September 23, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich
On Saturday I went to the opening of a show that’s up at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center until late October: “The Animals Look Back at Us”. The show was curated by Sara Lynn Henry, who’s emerita faculty in the Art History Department at Drew University (where I’m working on my PhD). I learned, at the opening, that the show itself was inspired by the artwork on display at a conference I co-organized at Drew in 2011, “Divinanimality: Creaturely Theology”. Omnipresent at that conference was a gallery of creature-creations from the artist Jan Harrison: animals whose luminous eyes seize hold of the viewer. While at the conference, Henry was taken by this work, and by the figures of the animals who look back at us from contemporary artworks.
“The Animals Look Back at Us” explores the animal gaze from numerous angles, through a variety of media (painting, drawing, photography, video, and sculpture). Sixteen different artists have work in the show, including Jan Harrison, and the photographer Catherine Chalmers (whose wrinkled mouse looks out from the image above.) There are mammals and insects in the show, images of living creatures and dead creatures. Eyes are, of course, unique facets of any creature’s biology, and each pair of eyes in the show evokes or provokes something distinct. Gillian Jagger’s pastel “White Cow” (2009) gives us a glimpse into a set of richly contemplative bovine eyes, rimmed with pink skin and set behind a softly smudged and slightly crooked nose. The soft, furred flesh in this image evokes a sense of vulnerability that feeds easily into a ready sense of intimate familiarity. This is rather different, I think, from Lee Deigaard’s “What’s Going to Happen” (2009-2010): an archival print of a raccoon, mounted on plexiglass. Here, the tissue of tapetum lucidum cuts through the darkness of the rest of the image, glowing like orbs of light from a distant location. These are eyes that we humans are, perhaps, less accustomed to gazing into: organs that seem strange. And it’s not immediately clear that the raccoon is looking in our direction, anyhow. There’s a sense of alienation in the image, but also a kind of wonder at the strangeness of it all, the strangeness of eyes. The pieces, Henry writes in the show’s catalogue, are meant to evoke this range and its potential paradoxes. As the animals look out, she writes, they are “fully present in all their life, energy, vulnerability, even ferocity.” What their eye contact might provoke could equally be “a question, a surprise” or “a desire or need for something.”
Of course, at the show I couldn’t help thinking about the now iconic (by my assessment, at least) encounter between Jacques Derrida and his cat in The Animal That Therefore I Am. Here, his cat catches him emerging from the bathroom, naked, and leaves him musing on the topic of nudity more generally. Still, there is something stiff and formal about this hypothetical (merely recounted) stare. There was a sense in which this room full of more sensually present creatures (who were, to be sure, still absent in their actuality) seemed to focus my attention much more sharply on the possibility that I’m being watched. There is a weird sense in which this kind of awareness can make you feel a little more alive. This dulled, of course, when I went back out into the street in Williamsburg, where the only distant orbs of light were coming from electronically powered sources. Perhaps there were animals watching me, but they were hiding themselves, and I was forgetting about them. I didn’t even notice when my partner nudged me on the arm, and pointed into the dim window of a Duane Reade that was closed for the night. I couldn’t imagine what the rows and rows of packaged products had to do with the animals I was trying to discuss. Finally, with some concerted effort, I saw it: a Cover Girl ad for Eye Rehab Makeup, featuring Ellen Degeneres and a raccoon. In the ad, the raccoon was indeed looking out, directly at me (in the online version of the ad, they seem to have cut the raccoon’s eyes out). I was meant, I suppose, to be reminded of the dark circles around my own problematic and imperfect eyes? But I wasn’t thinking much about the product itself. Instead, I was remembering that there are animals looking at me, everywhere, if only from a two dimensional image. And I was thinking about how commodifiable the things in our world (animals but even, or especially, gazes) are always becoming.