Animal style: Unique perspectives on the latest Art Gallery exhibit

- November 23, 2012

John McEwen, Shunt (X), 2010-11. Image courtesy of Dalhousie Art Gallery.
John McEwen, Shunt (X), 2010-11. Image courtesy of Dalhousie Art Gallery.

Many of us have some kind of relationship with animals, whether they’re our beloved pets or the food on our dinner plates.   

But how do professors and researchers see the animals they work with? And how do artists treat animals as subject matter in their works?

The aptly titled Animal, the current exhibition at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, provides an opportunity to explore our relationships with animals more deeply, by delving into a range of philosophies, ethics, and ambiguities or contradictions. It also allows members of the Dal community to engage with art and discover confluences between disciplines in the humanities and the sciences.

Simon Gadbois of the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Cassandra Hanrahan of the School of Social Work shared their insights about works that have particular resonance with their research and interests. Both are also members of the Animal Studies Group, an inter-disciplinary menagerie of profs from Dal, King’s and other Halifax universities whose work deals with animals.

Into the wilds of thought

Dr. Gadbois, an ethologist (studying the behaviour of animals in their natural environments) and behavioural endocrinologist (taking hormones into account), has long been doing research involving “canids” – dogs, coyotes, wolves and foxes.

As it happens, three works in Animal feature dogs or coyotes. Dr. Gadbois seems most taken with Fugue, a DVD projection by Kenn Bass. “It’s intriguing, mesmerizing – I could spend a long time watching this,” he says of the three rapidly flashing frames of images and text, one of which features a coyote.

Because of the title, Dr. Gadbois first thinks of Bach’s fugues – and something about the flashing images does seem measured, patterned, as a piece of music. Then one such phrase of flashing text prompts memories of his research: “being accused of lying when one is telling the truth” reminds him of investigating reports of coyote sightings in Cape Breton, finding stories about encounters that didn’t quite add up: “In my estimate, about 50 per cent of the reports were fake, made up.”

“Probably that differs from what was in the mind of the artist,” Dr. Gadbois says. “But that’s one thing that’s great about this piece, is that people can relate to it in many different ways.”

Another work, John McEwen’s Shunt (X), speaks directly to those with a background in psychology. The large, rectangular metal box is modeled on an apparatus researchers used to demonstrate how quickly “learned helplessness,” can be acquired, Dr. Gadbois explains.

A dog, enclosed in the metal box, would jump over a partition to avoid a mild electric shock. But gradually, “it would be impossible for the dog to avoid the shock,” he continues. “They would just lie in the corner and not respond.”

Many have rightly questioned the experiment’s ethics, but the researchers did gain an understanding of “how the depressed brain works” and how both human and non-human animals react to situations in which there is a loss – or perceived loss – of control. And that relates to Dr. Gadbois’ view of the piece’s other component, a much-larger-than-life-size metal skull: “I saw it as the ego – it’s in there that things go wrong when a lack of control happens.”

Power, subjugation, symbolism

While Dr. Gadbois acknowledges that this type of experiment on animals is part of what he says is a “sad but continuing history in psychology and neuroscience,” Dr. Cassandra Hanrahan’s interpretation of the piece is more up front in its criticism.

“I find it very disturbing,” she says. “It strikes me that the outcomes of so many of those early experiments could have been learned in other ways.”

"What came to mind immediately from an eco-feminist perspective,” Dr. Hanrahan adds, “is the giant skull is a symbol for the separation of mind from body, and the way that the bodies of non-human animals – and of women, children, and racialized others – have been subjected to male dominance generally, and throughout the history of the medical industry.”

This interpretation is in line with her own research interests, which focus not only on speciesism – that human animals often privilege themselves over non-human animals – but on all relationships that involve or potentially involve roles of dominance and subordination.

She says that Dal’s School of Social Work, with its anti-oppression mandate, is to “acknowledge conventional power dynamics between client and worker,” and any “power imbalance,” and consider “how to build mutually collaborative relationships, rather than ones that are hierarchical and based on ‘othering.’”

Her thoughts about Dagmar Dahle’s sculptural installation, Rare-Common-Extinct (pictured above), have a similar theme. The piece consists of a number of unglazed ceramic figurines placed upon wooden shipping crates; most are birds, but a couple are figurines of women in Victorian dress, another is of a stereotypical “Indian” in traditional head-dress.

Dr. Hanrahan sees this collection as deliberate and symbolic of how animals, women, and First Nations people are constituted in the dominant imagination, drawing attention to the socially constructed character of identity.

Each figurine has had a variety of holes carved into it (when the ceramic pieces were still wet). Dr. Hanrahan sees these holes as symbolic of “the ways the bodies of the ‘other’ are devalued, marginalized, and oppressed – how animals, women and First Nations peoples are subject to a range of human activities that are, essentially, violent.”

Overall, she understands the piece and the holes in them to be about  “objectification” – just part of the larger Western habit of “othering” that the School of Social Work seeks to redress through its holistic and collaborative approach to health and well-being.
Dr. Hanrahan believes art exhibits such as Animal can go a long way to furthering the dialogue about our relationships with animals and with each other – and more specifically, how human-animal interactions and our shared ecologies are important to sustainable approaches to health care.

“Art like this needs to assert itself into the public discourse more actively,” she says.

Animal runs through December 2 at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.


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