Sunday, 12 February 2012

Art by Animals, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

I popped into the Grant Museum of Zoology, a compact little treasure trove I hadn’t ever visited before. It’s part of a group of museums which is part of University College London. The museum itself is, I would guess Victorian, all wood panels and cabinets in a single room, filled to the brim and all the way up the walls with specimens and skeletons of various living, rare and extinct creatures. I wrote a Haiku about my visit in my other blog. Charles Darwin was a one time resident in Gower Street too and there are blue plaques aplenty dotted around this academic hub.

At the moment, there is a temporary exhibition on Art by Animals. Here is a short clip from UCL summarising it.

Animal Art is a fascinating area and the museum has not just displayed the pieces by Primates and Elephants, but provided some background to the (possible) thought processes that accompanied the creation of them and speculate as to the development of art from our primate ancestors. From the subconscious/abstract/impressionistic to when art became more representational in our history.

It truly is interesting. I’m not going to get into any debate as to “what is art?”, I’m just a hairy, low slung assed, bow legged primate myself, my interest was imagining what the thought process of the animal was. Were they enjoying what they were painting? Or was it purely (as possibly exhibited by the behaviour of the Orang-Utan in the clip) just a ploy to ensure they get a treat? Was it free associating? Were they making definitive choices on colours to use? Is the aesthetic quality important to them? And most exciting (to me anyway!), are they trying to represent something?

The museum itself talks about the “What is Art?” question in some of the exhibits, for example the Bowerbird, creating one of the most achingly beautiful structures in the animal kingdom to attract a mate. They then lovingly fill it with similar coloured items stacked together, such as iridescent beetle shells or flowers or even blue plastic bottle tops. Is this art? How did this behaviour evolve? Well, probably not art I guess, but work of this nature inspires us to make art in its honour and feeds into the question of Primates. When our ancestors witnessed something they didn’t understand, of this nature, which made them fearful, astounded or think about more than the desperate need to survive, did they then take a step further in their thinking, to worship celestial beings and Gods and make them want to honour these deities themselves through the creation of art? Apologies for the hack anthropology! But shit like this does keep me awake at night!

image from bbc website

The first piece of art I saw made me gasp, the fact it was made by an Elephant staggered me. Beyond the obvious motor skill, the hand(trunk)-eye coordination in making the painting, there was another question. Was it possible for an Elephant to directly represent still life through paint on a canvas? Were they inspired in any way to do this? This opened up a whole ream of possibilities, how intelligent are Elephants? How sensitive or emotional? And do they appreciate and take comfort from art?

(painting by Boom Mee)

Unfortunately, the Elephant is guided, as it states in the clip, his or her handler manipulates their ear like a joystick, to get them to paint something they, the handler want represented. Does this make the art inauthentic? I don’t think that matters, especially if the Elephants are not mistreated in their training and the art itself is sold to raise money for Elephant charities, it just shows that an Elephant has incredible skills in translating commands from touch, into making an image. So it doesn’t diminish it’s interest value for me.

So, onto the primates. The below is a painting which forms part of the exhibition, by a chimp called Bakhari at St Louis Zoo. It’s a finger painting. Interestingly they exhibited it upside down in the Museum! Or is the photo upside down? Did no one think to ask Bakhari as to which way up he wanted it?

(by Bakhari)

In terms of expressionistic value, I really like this. There was also an exhibit of a Chimp’s hand which was used to introduce the marvel of the London Zoo based Chimp, Congo, who even had his own exhibition at the ICA in the 1950s! Three Spanish giants of modern art also had a role to play in Congo’s artistic career;

- Dali who exclaimed “The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!” when witnessing one of Congo’s canvasses.

- Picasso, who secured one of Congo’s paintings as he loved it so much.

- And Miro, who on hearing that Picasso had an original Congo painting, wanted one for himself, which he then swapped for two of his own drawings!

The fascinating article is here and below is a short clip with the great Anthropologist/Zoologist Desmond Morris on his experience of showing Miro round London Zoo when the artist was a venerable man.

As for Congo’s work, unfortunately they aren’t on display in the Grant, but I have to say there seems to be a deliberate method to Congo’s art, it was certainly worthy of his own exhibition in my opinion. I would be delighted if I owned one too! And the story of Congo’s work outselling Warhol in a 2005 Christie’s auction made me laugh, Congo had the honour of being the first non-human to have their artwork auctioned at such a prestigious establishment.

(wikipedia image)

As a final note and going back to the question as to whether primate art can be representative and not just abstract expressionism, this little note, cheekily secreted in the description by a painting from another gorilla made my jaw drop (in that unique ape jaw style). A gorilla, who could use sign language, when asked what his painting was of, signed back that he’d painted “Apple Running” – Apple was the name of his pet dog. So was this truly a first? A breakthrough in understanding what goes through a great ape’s head when he paints or when he thinks? That he was actually representing a concept in his art? I find that incredible.

Art by Animals continues until March 9th 2012.


Rosanna said...

I saw a poster for this exhibition and thought it could be interesting so was excited to read this post and your take on it. The bird arranging things by colour sounds fascinating and the chimp that outsold Warhol - grand! You have inspired me to take a closer look

melmelis said...

It's a fab little museum. Well worth it. Also in UCL is the auto icon of Jeremy Bentham. I didn't see it when I visited as it was late afternoon and was running out of rime but it just sounds like the most macabre tourist attraction in London!