Adaptation: Between Species

The Power Plant

Johan Lundh

Robyn Cumming, Lady 1, from the series Lady Things, 2008; chromogenic print; 50 x 40 inches; courtesy the artist

Francis Alÿs, The Nightwatch (still), 2004; single-channel video; 19 minutes; collection of Jay Smith and Laura Rapp; courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich

Over the last century, the relationship between human and nonhuman animals has become increasingly complex. The modernist notion that we are not inextricably linked to the natural world has proven incorrect. This summer, The Power Plant presented Adaptation: Between Species, a group exhibition highlighting humanity’s current dependence on nature and the intricate ties among species. The show featured twenty-one artists whose works aim to communicate with nonhuman animals, unleash the animal within us or create frameworks to collaborate with other creatures.

Occupying the main exhibition space was John Bock’s video Gast (2004) in which the artist uses a device made from a house slipper, clothespins and a carrot to choreograph the movements of a live rabbit in his apartment. Unlike Joseph Beuys’ infamous “dead hare,” Bock’s rabbit is a reluctant collaborator. Bock, moreover, appears interested in learning from rather than teaching his cohort. In the same space, Mark Dion’s Maquettes (2008) is a poignant collection of miniature versions of his artworks placed atop full-scale shipping crates. Figurines of wildlife covered in oil or trapped in cages point to our compulsion to control and exploit in the name of “progress.” The installation also connects the contemporary art world to an economy highly dependent on access to inexpensive fuel—a notion rarely reflected upon by otherwise self-critical art professionals.

Several artists in Adaptation attempt to bridge human detachment from the natural world by imitating nonhuman animals or otherwise inhabiting their identities. A video by Lucy Gunning features adolescent women doing eerie impressions of horses. Instead of mocking her subjects’ unusual skills, Gunning’s video conveys a sense of affinity with the equine. Marcus Coates tries to address social problems by channeling the spirits of birds and coyotes in videos of office-space performances or street-side interventions. Like Bock, Coates’ works also playfully echo Beuys’ shamanistic practice. Similarly, artist-duo FASTWÜRMS’ multimedia works attempt to develop new forms of coexistence—or “symbiogenesis,” following biologist Lynn Margulis—by letting their pet cats function as the exhibiting artists.

The idea of nonhuman animals taking center stage within a human context is further developed in Francis Alÿs’ excellent Nightwatch (2004), one of his most subtle and under-shown works, which presents surveillance footage of a fox let loose in the National Portrait Gallery in London. On a more gleeful note, Cory Arcangel’s video Drei Klavierstücke op. 11 (2009) presents a compilation of Internet videos of kittens playing the piano. Arcangel’s creative editing gives the appearance of the kittens performing the eponymous Arnold Schönberg modernistic composition.

Several other stray themes emerge in Adaptation that confuse the exhibition’s thesis of rethinking interspecies relations. For example, Hew Locke’s Tyger, Tyger (2007) invokes a misplaced postcolonial discourse: the artist dons a tiger’s head and a costume that references the Redcoats of the British Army. Overall, Adaptation could have benefited from a more precise framework and fewer artworks. With videos comprising nearly half of the exhibition, the show edges on the cacophonous. An elegant way to solve this conundrum would have been to create a series of smaller, focused exhibitions, allowing the works to have a more symbiotic relationship to their context and to each other.

Johan Lundh is an independent curator and writer dividing his time between Stockholm and New York.

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