In 1984, Koko, a gorilla who understands and uses American Sign Language, asked her trainer, Dr. Francine Patterson, for a cat. After examining a series of kittens, Koko chose a tailless gray male she named All Ball. Koko was a very gentle and loving pet owner to All Ball. She treated him much as she would a baby gorilla, carrying All Ball on her back, petting and cuddling him. When Koko was in a playful mood, she would dress All Ball up in napkins or sign to him suggesting that they tickle each other, Koko’s favourite game.
In December 1984, All Ball escaped from the gorilla cage and was struck by a car. The death of All Ball was distressing to Koko. When asked, "Do you want to talk about your kitty?" Koko signed, “Cry.” "What happened to your kitty?", "Sleep cat." When she saw a picture of a cat that resembled All Ball, Koko pointed to the picture and signed, "Cry, sad, frown."
The reaction of the public and the scientific community was varied, passionate and – for this author – puzzling. The focus of debate centred on whether or not animals possess "emotions" in the human sense.
This skepticism is fuelled by their professional aversion to anthropomorphism - the tendency to attribute human qualities to things not human. Many scientists also say that it is impossible to prove animals have emotions by using standard scientific methods – that is, repeatable observations that can be manipulated in controlled experiments. This leads the scientific community to conclude that such feelings must not exist.
The argument continues that, although animals may possess feelings necessary for their survival, such as fear and the drive to multiply, they lack deeper human emotions such as love, compassion and empathy. Namely, they lack soul.
This is, forgive the term, a load of hooey.
For one thing, it is also possible to argue that human beings only possess the necessary emotions for survival. Taken to the “logical” conclusion, a detached scientific outlook also robs humankind of our deeper feelings. Love and compassion become nothing more than the drive to procreate and a chemical reaction stimulated by pheromones. One of the dilemmas of societies which emphasize pure logic is that they rob us of our essence.
Also, while the scientific outlook may explain why gazelles know enough to flee when predators appear or why wolves travel in packs, how does this outlook take into account the story of Koko and All Ball? The fact that swans mate for life? Or the experience of the millions of pet owners who will tell you hundreds of stories about their pets that involve deep and meaningful feelings? (if you’ll let them.)
I will concur that our contemporary culture, which presents cartoon characters peddling sugary cereals, and the recent proliferation of pet therapists, may be overcomplicating the feelings of animals. Of course, it is also possible to argue that these examples oversimplify the feelings of animals as well. One fact remains clear, the study of the emotions of animals and the study of the relationship between animals and humans remains a fertile ground for exploration.
This brings me to Fuzzy. Fuzzy is a group exhibition that includes the work of Michael Jacob Ambedian, Cathy Cahill, Toni Latour, Kelly Mark, Yana Movchan and Mary Catharine Newcomb. Fuzzy explores the complex and loving relationships between people and animals. One of the main criteria for choosing these artists was their work’s ability not only to analyze this relationship, but also to leave us with clues for an investigation into ourselves as well.
In his essay Why look at animals, John Berger argues that when a person regards an animal “…a power is ascribed to the animal, comparable with human power but never coinciding with it.”1 Berger later embellishes his argument by stating:
The relationship may become clearer by comparing the look of an animal with the look of another man. Between two men the two abysses are … bridged by language…the existence of language allows that at least for one of them…is confirmed by the other.2
Berger argues that due to the inability to converse through language, animals are unable to confirm man, and the lack of a common language guarantees a distinct identity apart from man. It is because of this distance that mankind does not consider animals as together with man, but instead, running parallel to man. Berger concludes “with their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange.”3
I believe that this parallel relationship is central to the video installations presented by Toni Latour. In Dog, Eat Dog World Toni simulates the language between dogs. On seven separate screens, we see Toni growling, barking, panting, baring her teeth, licking at the screen and utilizing other examples of dog communication to create a dialogue and relationships between her seven protagonists. Rather than expecting dogs to learn our language, Toni attempts to bridge this gap of communication by imitating theirs. This approach is similar to the way infants learn language by imitating their guardians.
It is astounding to notice the similar modes of communication used between humans and dogs, as we recognize the gestures and primal noises reflective of the essential nature of ourselves. The parallel line between animal and human dwindles and each “dog” presented on screen adopts its own personality. More provocative than the suggested projection of human qualities onto animal is the opposing reading – that we are more like animals than we like to think – that we too are capable of this unpredictable nature. In a relatively ordered society it becomes all too easy to overlook our primal selves and how tenuous our hold on our humanistic nature truly is.
The unpredictable nature of animals is present in the work of Michael Ambedian. In Sawdust Tree and Hamster Wheel, a live hamster (Henry) on a wheel operates a kinetic sculpture with a rotating tree – made from sawdust. If Henry feels like resting, then the artwork lays dormant. If Henry feels like running on his wheel the tree spins. A complex relationship with nature is uncovered. “Man” destroys nature by turning trees into sawdust, then Michael attempts to rebuild the tree out of the sawdust. Finally, the tree can only be operated by Henry - the creature stereotypically thought of as the most natural element in the equation. There is a quiet pathos in the work. One might mistake the reconstruction of the tree as hopelessly naive, since clearly Michael is unable to construct a real live tree. One would be missing the point, since it is the attempt to do the impossible that allows hope to grow. This pathos is amplified by Henry, since Michael turns the control of his sculpture over to this tiny, unpredictable hamster. However, Michael respects and honours this unpredictable nature, this inability to communicate, this parallel relationship, and it is in this aspect that the soul of the work lies.
There is an interesting juxtaposition in both the Totems and the Dog Buddhas made by Cathy Cahill. There is a clash of a culture that gives deep and often spiritual meanings to animals with another that simplifies and commercializes them. In Totems, Cathy makes seven foot tall totem poles out of fake fur. Unlike the traditional totem poles of the Native peoples, the animals on Cathy’s sculptures mimic stuffed ones. Traditionally, totems are carved and placed at the front entrance of the family longhouse to honour ancestors, the clan's standing, rights and accomplishments, to record a memorable ceremony or a spiritual experience. Each animal portrayed on the totems represents a quality or characteristic of the family. An owl shows wisdom, a bear motherhood and strength. Through her reference to stuffed animals, Cathy simultaneously illuminates the loss of these symbolic relationships with animals and, by referencing the totems, she simultaneously converts the animals back into creatures to be valued and respected.
Mary Catherine Newcomb also explores the symbolic nature of animals, only this time through the language of allegory and fairy tales. But Mary Catherine’s work does not represent the bright hues of the Disney movies. Instead, it references the darker passages of the traditional fairy tales written by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. In Portrait of a Middle Aged Hare, an enormous rabbit head hushes at you when you pass. The work contains an evocative mixture of comfort and dread. Covered in bumps of plaster, the rabbit looks partly skinned and its indecipherable message taunts you to move further away. A separation is created; one is attracted to the sculpture but also repulsed by it. In a similar manner, Lewis Carroll’s Alice followed the trickster rabbit down the rabbit hole. If one takes Mary Catherine’s catalogue of works into account – works which often reference sexuality – then one can see this sculpture in a new context. This attraction and repulsion, this luring and danger, become extra potent.
Kelly Mark counteracts the stereotype of the artist as a tortured being and the requirement for artwork to be cold, serious and detached. In Kelly’s work we see that an artwork can be important and be fun, humorous, loving, light and Fuzzy. There is an enormous heart full of love and affection central to Kelly Mark’s video collaboration with her cat, Roonie. In her Rock Star series, Kelly elevates Roonie to the level of ROCK STAR – our modern Olympian. After all, if Meatloaf and Justin Timberlake can be stars, why not Roonie? When Roonie lies on the couch, “War Pigs” blasting through speakers surrounding him, and doesn’t move, this has more impact on Kelly’s life than anything Bono could do. Why shouldn’t Roonie star in a rock video?
The expression “lovingly painted” is appropriate when considering the richly detailed and tremendously precise paintings by Yana Movchan. Yana’s work often portrays cats and hamsters with fruit and various traditional still-life objects, with each hair on every hamster considered before being painted. This concentration is emblematic of an emotional connection with the subject – we only truly focus on subjects of our adoration. The viewer also connects with the subject, as one must move close to these paintings to gain a full appreciation. It is a style reminiscent of the Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. Yana rejects the impulse to contemporize her subject and, as a result, her paintings appear timeless.
This evidence of caring is apparent in many of the works, but I do not make this observation to suggest that the work is not considered or cerebral. Indeed, the work contains an intellectual basis which prevents it from becoming saccharine. At the heart of Michael Ambedian’s sculpture is an environmental plea. Toni Latour’s work zeroes in on the heart of how we communicate. Cathy Cahill mourns the loss of myth and allegory. Mary Catherine Newcomb questions the danger of seduction. Kelly Mark examines our society’s values and heroes. Yana Movchan’s paintings are reminiscent of a time that rewarded careful observation and reflection.
Koko does not wonder about her relationship with All Ball, or the several dogs and cats that she has adopted since. She only needs their companionship and to care for them. Our adopted pets do not seem to wonder about our relationships with them either. They do not look at us with curiosity and detachment. Instead, they simply walk parallel to us, waiting patiently for us to embrace and cherish our relationships.
- Scott Sawtell
Curator Scott Sawtell is an art instructor at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario. He has an M.F.A from the University of Waterloo and is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design.
1 Berger, John. About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). p.3
2 Ibid. p.3
3 Ibid. p.4.