Curated by Michele Helmrich
The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
12 May - 22 July 2012

Patricia Piccinini’s hyper-real sculptural depiction of a man cradling a near-extinct blobfish typifies the contentious relationship between animal and human that this recent ANIMAL/HUMAN exhibition explored. The incongruous nature of Piccinini’s Eulogy (2011) is made manifest in the nurturing disposition of the kneeling man and the awareness that human intervention is responsible for the endangered status of the creature he holds so tenderly. Curated by Michele Helmrich at the University of Queensland Art Museum, Piccinini’s sculpture was exhibited in ANIMAL/HUMAN alongside a diverse selection of contemporary artworks. This exhibit emphasises the complexities that exist within the environmental, psychological, ethical, philosophical, scientific and cultural considerations of the animal human relationship. And, as animals appear increasingly regularly within artworks of contemporary artists, the curatorial premise of this exhibition is of remarkable relevance to current art practice. The frequent depiction of the animal by many artists is undermining the construction of the animal as ‘other’ and destabilising the binary relationship between human and nonhuman. Subsequently, this exhibition weakens the animal human divide, encouraging viewers to question the subordination of animal species.

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green’s artwork Ark (2009) is indicative of the exhibition’s concern with hierarchal re-evaluation. This sizable oil on linen, positioned within the first section of the gallery, features a re-modified depiction of the ‘Darwinian Tree’ that is exhibited in the Natural History Museum of Chennai in India. While the original image includes a human being at the pinnacle of evolutionary order, Brown and Green re-configure the phylogenetic tree to represent an equalised gene map. The human being, which is absent from the duo’s diagram, is featured within the work’s background scenes, wherein the only animals in view are humans. The certainty that humans are animals is embedded in many of the works exhibited, and subverts the inferiority of the animal in relation to the human.

Upon initial viewing of ANIMAL/HUMAN, the works on display seemed overly diverse. This did prompt a consideration that perhaps the net had been cast too wide, with a curatorial premise too broad. However, on further viewing, it became apparent that the multiplicity of works was intended to be contextualised in terms of the exhibition’s inherent contemporary nature. As the essence of contemporary art is pluralistic, the inclusion of diverse artworks, which feature varied media and conceptual subtexts, was fitting. Also, when more closely considering each artwork in relation to those that surrounded it, further connections emerged which generated a flow-on effect that guided the viewer through the gallery space.

Within the first section of the gallery the audience was presented with artworks by Adam Cullen, Sam Leach and Lisa Adams. Their works, which were positioned alongside one another, depict animals in terms of self-reference. Cullen’s Brumby (2010) is perceived as a self-portrait of the artist, capturing his Irish heritage with the ‘fighting spirit’ of the wild horse; Leach’s Self as Zip (2009) depicts the artist as the circus freak-show performer Zip, also known as ‘monkey man’; and Adams’s Sparrow (2009), Side-saddle (2004) and On the Scent (2011) reference the enormity of the roles that animals are expected to fill, as an analogy for the role of the painter that the artist expects herself to fill.

The sense of correlation between artworks displayed in close proximity to each other continued throughout the second section of the gallery. Immediate aesthetic connections became apparent in the works of Alick Tipoti, Dennis Nona and Gilbert Jack. Each of these artists’ works is indicative of totemic stylisations. Tipoti’s Malu Lag A Daparau Zugubal (2006) is an intricate linocut print which conveys the traditional Torres Strait Islander story of the three Zugubal spirit beings that inhabit the land, sea and sky as the dog, crocodile and eagle. Featuring similar print aesthetics and black and white colouration, Jack’s Dollar Learns Electric (2011) depicts the dog, ‘Dollar’, visiting the fridge as opposed to hunting for food. Dollar’s hesitation to indulge in the food before him is representative of Indigenous Australian’s conflicting affiliation with traditional and contemporary lifestyles. Positioned between Tipoti’s and Jack’s works was Nona’s etching Arika II (Coming of the rain) (2011). This vibrant blue portrayal of a dog lying on its back, as an indicator of coming rain, was the ideal artwork to act as a counterpoint to the aesthetic similarities of Tipoti’s and Jack’s pieces and unite the three works’ totemic overtones.

When one walked through the gallery space, resonating sound became increasingly more audible. The source of this was the video installation, The Way You Move Me (2011) by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth. Projected onto two large screens at right angles to each other, this work was shown in a black space at the far side of the third section of the gallery. The two-channel video installation examines inter-species relationships, especially those between livestock, working dogs and farmers. The genuine rapport between species that develops before the viewer’s eyes is tainted with the poignancy of reality; these livestock are being bred for slaughter. The close-up camera angles and two-channel viewing, constructs an immersive experience which complemented the exhibition’s ambience. The reverberating sounds of birds singing, crickets chirping, sheep bleating and dogs barking echoed throughout the other sections of the gallery, reminding viewers that these portrayals of our animal counterparts are representative of living, breathing creatures. This additional element of realism enhanced the experiential atmosphere of the exhibition and complemented the curatorial premise.

By including a diversity of artworks of a consistently high standard, curator Michele Helmrich ensured that the temperamental relationship between animals and humans was thoroughly explored in this exhibition. ANIMAL/HUMAN provoked a meaningful contemplation of the animal human relationship by urging viewers to consider animals as our counterparts rather than being incongruous with the human condition. 

Patricia Piccinini, Eulogy, 2011. Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, clothing, 110.0 x 65.0 x 60.0cm. Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne. 

Gilbert Jack, Dollar learns electric, 2011. Linocut on BFK Rives paper, edition 7/80, 43 x 36.5cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2011. Courtesy the artist and Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre, Cape York Peninsula. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, The Way You Move Me, 2011. Video still, two-channel video, 5:1 channel audio, 10:30min. Courtesy the artists and Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne. 

Adam Cullen, Brumby, 2010. Synthetic polymer paint and enamel on canvas, 182.5 x 152.7cm. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2010. Courtesy the artist and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph Carl Warner.