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The poor animal looks distressed: an elephant in an inner-city zoo has one of its legs caught in a car tyre hanging from a tree, and shifts around awkwardly on three legs, pushing and pulling seemingly getting more and more stuck. It looks like the kind of dumb trouble that dumb animals get into, a spectacle of feckless suffering that draws our sentimental compassion, a feeling of mingled helplessness and complicity. In the gallery viewers quietly gasp in sympathy.
But look, on the next screen, another couple of dumb animals. They have huge crimson feathers sprouting from the tops of their heads, and they spend hour after hour standing in the hot sun in the middle of a busy square in the tourist section of Rome. Every now and then a group of tourists climbs up and poses next to them, for the brief moment required to point and click. Poor bastards, it sure looks hot in those centurion uniforms.
Irish artist Finola Jones's Artificially Reconstructed Habitats involves twenty-one video monitors and two video projections showing humans and animals engaged in various forms of constrained or repetitive action. The videos loop continuously, with blank screens of different colours punctuating each sequence like a painterly form of colour coding. Like the video loop, each individual vignette features static or circular behaviours: a middle-aged man wades obsessively around a tiny swimming pool; a giraffe distractedly munches from a trompe-l'oeil feeder disguised as African savannah; a toy mouse in a tutu turns pirouettes; a zebra blinks in the sun outside its concrete enclosure; a uniformed cop, white-gloved like Mickey Mouse, stands on a tiny striped roundabout directing traffic with gestures of faintly hysterical theatricality.
Presented differently, these vignettes might come across as variations on the existentialist theme of the wild animal pacing its cage. But look again: those centurions are not minimum-wage lackeys, but scammers fleecing tourists for a few thousand lire a shot. Watch: the elephant succeeds with difficulty in extracting its front leg from the tyre, and then goes and sticks his back leg in it. He's not writhing in distress, he's pleasuring himself.
Jones's witty and unexpected juxtapositions keep you on your toes, wary of too-easy conclusions. The twenty-one monitors, of various sizes and on plinths of different heights, are distributed through the space in such a way that you simultaneously survey several screens, a distracted mode of vision calculated to register rare moments of 'action' amidst the slow-release banality of the footage. At either end of the main space are two larger projections: one features a dog sleeping off a hot afternoon at a railway station entrance in Napoli, the shadows of passers-by the only signs of animation; the other features footage from below the waterline of ducks and penguins darting about their tank, the ducks in particular prone to outbursts of psychopathic aggression worthy of Daffy from the Warner Brothers cartoons.
Most of the footage was shot by Jones herself, in the zoos and on the streets of Berlin, New York, Dublin, London, Paris and Rome. But two segments are sourced from television, specifically the UK version of Big Brother. the man circling the pool is ex-army officer Sandy, a contestant whose obsessive adherence to his own personal routines disrupted the regime of the programme's directors; the other features night-vision footage of a sleeping man (Dan, from series five), a by-now familiar sight that combines the Warholian mix of banality and celebrity with the sinister green glow of military surveillance.
The use of this footage neatly adumbrates one of Jones's themes, a version of her compatriot Bishop Berkeley's philosophical dictum esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. As Maeve Connolly's brilliant essay in the Canberra Contemporary Art Space's handsomely-produced catalogue notes, reality television is a complex mixture of anthropology and social science, voyeurism and exhibitionism, documentary and theatre, unconscious manipulation and knowing complicity.
Jones's other piece of sourced footage adds a clever twist to the complex dynamics of spectatorship. An edited sequence from the 1952 technicolour extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth shows a circus audience's responses of dread and anticipation, relief and applause, but without showing the performance itself. We watch, as through a one-way window, the act of watching. With its combination of humour and pathos, self-conscious theatricality and unconscious automatism, Jones's absorbing installation suggests that we are all , humans and animals alike, creatures of habit, and it is our habits that allow us to adjust to whatever artificial habitat-city street, zoo or art gallery-in which we happen to find ourselves.