RESISTANCE WITHIN THE MUSEUM FAUNA
Challenging Anthropocentrism through Counter Art Histories and Non-Human Narratives
A thesis in artistic research and critical animal studies by Dr. EvaMarie Lindahl – Edge Hill University, 2022
Resistance Within the Museum Fauna – Challenging Anthropocentrism through Counter Art Histories and Non-Human Narratives is a practice-based thesis within visual art and critical animal studies that is engaged in decentring the human in art history in favour of non-human animals. The theory and practice of this thesis is committed to finding ways of challenging an anthropocentric art world, and therefore the research approach is qualitative, meaning that it is not trying to measure, but rather re-think art historic narratives while concentrating its attention to the lives and histories of non-human animals on display at the museum walls.
The fauna of the art museum is not only the title of the thesis, but a term developed because of the necessity to hold space for a group of non-human animals whose commonality is that their habitat is the art museum, some are portrayed in paintings while others are grinded to become pigment, glue and paint. Moreover, one of the core strategies of this research is the refusal to view portrayed non-human animals as symbols for human affairs but instead recognize them as individuals with agency and relationships. To do this, anthropomorphism is used as a radical and empathic tool to envision and imagine new art history where non-human animals are at the centre.
The thesis is written from the firm and unwavering conviction of the rights of all living beings, and that the killing of non-human animals within the production system of visual art needs to end. Therefore, the thesis ends with a toolkit of exercises written to be used when visiting the art museum. The toolkit hopes to create a feeling with another instead of looking at others, and the courage to engage in art works from a position of empathy towards all species.thesis
The first time I met my dog friend Della she was three years old and came strutting down the sidewalk of my house. She came with her family and when they left, she belonged to another family, me and my husband. I remember how we looked at each other, frightened but excited, we were now responsible for this living being and we couldn’t understand that someone actually thought we were capable of taking on such a responsibility. It took a while for me and Della to develop our relationship and after a few months with her in my life I had an epiphany: I knew nothing about other animals. If I could create such a strong bond with a dog, if I could recognise fear, affection, stress, desire, hunger, irritation, joy, longing and many other emotions in her that I didn’t think she was capable of, then I probably didn’t know anything about other animals. If I was shocked by her ability to think, plan, manipulate and keep track of time it was because I had underestimated her. And probably many others like her. I was shaken to the core by her clear will and integrity. I no longer could trust the way I had viewed the non-humans with whom I share this earth. I had been taught that the inner lives, communication skills and willpower of humans were superior to other animals. That the species barrier was impossible to bridge, that what I saw in them was just myself. I wasn’t prepared for the mutual relationship that was ours. My love for her became so strong it made me frightened. Everything in the world was a threat: other dogs, cars, humans and their laws. The love I felt, the relationship I had with her was supposed to be impossible. Everything I knew about other animals had to be renegotiated and re-evaluated.
I knew nothing.
This research project is engaged in decentring the human in art history in favour of non-human animals. By writing imagined and ‘crowded non-human animal autobiographies’ in the shape of text-based artworks, performances and video works, the motivation of this research has been to investigate how to create non-human ‘counter narratives’ to the one-sided and anthropocentric art historic narrative that engulfs the art museum.
Furthermore, this research project is practice-based and interdisciplinary, situated within the fields of visual art and critical animal studies. The art practice of this project has gone through several phases in its pursuit to find form, just as art should, when used as an investigative practice of the world, not knowing the result beforehand. The artworks and the theoretical framework of this thesis have been developed simultaneously and are equally as important. When used as intertwined investigative partners, far from contrasting binary modes, practice has evolved theory and theory has evolved practice. The artworks finalised and presented in this thesis are text-based and have been printed, read, performed, and transformed into video works.
I entered this research project after working as a professional artist since 2008 when I earned my Master of Fine Arts at Malmö Art Academy (SE). Since then I have exhibited my work frequently and developed a research driven way of working that is situated in the intersection of Critical Animal Studies, the visual arts and activism, working with large-scale graphite drawings (Lindahl, 2017) as well as text-based performance work (Lindahl, 2014) and collective self-organisation. Through several projects I have investigated and questioned the writing of art history from an anthropocentric and patriarchal position by correcting, re-writing and imagining new (art) histories (Ejlerskov & Lindahl, 2014) (Lindahl, 2015). These earlier projects, together with the works developed during this research project, have shaped my art practice into what I now call art history activism. Art history activism is placed in close connection to artivism. The term artivism is a “hybrid neologism that signifies work created by individuals who see an organic relationship between art and activism” as defined by Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre when discussing the work of Chicana artist Judy Baca (2008, p. 82). But where artivism includes any material or technique art history activism turns to history as its main art material as well as the fuel from which new artworks are developed, and in the center of the work, lies a quest to change norms by re-writing, imagining and suggesting more just histories that holds space for the unheard, ignored and silenced.
This research has been presented throughout its diverse phases of theory and practice at several venues and in different contexts. By invitation the research has been presented and performed at leading art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in Malmö (SE) and Lunds Konsthall (SE). Furthermore, parts of the research and practice has been performed and shown at two separate art exhibitions in Sweden and Germany and it has been presented and performed at seven academic conferences in four different countries, one by invitation and six through answered calls. In relation to the academic conferences the text-based artworks have been performed live as guided tours at the National Museum of Fine Arts (SE), the National Gallery of Denmark (DK) and the Bishop’s House in Lund.
Since this research project is committed to finding ways of challenging an anthropocentric art world, the research approach is qualitative. This means that this project is not trying to measure, but rather experiment, experience and re-think while investigating how an artistic practice can concentrate its attention to the lives, histories and roles of non-human animals in art production while working towards the goal of ending the killing of non-human animals in the name of art.
The architecture under which this research project has developed and plotted its course has been supported with the help of the following three pillars: critical animal studies; the fauna of the art museum; and anthropomorphism. A short introduction to critical animal studies and the term the ‘fauna of the art museum’ is found in the introduction while anthropomorphism is discussed in chapter 2.
When we use animals as metaphors, they lose their physical form in this world, their sounds and their stories disappear when turned into extras in the lives of humans. They “lose their fur, the curve of their spine, the spines of their tongue” (Pattinson, 2017, p. 96) and according to Danielle Sands “we are responsible for rewriting anthropocentric histories” (2019, p. 95) if we want to create “alternative cross-species futures” (ibid) that are less violent towards non-human animals. This is the reason why, instead of being seen as representation for human affairs and emotions, each painted individual that is investigated in this research project, is treated as a once breathing individual with emotions, history and agency since an individual of another species is not “merely a concept or a metaphor but, instead, a real, living and embodied person who requires our respect, support and solidarity” (Pedersen & Stanescu, 2014, p. 263).
In this research project agency should be seen through the lens of critical animal studies and understood as an ability to express and act upon desires and wills as well as being an effective agent towards one’s own oppression (adapted from Isaac, 2002, p.129), this means that one of the critical points of this research is to extend the notion of agency towards other species. When agency transgress human exceptionalism, a space is created for the interpretation of non-human animal body language, facts, and histories that points to acts of resistance already present in history. It is when opening up to non-human animals as agents and the refusal of symbolic readings of their portrayed bodies, together with the embracing of anthropomorphism, when addressing the ground, chopped and torn individuals of the fauna of the art museum, that it becomes possible to imagine narratives that put forth a multitude of real life experiences of the consequences of art production to non-human animals. From the cold winter landscape of painter Gustaf Cederström a capercaillie declares:
I refuse to think of myself as a symbol, and therefore urge you to read me as living. Because once I was alive. Or once someone was alive for someone else to kill and later study. Humans wants other animals to be still so that they can study. So that you can create a perfect watercolour drawing of the back feathers of someone like me. And it takes several. I am not only one. I am a series of me. I am an US. (Lindahl, 2019)
During the seven years this research project have been underway the interest from the arts community in the obsolete dichotomy of human and non-human has increased. In the precarious times of the Anthropocene, one of the strategies of the arts have been to embrace the academic field of Human Animal Studies (HAS) when trying to make sense of it all. Since this is a project situated within visual arts it is therefore necessary to point out the difference between the two fields and position this research project within CAS. In short, HAS’ focus lies in the study of the interactions and relationships between human and nonhuman animals (DeMello, 2012, p. 5) whereas CAS is motivated by a “firm, unwavering normative commitment to ending the exploitation of nonhuman animals for human consumption and pleasure” (Pedersen & Stanescu, 2014, p. 263). This means that this research project is in conflict with the practices and parts of the art world where non-human animals are seen as resource and material and used instrumentally in the production of art works.
The fauna of the art museum is not only the title of this thesis, but also a term that is developed for this research project because of the necessity to hold space for a group of non-human animals whose commonality is that their habitat is the art museum: Some are seen in the open, named and portrayed in paintings, on display within frames and hanging on the walls of the museum. Many are hidden within artist materials when grinded to become pigment, glue and paint. Others are objectified as study material or leave traces of themselves as drawings in the archives. Their habitat, as well as their final resting place, is the art museum. They are the casualties of art production. But even though the art museum is a final resting place for many non-human animals, it is also a place that is full of life and histories that refuse and resist an anthropocentric narrative. The hoof of a horse, a cow resting, the feathers of a parrot are drawn in charcoal and kept in remembrance in archives with perfect humidity and condition to last for hundreds of years. The varnish of the paintings is perfectly cared for. If we listen carefully, dare to imagine, and refuse to read the portrayed non-human animals symbolically, we can hear the fauna of the art museum calling through the cracks of the paintings and from the darkest tombs in the shape of museum archives.
Lindahl, E., 2017. After Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals. [Artwork].
Lindahl, E., 2014. Dear General John J Pershing. i: E. Andersson Cederholm, A. Björck, K. Jennbert & A. Lööngren, red. Exploring the Animal Turn. Lund: The Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies, pp. 89-91.
Ejlerskov, D. & Lindahl, E., 2014. About the Blank Pages. [Artwork].
Lindahl, E., 2015. After Lion (The Look Out) and Lion at Rest by Rosa Bonheur. [Artwork].
Sandoval, C. & Latorre, G., 2008. Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color. Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media, p. 81–108.
Pattinson, E., 2017. Cuts: The Rhythms of “Healing-with” Companion Animals. i: D. Ohrem & R. Bartosch, red. Beyond the Human- Animal Divide – Creaturely Lives in Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 95-112.
Sands, D., 2019. Animal Writing – Storytelling, Selfhood and the Limits of Empathy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press.
Pedersen, H. & Stanescu, V., 2014. Conclusion: future directions for critical animal studies. i: R. Twine & N. Taylor, red. The Rise of Critical Animal Studies From the margins to the centre. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 262-276.
Isaac, T., 2002. Feminism and Agency. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 28(sup), pp. 129-154.
Lindahl, E., 2019. A Dead King Happens to Pass by. [Artwork].
DeMello, M., 2012. Animals and society: An introduction to human-animal studies. New York: Columbia University Press.
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