What’s behind the proliferation of animals in recent artworks?
Ana Teixeira Pinto
In the late 1940s, the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève visited the USA. For Kojève – arguably the most influential interpreter of Hegel in the 20th century, and one of the architects of the European Economic Community, a precursor to the EU – ‘history’ was predicated on political struggle. Like Hegel and Marx before him, Kojève believed that humanity would ultimately reach a consensus about its means of governance. This consensus (likely a mixed economy, or social democracy) would spell out the end-point of social evolution, what Hegel had called the ‘end of history’.
This trip to the US, however, led Kojève to feel that any prospective future had already transpired. Upon observing the ‘eternal present’ of American society, Kojève claimed that ‘man’ had already disappeared, giving way to a creature that, though looking exactly like him, shared nothing of the human. The human, he argued, is predicated on a historical process, whereas this new being was one devoid of historicity and, therefore, humanity. For Kojève, this ‘post-historical Man’ had returned to an animal state, albeit retaining his civilized mores. Post-historical Man builds his edifices and works of art as ‘birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs’ and performs ‘musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas.’
Since the 1980s, references to the animal world have been a specificity of Gloria Friedmann’s work. The artist uses stuffed animals or bones, as well as domestic animals (caged canaries or rabbits) and farm animals (oxen, cows, horses) in her installations that resemble “living paintings”. In the work entitled,Réserve naturelle (1994), a stuffed stag faces a pile of broken down refrigerators. This installation questions the successive metamorphoses of animal life from living species to scientific curiosity (via taxidermy) to ready-made (a cultural product). In her “still lifes” or vanitas, Friedmann draws attention to ecological issues such as our endangered eco-system and the fragility of living things. A sense of foreboding emanates from these installations in which animal “remains” appear to be imprisoned in manmade environments. At the crossover of metaphysical thought and futuristic visions, Friedmann draws on the symbolic meaning of the elements she stages to create dichotomies (between nature and culture, biology and technology, the Living and the Dead) that question the evolution of humanity, with its inherent doubts and deviations.