The Marian Goodman Gallery on Lower John Street in Soho was hosting an exhibition called Animality. It turned out to be a much larger undertaking than I'd expected. Two floors and several rooms stuffed with art considering our relationship with the other living creatures of this planet. We venerate them, we mythologize them, we keep them as pets, we put them in zoos, we ride around on their backs, we eat them, and we kill them for sport. We've certainly got a very complex relationship with our furry, fishy, and feathery friends.
Although, on the large part, Animality sought to be a humorous look at our interconnectedness it also, in places, claimed to tackle ethical concerns that some of us may have. Hmmm.
They certainly weren't short of interesting pieces. The very first work to catch my eye was a replica of Albrecht Durer's 1515 woodcut of a Rhinoceros. Durer had not actually seen the rhino which was the first of its kind in Europe since Roman times, having arrived in Lisbon as a gift for Pope Leo X. Unfortunately the rhino drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. It seems unlikely that there was any real concern for the rhino's welfare and it was simply seen as a curio.
By 1887 Eadweard Muybridge was coming to understand animals a little better and his early work in stop-motion photography not only foresaw the rise of cinema but helped us to understand how both humans and animals actually moved. Most famously he proved that, when in motion, horses have all four hooves off the ground. Marian Goodman weren't exhibiting the horses though. They had a jaguar one instead.
After the Muybridge the science part of the exhibition was, for me, essentially over. It took me a while to realise that though.
Of course animals can be rendered as playthings in quite innocent circumstances. Think of teddy bears and rocking horses. Carsten Holler's 2014 Octopus was designed as part of a set of children's toys. Play seems to be a recurrent theme for the artist who once installed slides inside the turbine hall of Tate Modern and now has a particularly scary looking one overlooking West Ham's new London stadium.
Mexico's Gabriel Orozco is also a playful artist. He's better known for his chequered skulls but his photos of animals in their natural environment show a different side to his oeuvre.
Wael Shawky (from Alexandria, Egypt) and his Cabaret Crusades:The Path to Cairo marionettes show stock figures, caricatures really, from that time and, of course, they include at least one animal. I got the impression that they should, ideally, be performing some kind of puppet show but there seemed to be no sign of that happening on my watch.
In 19th century France J.J.Grandville also dealt in caricatures. He was one of those who liked to ascribe human characteristics to his animals. His monkey artist below probably speaks as much of his view of the art world as it does to any consideration of human/animal interaction.
Steve McQueen is, of course, these days better known as the director of excellent films like Twelve Years a Slave, Hunger, and Shame but before that he won the Turner Prize for his video art. An example of which, Rolling Thunder, can be viewed in a darkened room to the side of the main gallery. I think a sign of a truly decent video artist is that they eventually go on to make proper films and McQueen has proved me right with that contention.
Yinka Shonibare is another artist whose work is probably better known than he is. His Nelson's Ship in a Bottle sat on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth from 2010 to 2012. His contribution to Animality is Tightrope Revolution Kid (Calf Boy) from 2013 which, as you can see below, looks amusing enough. Not sure it adds much to the discussion but, hey, it's fun and it looks cool. Much the same could be said for Stephan Balkenhol's wacky Column Sculptures.
Saying more about language than animals is Pierre Bismuth who, in his 2002 Jungle Book Project, has made each character in the original Disney film speak a different language. There was someone in there nominally watching it when I looked in but they seemed, like most of us, to be more interested in what was going on with their phone.
Not far from there you could stand in the presence of one of American conceptual artists John Baldessari's albino camels or check out Mexican Abraham Cruzvillegas's 'Silverback self-portrait with prominent belly'. Maybe ponder what Cosimo von Bonin's Thrown out of Drama school is all about.
Of course it was starting to look like the thematic aspects of the show (Origins, Markings, Crossings, Variations, Traces, Extinctions) were simply excuses to hang up some crazy animal art from some really quite well known artists. That made it interesting to look at but very difficult to invest with any form of over reaching narrative. I decided to just enjoy it for what it was and not worry too much. Maybe a policy I should employ in most other aspects of my life.
To this end Berlinde de Bruyckere's Radt (below) and Adrian Vilar Rojas's The Most Beautiful of all Mothers (XVI) (further below) made little sense but at least looked neat.
Truth be told I'd learnt very little about art and possibly even less about animals and our relationship with them. If I'd wanted to do that I'd probably have been better off reading a copy of Orwell's Animal Farm which, at least, was in abundance throughout the exhibition. Yet despite being unable to make much sense of the whole thing I rather enjoyed the experience of wandering aimlessly around looking at things. That was enough for me. For now.