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The issue of animal rights and its focus on the relationship between humans and the animal world is a prickly one and, more often than not, highly politicised. At first glance Barbara Dover’s ‘Animal Matters’ appears to take a less confrontational approach to this theme yet, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that she has an impassioned statement to make, be it personal and/or political. Her assertions, presented through a variety of art forms (printmaking, digital photography, assemblage and installation), may be executed with subtlety, disguised or couched in layered innuendo, but are nonetheless provocative and at times disturbing.
Dover’s use of materials (Perspex juxtaposed against feathers, egg shells, animal hair and fur), the aesthetic and the forms she employs (the repetitive use of Perspex tubes, cubes and cages to denote entrapment and rationalisation), the text invoked to describe the fate of the animals (packaged, mechanised, constrained, reconstituted), her images (haunting photographs of cows and horses), and titles (Breathless, Barrier, Anon), are all very deliberate and act directly upon our sense of right and wrong. No matter where we stand the bovine or equestrian gaze is upon us, uncanny and unrelenting. But, most of all, the work is discomfortingly anthropomorphic: the boundaries between animal and human are blurred and our universal sentience stirred as we look back into the eyes of our fellow creatures.
Using discarded organic animal matter such as cows’ tails, horses’ hair and chicken feathers, together with manufactured and inorganic Perspex, Dover tests the relationships between opposites as she explores the tensions within her theme. Animal remnants have been searched out and saved from the scrap heaps, transported to the suburbs, lovingly washed and cleansed, dried, colour-coded, combed and coiled, before being re-salvaged with great care and consideration into works of art that hang in a metropolitan gallery. Here the artworks do homage to the beauty of the animals they represent, as they are finally laid to rest in a manner seen by the artist as more worthy. Hence there is the acknowledgement and accompanying ritual of death suggested within many of these works. The process is ritualistic, sacrosanct and seemingly cathartic. What was obviously a very tactile experience for the artist becomes an aesthetic encounter for the viewer.
At the same time, however, and in keeping with the deliberate discrepancies within the artist’s theme and approach, there is an exacting relentlessness to these works that ironically acts to endorse the very themes the artist speaks against, namely rationalisation and commodification, their associated by-products, and the tricks employed to ensnare our sensitivities against the brutality involved in such activities. Animal hair is painstakingly and seductively packaged in tubes of Perspex resembling consumer products; thousands upon thousands of chicken feathers are entrapped within a number of identical, factory-like constructions that stand centre-stage, opulent yet regimental; whilst beautifully assembled Perspex cages line one wall, empty save for a few selected and suspended animal remnants: egg shells, vertebrae, feathers and hide. Throughout this viewing experience we are consistently faced with opposition whether it be between violation and pleasure, minimalism and excess, suffocation and sterility. The tensions are uneasy, at times ambiguous and jarring: the effects unsettling yet satisfying.
Issues such as animal rights are never determined and to seek a resolution in such an exhibition would be futile. However, Animal Matters grapples very directly with our senses, values and belief systems, and is a potent plea for the rights of animals. The artist is a self-confessed animal activist and this particular exhibition stands as a notable resolution between two formerly disparate parts of her life; an artist on the one hand and animal rights activist on the other. To say that this is not an exhibition of animal activism is therefore to miss the point. However, the two areas have been brought together with artistic integrity and skill, as well as a sense of compassion and reverence towards the theme. The exhibition is powerful statement of the Dover’s concerns towards the rights of animals (and the wrongs we inflict upon them) and a successful reflection of the strength of her own professional development as an artist. No more, and no less.