Animal Gaze

by Angela Cockayne


 Interdisciplinary practice engaging with taxonomy, ecology, natural science, anthropology and ethnography are common themes of research in contemporary visual art practice, exploring the liminal perimeters where myth meets evidence and fact. The use of animals and the natural environment with reference to the animal gaze in contemporary art practice seems to be an increasingly popular subject matter paradoxically in an age where it could be seen as unethical to do so e.g. taxidermy. In an Anthropogenic age (post-industrial dominion of natural resources) something else seems to bare witness beyond materiality, commodity, voyeurism or fetishisation with the use of animals in art.


 The Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosity has long held our fascination with the animal gaze where a ‘specimen’ becomes a non-hierarchical spectacle, transforming creature into mythology. John Tradescant’s incredible 17th century collection includes a mermaid’s hand (or a limb of a manatee), a unicorn (or narwhal tusk), all of which inspire wonder and fascination with the natural world, evoking myth and narratives.

The decline of a specific medium in contemporary art practice could be seen as a reaction to  “militantly reductive modernism” associated with Clement Greenberg. Almost fifty years have passed since Lucy Lippard wrote the Demateralisation of the Art Object.  Rosalind Krauss suggests, “We now inhabit a post-medium age.”  A time that seems to “shatter the notion of medium-specificity,” Both food and animals have become materials from which to make- artwork; a tattooed pig, a taxidermied horse, and a genetically modified rabbit, are commonplace ingredients in the shifting sands of plurality that seems to represent contemporary art practice, a desert without signposts.


Cast Narwhal dental implants


Rachel’s Orphan

It is also twenty years since British film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote her seminal essay that investigates the male gaze, a discourse parallel to man’s dominion of nature, gender and race. Could this consciousness be extended to animal rights? Man has always seen nature as a resource for exploitation but through an acknowledgment of the destruction of species and environments in recent years on an increasingly international scale, a sense of collective guilt seems to be emerging that extends beyond the colonial pillaging of nature as resource.

Photo Shoot 2011 Wax guns with fur, hair, crustacean claws and lens. 

The animal gaze represented in Museums and contemporary art practice today seems to go beyond our appetite for natural history, fascination for scientific specimen or curiosity in context of an ecological consciousness. There has been a significant advancement for Natural History museums to engage in a new collaborative approach to repatriation and conservation. The provenance of objects and specimens is highly problematic.

Shrunken head from Equador

Scientists believe that the sixth mass extinction has already begun through over harvesting, habitat destruction, pollution, global warming, alien displacement and human overpopulation. After 4 billion years of evolution, human activities and influences are accelerating the rate of species extinction exponentially.
We have known for over one hundred years that carbon dioxide and man made emissions are harmful to bio diversity and our environment yet we have failed to act on this. The oceans like the Amazon rain forests, filter two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. Acidification though sea temperatures rising, is harming vital microscopic plankton.

We are I believe at a pivotal point in history, nature will address the balance but perhaps to a world without mankind if we do not face up to our responsibilities on an collective and international scale. The map is man made we must act beyond territories and plan a future that accommodates for biodiversity, sustainability and an environment for all life to flourish.

In the scheme of things, the blink of 200 years, we seem to have plundered natural resources, and continue on a course to potentially devastate our own habitat, a paradise that took billions of years to evolve. Our own future like that of many species may hang in the balance if we continue to consume unsustainably in a finite system. 
Culturally the animal gaze seems to represent an ethical consciousness and a self-awareness that in protecting and conserving an environment for all we protect biodiversity and ourselves.  The representation of the animal gaze used by artists in an ecological context is an increasingly important one and ultimately holds a mirror to reflect human nature and perhaps our  own destiny.

Tooth Writer
Charismatic species like the whale, panda or polar bear are sentinels, barometers not only of our environment but also of our own civility. Adorno said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.  Perhaps there has never been a more important time for a consilience of art and science and animal representation and ‘in absentia’ the gaze between human and animal becomes pertinent, like the Dodo and the Tasmanian Tiger who have become mythologised in their absence by our dominion.  It is now thought man will live four years beyond the bees, perhaps the red list; a testament to man’s destruction of an ever increasing list of extinct species, through destroying the environment will signify the animal gaze returned.

Tooth Heads Sheep and horse teeth found on shoreline
It’s interesting to reflect that if all insects were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all forms of life on earth would perish. We depend on them that thoroughly. But if all human beings were to disappear from the earth within fifty years all other forms of life would flourish.

— Jonas Salk