Ho Tzu Nyen, 2 or 3 Tigers, 2015, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 18 minutes 46 seconds. From “Animalesque/Art Across Species and Beings.”

Ho Tzu Nyen, 2 or 3 Tigers, 2015, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 18 minutes 46 seconds. From “Animalesque/Art Across Species and Beings.”

“Animalesque/Art Across Species and Beings”

This is the best of times and the worst of times to make an exhibition about animals. The question of humans’ relationships with other species is becoming ever more current, with animal studies positioning itself as one of a number of social movements challenging fixed hierarchies. “Animalesque / Art Across Species and Beings,” which has traveled to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art after originating at the Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden, is a cross-generational look at art projects that have engaged with animals, whether as subjects or as icons. Curated by Filipa Ramos, the show suggests three prisms through which to understand artistic engagement with our fellow creatures: first, language, the lack of which has historically othered animals from humans; second, empathy, as a means of broaching this otherness; and third, history, where one finds overlaps between species extinction and colonialism and industrialization.

The show is at times heartbreaking, coming against the backdrop of greater recognition of the harm that humans are doing to the natural world. Inflected by this knowledge, the more recent works trouble the distinction between man and animal and implicitly criticize the idea that humans are separate from other species. Marcus Coates’s Degreecoordinates, Shared traits of the Hominini (humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees), 2015, lists questions written with the anthropologist Volker Sommer about behavior shared by humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees, such as deception, reconciliation after a conflict, and sex for pleasure. Amalia Pica shows Yerkish, 2018, a scaled-up version of the colorful computer keyboard by which scientists in the 1970s proved that primates are capable of abstract thought. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas are able to sequence different lexigrams—graphic, noniconic symbols—into meaningful communication, and in some cases to pass this knowledge down to their offspring. Along with Pierre Huyghe’s extraordinary and now famous video Untitled (Human Mask), 2014, which follows a macaque who has been trained to wait tables at a restaurant in Japan, these works show that the definitions of species are contingent and easily transgressible—and thus suggest how the contemporary treatment of animals is ethically unjustified. Ho Tzu Nyen’s video 2 or 3 Tigers, 2015, which addresses the British colonization of Singapore, shows how, thanks to Western attitudes toward animals, imperialism resulted in the near-devastation of Malayan tigers.

Precisely because “Animalesque,” which includes twenty-two artworks dating from the 1970s through 2019, does not feel focused enough to form a single thesis, its generational breadth uncovers a more complicated history of animals in contemporary art than is typically assumed. Ramos isolates a group of women artists from New York—Mary Beth Edelson, Simone Forti, Joan Jonas, and Louise Lawler—who used animals in their art in the 1970s. In their works, animals appear as foils for male subjectivity, or to amplify, skewer, or upend the association between woman and animal, both in terms of sexuality and in lack of social power. Edelson’s Untitled, 1972–2011—a set of collage drawings showing civil rights and feminist struggles, goddesses, and animal motifs—is arrayed across one of BALTIC’s huge walls as a vast chronicle challenging patriarchal hierarchies. In Tree Drawing: I Stand Where a Bear Stood Recently Clawing This Tree, 2010, Forti has redrawn a mark left on a tree trunk by the claw of a bear, wading into questions of indexicality and asserting a thrilling identity with the violent gesture. All it takes is the off-screen barking of a dog to turn Jonas’s video Barking, 1973—in which Forti appears—into a suspenseful almost-narrative. It may be too broad a generalization to say that this earlier group of women used animals metaphorically while today’s artists are more directly focused on exploring animals’ capabilities, but a shift is evident here, and a bigger show could be in the making.