and humanize animals when they are our pets and admire them in zoos. But we also consume cattle, chickens and pigs — usually, with little regret.
For example, an average German consumes about 60 kilograms of meat each year. "How can this relationship work?", the exhibition asks. It also aims to show that the relationship between animals and people must be renegotiated.
The exhibition "Animals. Respect/Harmony/Subjugation" runs through March 4, 2018, in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg.