by Julia Schlosser
In this exhibition, we ask viewers to experience potentially difficult images of animals who have died and artworks made from their bodies. Remembering Animals hopes to create an intimate space where we can consider these artworks. Rather than turn away, we invite you to “bear witness” for a moment, and create an empathetic conduit with a non-human animal.
Animal death, like death in any form, is a challenging subject to encounter and embrace. Personally, many of us who have lived closely with pet or companion animals mourn their passing deeply. On a global level, non-human animal deaths exemplify many of the ways that we, as human animals, fall short in our efforts to manage our ecosystems and their inhabitants. From overwhelmingly large issues like factory farming, animal experimentation, and species extinction to the closer-to-home deaths of pets and road-killed animals, we’re all faced with difficult choices regarding our relationships with non-human animals every day. Jon Christensen points out that we live in “a world in which human agency is at once vast and ineffectual.” The nexus of our individual and collective decisions affects animals and the quality of their lives on the planet, whether we want them to or not. This exhibition examines the ways that artwork can and does speak not just about the animals themselves, but also about these larger issues.
It’s been a privilege to work with so many thoughtful, concerned, dedicated artists, whose work I hold in such high esteem. My gratitude goes to all of them for allowing us to display their work and for their many contributions to this show and to the critical social dialog surrounding animal lives and deaths.
Many thanks go to Steve Baker, Linda Brant, and Emma Kisiel for their conversations and support that helped shape the direction of the exhibition. Thanks especially to Linda Brant for allowing us to use her beautifully nuanced exhibition title and the phrase “a visual language of loss.” And to Emma Kisiel for her text offering, which became a de facto “mission statement” for the show. Curtis Bartone generously edited an early draft of the exhibition proposal. Gratitude to Sarah Perry for her optimism and bighearted feedback during the catalog design process.
Special thanks go to Jim Sweeters, the Gallery Director of the CSUN Art Galleries for his ongoing support for an exhibition that always seems to need some kind of accompanying explanation. “Yes, it’s about animal death, but not in a creepy way…” Several times I would have given up on the idea, if it weren’t for Jim’s encouragement. So thanks, Jim, very much.
Thanks to Robert Mitchell at Eastern Kentucky University, whose Living with Animals conferences first introduced me to many of these artists. And thank you to our copy editor, Perry Grundman, for his heartfelt willingness to make this a better publication.
This exhibition has been a truly collaborative effort, first working with the artists, and second with the director, Joe Bautista, and students of The Center for Visual Communication (VISCOM). VISCOM is CSUN’s on-campus, student-run creative agency. Joe supervises and teaches 50-plus students who work around the calendar to complete hundreds of commercial design projects each year. The art gallery hired VISCOM to design the catalog and related promotional media for the Remembering Animals exhibition, and also generously provided Joe and I with funding for our anilum website and interactive gallery installation. So we have spent many long hours working together on both. Joe allowed me access to use the students as a sounding board for all of our ideas during the development and design phases of these projects. They worked on the catalog and promotional materials as student designers and production assistants, and then as performers in the 10 Candles and So we lit a candle projects.
My contact with the students of VISCOM has broadened my understanding of a younger generation’s views on animals and animal death. Special thanks to Sam Limon, Kristen Jay Montante, Ricardo Monterrosa, Ryan Penarroyo, Rose Rieux, Karina Schink, and Thad Watanabe. It’s been a true pleasure to watch Joe, the living soul of equanimity, as he effortlessly, simultaneously stokes and puts out a hundred fires during each of his very long workdays as director of VISCOM.
THE VISUAL LANGUAGE OF LOSS
by Julia Schlosser
This exhibition looks at the ways contemporary artists contemplate, investigate and respond to different aspects of animal death. The animals depicted in the images and included as parts of the sculptural objects have died in various ways. None of the animals represented in this show were killed by the artists. Some represent species that have perished in reaction to overarching environmental issues. Other animal bodies were encountered incidentally as the artists moved through the world during their daily activities, and still others were sought out by the artists as part of their artistic practice. Some of the images represent the bodies of deceased animals known to the artist (or viewer) while these animals were alive, and other animals, whose deaths are mourned in the context of cultural rituals, are documented and observed by the artist from a sociological perspective. The majority of the artists included in this exhibition have devoted significant portions of their highly respected artistic careers to the exploration of the myriad issues surrounding human-animal relationships and the depiction of animals in contemporary art, and the remainder have created singular but highly impactful series of works concerning animals. An examination of these artists’ work allows one to acknowledge animal death by tracing the evolution of a “visual language of loss.”
In his intricately rendered Plague Poem suite of etchings, Curtis Bartone creates composite landscapes that depict the devastating effects of various contemporary environmental issues on diverse animal species. The rich yellow-browns of the somber works are overdrawn by dark, rusty bloodred “linescapes,” creating intricate webs that ensnare the beautifully depicted animal bodies and skeletons. Bartone uses these lethal threads to link the animal remains to human-made structures visible in the far reaches of the desolate landscapes. Thus, he creates a series of visual meta-narratives in which the effects of human intrusions are linked inexorably to species extinction and global ecosystem destruction.
Emma Kisiel and Sarah Perry explore the bodies of animals that they encounter in their daily lives. In her photographic series Cher Ami, Kisiel creates an intimate darkened space of mourning for the animals she finds, and refracts light to create prismatic casts of color on the bodies she photographs. She further honors their bodies through the simple act of touch. The resultant photographs allow the viewer to contemplate the animal bodies quietly and imagine kinesthetically—through the hands of the models touching the animals—what it would feel like to encounter the animals corporeally him or herself.
Sarah Perry’s lifelong practice of creating intricately beautiful sculptural works that carefully incorporate the bodies of animals and insects is highlighted by the work included in this exhibition. She purposefully relocated her home and studio practice to a rural area outside of Los Angeles, so that she would be able to observe and live in close contact with wildlife flora and fauna. Perry’s deep respect, for the intertwining ecosystems at play in the community in which she lives, is evident in her artworks. Her meticulous process of collecting animal bodies results in the creation of elegant three-dimensional artworks that allow the viewer to contemplate the lives of the animals, as well as salient environmental and ecological issues.
Both Craig Stecyk and Steve Baker sought out animals that had been killed by automobiles on highways near where they lived. Craig Stecyk’s pieces generate a historical context for the exhibition. In his 1983 series, Road Rash, Stecyk, based in Los Angeles, created a small body of sitespecific sculptures of road-killed animals that he found, cast and reinstalled in situ, roadside. To make these works, Stecyk drew on long-standing historical traditions used to commemorate the loss of human life and to locate culturally significant events in the collective (human) consciousness. He then applied these traditions to memorialize largely invisible roadkilled animal deaths, thereby interrupting a cultural narrative that denies or overlooks the importance of these animal lives.
As part of his ongoing series, Scapeland, Steve Baker photographs the bodies of animals that have been killed by vehicles on rural roads in the east of England. Baker pairs these images with photographs of landscape vistas and architectural details to create visceral diptychs that stretch four feet across the gallery wall. The monumentality of the images, on the scale of grand landscape panoramas, conveys a sense of implicit importance to the mangled animal bodies, linking the results of human activity— in the form of the built environment and of the bodies of the non-human animals—to representations of the land.
Linda Brant’s practice asks us to consider which animal deaths we mourn, and to consider which deaths go unnoticed, by constructing sculptural works from the bones of factory-farmed animals. In her series entitled Mending, Brant creates objects in a tradition initially reminiscent of centuries of carved sculptural works made from ivory. However, instead of using ivory, which creates monetary value by fetishizing the bodies of animals whose species have been devastated by hunting practices, Brant instead elevates the bodies of animals who are killed for consumption and then left as unwanted by-products and artifacts. She acquires the bodies of factoryfarmed animals, and in a labor-intensive ritualized process in which she works in intimate contact with the bones for weeks, Brant cleans and polishes them into exquisite small-scale sculptures.
Kathy High’s wide-ranging oeuvre examines issues of empathy, animal sentience, the implications of animal research, companion animal relations and interspecies communication. In her series HLA-B27, research animals—transgenic rats that were used in research experiments—were able to live out their lives in communal environments that High created for them. She used a toy microscope to record the rats, while they lived and interacted with each other, and ultimately at the end of their lives as they were dying. In High’s hands, transgenic rats, the vast majority of which are killed at the conclusion of their research usefulness, were allowed to live and die with a sense of respect for their agency and sentience. High also contributes her video work, Lily Does Derrida: A Dog’s Video Essay, which interrogates the possibility of forming an accurate narrative about the point of view or umwelt of a member of another species.
Julia Schlosser’s solo photographic work in the exhibition looks at her relationships with—and decisions regarding—her companion animals at end-of-life time. Schlosser lives closely with her companion animals, two of which suffered from chronic injuries and diseases that required extensive medical care and tending. As she moved through the process of caring for the animals, and ultimately made decisions to end their lives as their conditions worsened, she photographed the animals, artifacts associated with their lives, medical conditions and deaths, and then their bodies. Schlosser also recorded private mourning rituals while she spent time with the animals’ bodies before transporting them to the crematory for cremation.
In contrast to photographing animals with which she has a personal relationship, Hyewon Keum considers societal attitudes toward the death of companion animals. Keum’s elegant photographic works document cross-cultural variations in funerary cultures in Korea, Japan and the United States. She photographs the architectural spaces associated with the funerary industry, along with the bodies of companion animals preserved through taxidermy and other processes. The images, although empty of (human) inhabitants, speak about the complex rituals developed to mourn the loss of companion animals, examine artifacts associated with these rituals, and explore the explicative narratives that mourners develop to alleviate their bereavement. Keum’s work records public spaces of mourning (e.g., cemeteries and columbaria), private funerals, “behind the scenes locations” such as pet crematories that would not usually be available for public viewing, and private objects of mourning including the bodies of taxidermied pets.
In Julia Schlosser and Joe Bautista’s anilum: A Digital Candle-Lighting Memorial Experience, users are invited to contribute images and information about deceased animals—that have been meaningful in the user’s lives—to a website database, creating a collective online memorial. In a darkened, meditative gallery space during the duration of the exhibition Remembering Animals, participants can interactively “swipe” through the collected tributes—projected onto the gallery wall—with a series of ritualized gestures reminiscent of petting a dog. The action of uploading cultural artifacts—in the form of pet pictures and animal images taken from the Internet— is transformed into an act of mourning with the symbolic lighting of a digital flame for the dead animals. The site was started as a way to mediate the difficulty in discussing images of and issues about the deaths of animals. By creating a communal narrative in which viewers can reconnect meaningfully with animals they have known, Schlosser / Bautista hope to extend a productive conversation about caring for the lives of all animals.