On the Role of Animals in Pictorial Representations
Contemporary art loves the beast. Non-human animals are increasingly prominent in works of visual art, photography, film, sculpture, and performance. Why? Where does this need for new images of animals stem from? Perhaps because we currently do not exactly know what an animal actually is. Our notions are out of joint.
The one-day conference Portraying Animals explores the role of animals in contemporary art. The genre of the animal portrait is of particular importance here: the portrait does not simply show an animal, but always this one animal. Lending its motif both face and figure, an individual aura, the portrait invites the viewer to speculate about the subject’s biography, character, emotions, and passions. In short: the portrait lends the animal subjectivity.
Moreover, the animal portrait also poses questions: what role does the model play in its depiction? Wherein lies the practical contribution of the real animals, the creatures of flesh and blood, in how they are pictorially rendered? What influence do they have on the outcome? And consequently: are animals merely material for or rather active collaborators in the process of artistic work?
Six experts from different fields of science and culture will discuss these questions. The British art historian Steve Baker, author of influential books such as The Postmodern Animal, Picturing the Beast and Artist Animal, confronts the aesthetic and political demands regarding the portrayal of animals in contemporary art. His Italian colleague Giovanni Aloi, editor of Antennae – The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture and author of Art and Animals, discusses the relationship between photography and taxidermy (the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals for display), focusing on works by the American photographer and visual artist Roni Horn. Czech Anthropologist Marco Stella recounts the uncanny entanglement of legendary Giant Salamanders and Czech culture in the 20th century – both populating the basement of Prague’s Faculty of Science and the cultural imaginary as in Karel Capek’s dystopic novel “War with the Newts” (1936). Cord Riechelmann, biologist and cultural theorist based in Berlin, will shift the focus to moving images and discuss the role of animals in selected art films. Riechelmann has written about the invasion of our cities by new settlers such as marten, beaver, jaybird, and owl, and the cultural history of crows. Jana Horáková from Brno is an expert in the philosophy of Donna Haraway, one of the key figures in Animal Studies. She discusses the fantastic, hyperreal, parahuman animal works of Patricia Piccinini, an Australian artist who has also inspired Haraway. The curator and writer Olesya Turkina form St. Petersburg turns towards popular culture and reflects on the ideological role and media presence of the Soviet space dogs who explored outer space way before their human cosmonaut colleagues.
The conference Portraying Animals is the first part of Why Talk to Animals, a trilogy on human-animal relations to be held in Prague and Pilsen, the European Capital of Culture 2015. It opens up the theoretic and discursive field. It will be followed by a live event in September in Pilsen: a casting and photo shooting for a second Noah´s Ark – this time with interspecies couples. The resulting portraits serve as motifs for a number of consumer items which will be on sale in different showrooms in Pilsen and Prague for the rest of the year.