The complex bargain: animals and humans

Review

A Covenant with the Animals

Murray Bridge Regional Gallery, 2 December-29 January

Reviewer: Christobel Kelly

By way of the title A Covenant with the Animals, curators Stephanie Radok and Sandra Starkey Simon convey a certain sense of gravitas in the relational bargain that humans and animals enact in the world. The binding nature of this agreement also exists as a penumbra and many of the artists engage with the indeterminate area where wilderness intersects with human convocation.

As the contemporary writer Robert Macfarlane reminds us, wild signs attached to natural life may be vigorously experienced close by, and not necessarily in some distant mountain range.  In Fanny Retsek’s concertina artists’ book, The Lost Fables of el Palo Alto, we see her observation of animals whose infiltration into suburbia parallels our own for a brief moment. This fleeting contact reminded the artist of Aesop’s fables, and the elusive moral instruction attached to the presence of animals. Her work Flee, on the other hand, alludes to the limiting beliefs that compel humans to tamper with apex predators in the wilderness areas of North America. Here, in this large-scale work, we see a delightful rush of animals all skittering in one direction. The endearing aesthetic of the work is almost jarring when one understands that their stampede is away from the unforeseen collapse of ecosystems brought on by myopic environmental policies.

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Lloma Mackenzie, Seeking Cover 11 (detail) 2016, relief printed French oak planks, linocuts on Wenzhou paper, linocut oak leaves on French dictionary pages, 2400 x 46 cm

The clattering restlessness between nature and culture is also present in the work Seeking Cover I, II and III, by Lloma Mackenzie.

A tension in this three-panelled work arises from the compassionate depiction of the animals that live in the oak forests of southern France, the innate beauty of the foliage that provides them with shelter and the subtle inference that come autumn, the animals formerly nurtured by the forest become threatened by it as the woods become the site of the hunt. For Mackenzie, the twist in the human activity of hunting is the use of dogs bred for that purpose.

The human activity of weaving in Beth Hatton’s piece Selection, 2nd Series is used to create a contemporary tapestry that references early settler floor coverings. Hatton, who originally coined the phrase, ‘a covenant with the animals’, poses nuanced and complex questions about our need for textiles. Through the use of kangaroo fur and sheep’s wool, as well as embedded text naming a variety of Australian marsupials, she draws attention to the pivoting equilibrium between the wild and the domestic; questions which go to the heart of the conundrum of how we maintain the benefits of biodiversity while at the same time fulfilling our material need for animal- and plant-based fibres.

The biodiversity that sustains us on a physical level also sustains us in some deep emotional sphere, and Stephanie Radok’s ink on paper calligraphic drawings Marsupialiania celebrates the ‘creatureliness’ of the Australian animals whose names and faces may have been forgotten through extinction and endangerment. In her essay to accompany the catalogue Radok reminds us that, like the animals in her garden, these creatures had, and continue to have a living presence.  Another series of woodcuts, printed in warm hues, captures the individuality of each small marsupial. In a similar way, the contemporary Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita, reminds us that the relational juncture we have with animals leads us to ‘embrace the fact that animality is at the heart of our human identity’.[1]

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Above: Stephanie Radok, Woylie – extinct in South East from The Marsupialiania Suite, 2016, drawing, oak gall ink on Zerkall paper, 38.5 x 53 cm
Above, right: Andrea Przygonski and Sandra Starkey Simon, Kuula and her Flora Bones after Georges Cuvier, Koala, 1817, engraving, from the series Viewpoints, 2016, edition of  5 screenprint on digital painting, 76 x 50 cm

 

This sensitive philosophical viewpoint is also shared by Andrea Przygonski and co-curator Sandra Starkey Simon.  Their collaboration has resulted in a series of screenprints on digital paintings. Each of the Australian animals presented in the work hearkens back to the work of colonial artists. The names of the animals, however, are spelled out in various Aboriginal languages alluding to the shape of absence in the Australian landscape.

Interspersed between these screenprints are a number of brightly coloured acrylic shelves that house a series of Australian animal souvenirs. Although these small-scale works have a particularly kitsch aesthetic, perhaps a slow reading of their minuscule presence may also invite the viewer to regard the souvenired animals as icons to be revered and treasured.

In flitting between the time periods of settler incursion and present-day tourism, Przygonski and Starkey Simon call attention to the post-colonial sweep of time, and the effect it has had on the changing regard for the animal population of Australia.

At the core of Laura Wills’ work Animals Indo is a regard for human and animal interconnectedness, which is prompted by ideas of Buddhist philosophy. This universality can be seen in her digital drawings of endangered Indonesian animals that contain worlds within worlds. Each image is an amalgam of other human figures, flowers, swathes of material and so on. In this almost collage-like work, we are invited to view the world as both whole and composite at the same time. Likewise her deeply mysterious work Blackbreech depicts a breeching southern right whale. Whilst airborne, the creature straddles two worlds and, suspended in time, we are able to see that in the place of encrusted barnacles and sea creatures, its entire body is composed of clouds in a strange inversion of the elements.

More tender than didactic, this exhibition avoids overloading the viewer with a sense of ecological diminishment, rather, it calls us to come quietly and observe the animals that share our world. Through the distinctive lens of each of these seven artists we are able to recruit a sense of wonder at their covenant with the animals.

Christobel Kelly is a South Australian printmaker and lecturer in Art History at Adelaide College of the Arts.

[1] Raimond Gaita, The Philosopher’s Dog, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, 175.