Whether appearing in pictorial narratives of the hunt or anthropomorphic representations of cultural traditions, the iconography of the nonhuman animal stalks the pathways of human epistemology. Wave Pool Gallery’s Animal Magnetism alludes powerfully to that history, not as a culminating insight but as the backdrop against which to make more subversive arguments. Those arguments posit continuities between animal imagery and rhetorics of objectification, which take the form of entrapment, slaughter, mass consumption, and extinction, with the toll on animals paralleling the degradation of the planet itself. Moving from the satirical to the sinister to the oddly tender, the cases unfold as photographs, cartoons, engravings, sculptures, music, poems, performance art, and even food. But as the pieces signal irreparable ecological damage, they also proffer uncommon ways of redressing our destructive habits, destabilizing the conceptual divisions that support hierarchies among species. They accentuate symbiosis between living things while effacing the border-logic that informs gender, nationalism, and wars both ideological and economic. Exemplifying strange attractions and fantastical fusions within and against our insular political climate, they could hardly be more timely.
Of the varied critiques of such hubris, Gustave Doré’s 1865 Death on the Pale Horse proffers the most harrowing vision. Trailing clouds of demons, the animal races ahead as the reaper contemplates something in the distance—something alarmingly positioned in the space of the viewer as the procession travels rightward out of the picture plane. The horse’s mane crackles like fire as ghouls and dragons force each other forward, the tumult offset only by the calm of Death. The curve of his scythe reverberates in the devil-wings that follow, and in the flow of a parade with no apparent end. Less grave than the pale horse but more nuanced as allegory, the cartoons of J. J. Grandville attend more to the foibles of the living than the certainty of demise. In an untitled sketch from 1842, for instance, an elephant balances atop a spider web, connoting a political-economic structure that is, at best, delicate. The situation appears precarious for the elephant as well as the insect it threatens to trample, though the fate of the fly looks grim whether the web holds or no.
Grandville’s vision of the sticky web yields an apt metaphor for nineteenth-century divisions of labor, though it also channels the affect of entrapment that suffuses the show. A display of Margaret Atwood’s poem “Dreams of the Animals” (1970) heightens that affect by lamenting
the caged armadillo
near the train
station, which runs
all day in figure eights
its piglet feet pattering.
The animal “no longer dreams,” Atwood explains, “but is insane when waking.” She depicts creatures’ fantasies of each other, their yearning for contact in ways that are at once intensified and foiled by human-made prisons. Laurie Anderson offers a similar critique in her feminist book of postcards (1990), one of which features a man in telepathic conversation with a whale, who, while swimming in an enormous aquarium, asks whether all oceans have walls. These walls bring misery and confusion to their inhabitants merely for purposes of human entertainment. Future Retrieval, the artistic duo of Guy Michael Davis and Katie Parker, extends that case with Parrot Cups (2016), wherein porcelain birds stare at each other in bafflement from their separate enclosures, which are so aligned and regularized as to stress dependable consumption. Touches of wry humor thus signal absurdity in the relations between humans and other animals, though a deeper disquiet cuts through the wit. Atwood, having already noted the madness of the armadillo, next looks on “the iguana…crested, royal-eyed, ruling/its kingdom of water-dish and sawdust.” The iguana “dreams of sawdust,” she writes.
The show’s analysis of the caging and commodification of animals develops alongside its depiction of humans’ irremediable effects on their larger ecosystem. Rachel Berwick’s Martha (2007) stands among the exhibit’s more poignant testaments to those effects, serving as an elegy for the last known passenger pigeon, who died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1914. Berwick portrays Martha in the form of an amber sculpture, perched atop a brass rod and housed under two layers of glass. Although the piece works as a celebration of the bird’s life, the association of amber with fossil remains designates the historic finality of the loss—a loss attributable in large part to hunting and deforestation. In such light, John James Audubon’s Passenger Pigeon from Birds of America (1836) feels both nostalgic and condemnatory. Mark Jesus Quemada’s 2014 rendering of the pigeon, on the other hand, matches the bleak joke of Parrot Cups by placing the bird in the passenger seat of a moving automobile. Situated in what might be a 1950s comic strip, the pigeon looks curiously, and with no small foreshadowing, on the man operating the machine. The repetition of the scene signals once more the routinization of catastrophe.
Yet even as the show elaborates tensions between species, it also embraces possibilities for dynamic interchange, imagining the transgression of ontological categories while simultaneously assailing the barriers that keep animals locked in or out. In Coyote Hole (2015), for instance, the artist Ernest finds evidence of the classic trickster figure burrowing under the chain links designed to exclude her. The scene has the look of faded newsprint, though cranberry splotches indicate life returning to the untended lot, recharging in lucid if uneven fashion an otherwise wasted space. Whereas Ernest playfully endorses territorial boundary crossings, Llewelyn Fletcher breaches the borders that define animal categories. Power Place (2013) depicts a creature that appears part bird and part cat, but that might be a human child wearing elaborate pajamas while contemplating the night sky. Stars stream across the heavens rising over the dunes. The setting might be an earthly desert or another world altogether. The power of the place derives from its serenity, the clarity of its atmosphere, and most significantly, from the way it welcomes its colorfully hybrid inhabitant.
Hope Ginsburg’s Bearded Lady (1998-2000) reaffirms the show’s emphasis on hybridity by depicting uncommon cooperation between species while defying the strictures of gender. A video installation shows a beekeeper gently leading a swarm to Ginsburg’s face, gradually covering her cheeks and chin with its flowing buzz and sizzle. While documenting the performance of interspecies drag, the piece coheres with the artist’s interest in sustainable production and circulation of food, where no harm comes to living things through any portion of the process. Next to the installation hangs a shelf of honey jars, all of which meet her ethical standards and embody her political principles. The creative layering of bodily and economic semiotics condenses in memorable ways the exhibit’s complex and evolving definition of justice.
Of the show’s varied border-crossings and unlikely mergers, the most elaborate belongs to Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Apotomé (2013), which occupies most of Wave Pool’s second floor. A large video installation complete with surround-sound, the piece invokes the story of the elephants Hans and Parkie (the latter also known as Marguerite or Peggy), whom the French appropriated from the Netherlands in the late eighteenth century. Paris held a concert for the animals in 1798 in the Jardin des Plantes, partly to hail their arrival and partly to examine their response to music. The gallery description of the piece suggests that musicians rather than scientists organized the event to test the idea of music as “a possible inter-species metalanguage, a proto-linguistic, nonsymbolic and affective trans-human mode of communication whose basis is biological and evolutionary.” But rather than providing a narrative reenactment of the concert, the video tells the story slant by featuring a present-day artist singing to the elephants’ bones. That artist is Tim Storms, who possesses what may be the world’s deepest singing voice, as he is able to reach notes “8 octaves below the lowest G on the piano.” As we hear his a cappella renditions of Iphigénie en Tauride (Christoph Willibald Gluck) and the revolutionary “Ça ira,” the tunes at times go silent. At these points Storms’s range may well exceed the limits of human hearing. Animals as large as elephants, however, can still register those cavernous notes, suggesting prospects for communication that pick up where human interchange leaves off. The idea of the “apotomé” designates this elusive remainder, the zone of vibration cut off from orthodox tonality.
On the whole, “Animal Magnetism” connotes the ecstatic rupture of phylogenetic orthodoxy, depicting organic blending and monstrosity as alternatives to captivity and eradication. From Doré’s and Francisco José de Goya’s winged human figures to Grandville’s deer and goats in professional attire to Erin Colleen Johnson’s reflections on a “goat man” who spends his life walking Georgia backroads with his herd, the show favors reciprocities that are all too rare among people, much less between people and extrahuman forms of life. Wave Pool enfolds visitors in the argument from the moment they arrive, greeting them with whale songs that gradually give way to Storms’s startling vocals. While many of the pieces communicate forcefully from within their frames, many others invite us to listen, to move around the space, and to touch. Wave Pool Executive Director Cal Cullen and Guest Curator Kimberly Paice describe the entire event as a kind of “contact zone,” thus stressing its haptic character while alluding to the writings of Mary Louise Pratt, for whom such zones connote cross-cultural struggle and negotiation, especially where power relations between parties are stark and historically sedimented. The contact zones of Animal Magnetism represent and contest the epistemological dominance of “human/animal binaries” and the logic of “human exceptionalism”; they dramatize naturalized abuses while distrusting the rhetoric of the natural. The exhibit’s attention to gender, economics, unstable identities, and joyous migrations imply pointed critiques of people’s efforts to categorize and control each other. But to stop with those critiques misses the show’s more distinctive argument, which casts an obsessive focus on human striving as a defining feature of the Anthropocene, wherein animals of all descriptions find themselves subject to existential terror.