Going Down Swinging: What Does a Frog’s Scream Sound Like? Some Thoughts on Animal Bodies in Contemporary Art

This piece was originally published by Going Down Swinging.


What Does a Frog’s Scream Sound Like? Some Thoughts on Animal Bodies in Contemporary Art

After finishing my honours year, I took some time off to travel in Southeast Asia. At one point I found myself in a market in rural south Vietnam. It was glorious. A cornucopia of sights, smells and wafting tastes. A wander through a marketplace – anywhere in the world – is always a delight. The fully saturated reds of shiny apples; the abundance of vegetables, peppers and spices; the blinding smoke haze of freshly barbecued anything; the overflowing energy of rapidly moving bodies and seriously bartered price wars.

Turning a corner, I found myself next to a stall selling frogs hopping in lacklustre fashion. Hylids with bulging bellies and small limbs; tree frogs with sweet faces. Except they weren’t green; they were grey. The grey of subcutaneous fat.

They had been flayed alive: their skin sliced away from their bodies while they breathed and squirmed and fought to escape. Their eyes were exposed bulbs vacillating rapidly, desperately searching for relief. Relief from exposure to the sun, to pollution and the too-warm air that scraped across their ravaged bodies in waves. Among the luminescent meat, the weaker frogs had already succumbed to death. They lay prostrate, their protruding stomachs rotting in the sunlight. But their deaths had been in vain – no one would buy them now.

I could not, still cannot, comprehend the blinding agony those animals must have died in. And the eeriest part of the grotesque tableau was their sickening silence. Or perhaps I just couldn’t hear their screaming.

***

I am constantly surprised by the wanton casualness with which humans use animals for their own desires. Our use of animals is at once so normalised and so hidden that it is executed (pun intended) largely without consideration.

There somehow exists a non sequitur between the factory farming industrial complex and our supermarket shelves or kitchen plates; between terrified animals in cages and our delight at going to the zoo; between the profits of a live export industry and the rivers of blood on which it flows; on the existence of ‘safe’ medical procedures and the innumerable butchered bodies that lie on the path behind it.

The non sequitur probably stems from an alternate signification of the animal body. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes evocatively about the ways sharing food enables us to pass on our stories and our histories; to create communities and extend families. The food we eat, who we eat it with, and how we eat it are all foundational to our identity, and connect us to culture. The sharing of food can be a wonderful and generous act. But it is an act that also demands either the suspension of knowledge of how the food got to your plate in the first place, or an assumption that the life sacrificed was worth it.

Utilitarian philosopher and world-famous vegan Peter Singer argues as much in Animal Liberation. Pausing over the arbitrary distinction of human-versus-animal (humans are, first and foremost, mammals), Singer points out that it is this ‘speciesism’ that privileges humans above all other types of sentient beings. Singer argues against the use of animals for food, medical research and the like, and yet he describes himself as a ‘flexible vegan’. This is not the direct contradiction it may at first appear to be. Singer’s utilitarian position – based on a notion of the greatest good for the greatest number – replaces an arbitrary human-animal divide, with the recognition that the context of a situation may justify an act that in another context would be morally wrong. Common examples include eating animals when there are literally no other food options, and – depending on how highly you prize the opinions of your fellow homo sapiens – not giving cultural offence by refusing food.

Singer’s position finds its roots in the work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that the point to consider when it came to the rights of sentient beings was “not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’”.

In theory, it’s quite a persuasive point. But the question remains of how suffering is intuited. Human relationships are contingent on language: it’s how we relate to, explain and understand each other. No other animal has the capacity for communication in this way. Species may well be able to communicate with each other, but neither we nor they have found a means to cross this linguistic divide. This is perhaps the not-so-arbitrary root of that human-animal divide.

Certainly most vertebrate animals make sounds and gestures humans recognise as pain-induced suffering. But they cannot communicate the full impact of suffering in a way meaningful to a human interlocutor. We can understand only a sensation, not an experience.

Before you stop reading, this is not an activist piece. My aim here is not to condemn or even necessarily change behaviour. Rather I make a call for pause and reflection. I do so because the use of animals is constantly extending and expanding. They are no longer just used as food, labour and clothing.

At the 2017 Dark Mofo festival hosted by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch used a live bull in his Action 150 piece. The bull was slaughtered, its entrails rubbed onto the bodies of the performance’s participants, and its meat served in a crescendo feast to performers and viewers alike. Nitsch’s inclusion in the festival’s programme provoked outrage and disgust. But his piece was in good company, both within MONA’s gallery walls and in contemporary Australian art more broadly.

In the past year or so, I have noticed how live animals are increasingly used in contemporary art exhibited in Australia. And this makes me curious, because it raises a difficult ethical question

Can an animal consent to its use in an art work, and is this important?

***

In the corner of MONA’s cavernous second-floor exhibition space sits an unobtrusive wooden chair beneath a glaring spotlight. Per MONA practice, the work does not have a plaque: its details are only to be found on the mobile device given to visitors at the museum’s entrance. One approaches the chair, then, without a name or a context: these come later.

Atop the chair sits an unassuming white soup bowl filled with water. The sculpture is almost completed by the protrusion of a large kitchen knife, its blade inserted beneath the lapping liquid. This precariously treacherous protuberance is the only protection for the solitary live goldfish that swims, in circles, around the edges of the bowl. As people come nearer to observeor photograph – the piece, the fish seeks refuge beneath this otherwise hazardous intrusion into its tiny world.

This is a 2011 work by Greek artist Jannis Kounellis and part of MONA’s permanent collection. When a version of Untitled (bowl & fish) was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, it drew the ire of animal rights activists. Gallery director Andrew Nairne countered that the knife posed no physical threat to the fish. Nairne’s point was that, since it was not sharpened, the fish could not cut itself on the knife.

But an important question remains suspended over Kounellis’ piece. Contrary to popular belief, goldfish have sophisticated memory systems. They are intelligent creatures who can suffer anxiety and depression when not stimulated. They can live for thirty years.

Standing over the work, I wondered how Kounellis chose his goldfish. I wondered, too, if it was ever released from the bowl; if once the museum doors closed it was returned to a luxurious Olympic swimming-pool-sized tank kept hidden behind a Staff Only door. I wondered what this creature – with its sophisticated memory and decades-long life span – made of its white enamel world.

***

When I visited MONA, Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye’s uncanny work Tim was on display. ‘Tim’ is a bit of a misnomer: it’s the name of the man whose body carries the work. Tim is a living canvas whose task it is to sit completely still for several hours at a time while gallery goers examine the wonderfully intricate tattoos Delvoye has carved into his back and arms. On an undisclosed date sometime between 2006 and 2011, Tim – and the parts of Tim’s body that it covers – was sold to German art collector Rik Reinking for a reported 150,000 euros. Reinking now owns the parts of Tim’s body that the tattoos cover, and can choose when, where and how the work is exhibited. When Tim dies, Tim – the tattooed skin – will be cut from his person, wrapped around a mannequin to be cured, and will then be spread out and hung upon a wall in an uncanny riff on the traditional exhibition form.

For the moment, Tim’s practised rhythmic breathing adds a dimension to the work’s materiality, hinting at the implications of becoming, bodily, an objet d’art owned by another person.

Upon learning this story, the first image that came to my mind was a character in China Miéville’s 2010 novel Kraken, upon whose back is inked a sentient tattoo known only as the Tattoo – a maniacal gang leader. Tricked by powers beyond his control, the hapless victim becomes prisoner to the Tattoo and his minions, subjected to actions and decisions beyond his control.

Of course, one expects that Tim understood the implications of allowing Delvoye to tattoo him.

But Tim was not an immaculate conception. Tim is a piece related to Delvoye’s decade of work tattooing live pigs. A practice he began in the United States in 1997, Delvoye moved his studio to a purpose-built farm in China in 2004 where animal rights laws were more lax, and remained there until 2008 when animal rights activist-led protests made the work too difficult to continue. The pigs – who, one imagines, were not asked to sign a release form – were anaesthetised as Delvoye prepared his needles. Like Tim’s eventual fate, upon their death the pigs’ skins were flayed, cured and refashioned into wall art before being sold for up to a reported £55,000. Given the similarity to human skin, the pigs have probably served as good practice for Tim’s eventual embalmer.

Delvoye speaks of his pigs with genuine warmth. He names them – what he describes as a process he claimed as a “personalisation of the industrial product” in a 2007 interview with Paul Laster for Art Asia Pacific magazine. He claims his pigs are spoiled and says he buys them coal so that they do not get cold in the snow of Chinese winter.

***

At the 2016 Sydney Biennale, the abandoned Mortuary Station – which used to ferry dead bodies between Sydney suburb Chippendale and the nearby ‘Necropolis’ in Rookwood – was the site of the Embassy of Transition. The multiple-medium installation of the Embassy’s featured artist, Londoner Marco Chiandetti, explored cycles of life and death, displacement and migration.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? was made specifically for the 2016 Biennale. It consisted of a triangular configuration of three pyramidal cages, which confined an undisclosed number of the introduced bird species Indian mynah, which is considered a pest in Australia. Unable to fly within the structure, the birds’ presence in the work spoke to processes of colonisation and reverberations of Empire.

Chiandetti’s work often explores themes of the ways in which humans impact the worlds that exist around them. The artist’s placement of these birds in a cage maintained by Biennale volunteers made tangible our intervention into these animals’ lives. As I stood before the cage, I found myself repeating the same questions I had paused over with Kounellis’ goldfish.

The 2016 Sydney Biennale’s title – The Future is Already Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed – encapsulates many of the issues of power, control, ownership and consent that these works involving live animals raise. The line is drawn from a novel by celebrated science fiction writer William Gibson. Though ‘The Future’ could just as easily be replaced by ‘Freedom’, ‘Power’ or ‘Worth’ – anything that speaks to the reasons and excuses we give to our treatment of other animals deemed less valuable or important.  

***

Art has the capacity to challenge us. To force us to recognise the existence of many of our assumptions and, being made aware, to actively question them. Indeed, there is a particular, and in many ways dominant, line of thinking that this is art’s very purpose for existence.

These works made me angry. They made me sad. They sickened me. They prompted me to write.

The utilitarian approach to the use of animal bodies in art would most likely assert that the ends justified the means. These works are designed to provoke, and that is certainly what they did.

But I am not a strict utilitarian. And so I am left standing before these works wondering what each animal would say if it could respond to my questions with a scream that I could hear.

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