Art’s animal instincts

Man and beast, the connection was made physical by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution in the mid-19th century. Since then zoologists and wildlife documentaries have further drawn our relationship to animals, and a slew of artists have been pondering the same; an exhibition at UC Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery, “Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art” (through Nov. 28), has gathered provocative projects.

“In the past, art dealing with animals usually addressed issues of representation,” says Tyler Stallings, gallery director. “I wanted to expand beyond that.” And this being the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth made it seemed especially timely for such a show.

Stallings invited Rachel Mayeri, an associate professor of media studies at Harvey Mudd College who is well known for her interest in “soft science” and is an artist, to help co-curate the show. Eventually, they selected 20 artists, mostly from California, encompassing video, photography, painting and sculpture. Sam Easterson focuses on the animal’s point of view quite literally, by attaching minicams to creatures including armadillos, falcons, scorpions and sheep, and letting them go on their way. The resulting clips end when the cam falls off and are shown without narrative. Other artists get that subjectivity more obliquely, such as Catherine Chalmers’ video simulation of a cockroach moving through fauna and flora in “Safari” or Alison Ruttan’s video of a man mimicking a prowling cat in “Impersonator.”

Brooklyn-based artist Nina Katchadourian finds most human interactions with nature “meddlesome.” As part of a series she’s called “Uninvited collaborations with nature,” she has made “GIFT / GIFT,” a video in which she carefully inserts the letters G, I, F and T, made of thread, into a spider web. The spider then methodically expels the letters, one by one. The additional irony is that in Finnish, Katchadourian’s native tongue, “gift” means poison.


In “Continuum of Cute,” she explores how we rate animals on the basis of appearance. “I began looking for pictures online,” she says by telephone. “There’s no shortage of material.” She finally selected 100, which she then arranged on a scale from very uncute to very cute.

The most controversial work in the show may be the reworked taxidermy of Carlee Fernandez. Ten years ago, when considering additional uses for dead animals, she visited taxidermy shops and bought seven animal bodies. She re-created each as a piece of luggage, with openings and cavities. On exhibit will be two -- a goat reworked into a wheeled bag, its two horns projecting from the sides, and a buffalo whose woolly head has been split open, presenting itself for packing one’s belongings. “Some people find the work disgusting,” Fernandez says, “but then they go out and have a steak dinner.”

Mayeri’s piece, “Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends,” is a two-channel work in which a scene of baboons interacting out in the open is shown next to a scene of humans “reenacting” the same drama in a bar. As the male baboons fight for the favors of a desirable female baboon, men fight for a femme fatale -- with aggressive pushing and confrontation.

“We recognize that the history of artists dealing with animals was generally sentimental, even overly anthropomorphized,” Mayeri says of past work. “That thought about anthropomorphism has come around -- it turns out that, genetically, we’re 98.6% the same as chimpanzees.”