Wednesday, February 1, 2012

CultureLAb - Animals get arty

Rebecca Hill, contributor
1st pic AbyA1--Digit-Master-by-Bakhari-(Chimp,-Saint-Louis-Zoo,-Missouri)---lo-res.jpg 
(Image: Digit Master by Bakhari (Chimp, Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri)

“The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of [American artist] Jackson Pollock is totally animal,” said Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, according to a plaque above a preserved chimp hand in University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology.
For me, Dalí’s words capture the idea behind the museum's latest exhibit, Art by Animals - what is the difference between paintings by humans and other animals? Can animal art truly be considered 'art'?
The exhibition showcases paintings by elephants, apes and humans, dotted throughout the existing displays of skeletons and preserved animals.
By my own admission, I’m not an art buff - I couldn’t tell a Rothko masterpiece from a paint sample card - so I wasn’t surprised that I struggled to tell the difference between the ape and human daubings.
Jack Ashby, co-curator of the exhibit and manager of the museum, hopes that visitors will ask themselves whether there is a difference at all. “If apes can create something that’s indistinguishable - what does that say about human art?” he says.
Some would argue the art displayed here is purely anthropomorphic - the animals have been given human painting tools and encouraged, to some degree or other, to put brush to canvas.

2nd-pic-AbyA6---Flower-Pot-(2011)-by-Boon-Mee-(Elephant,-Samutprakarn-Zoo,-Thailand)---lo-res.jpg(Image: Flower Pot (2011) by Boon Mee (Elephant, Samutprakarn Zoo, Thailand))
This is particularly true of the paintings by elephants. While apes are given paintbrushes, paper and the freedom to go it alone, elephants are trained to make particular marks when their ears are stroked in certain directions. This suggests to Ashby that, while the elephant art demonstrates amazing dexterity, it isn’t as creative.
Indeed, I can only offer my apologies if I offend the artistic sensibilities of former logging elephant Boon Me, but I just don’t believe she intended to paint that colourful flowerpot.
But while I am cynical about Boon Me’s works, I am genuinely impressed at the ape art on display. Most striking is the fact they know when it’s finished, Ashby explains - the animals stop painting and move on to their next canvas, unlike human children who tend to keep painting over the same page.  It seems to imply that the paintings are more than mere aimless doodles.
My preference for ape art (I’d gladly hang Bakhari the chimp’s finger-painting ‘Digit Master’ on my own wall) would put me in illustrious company - it is thought that both Miró and Picasso owned works by a chimp called Congo.
The exhibit explains that for decades humans have wanted to believe in an inter-species link - that we have an urge "to connect beyond our own kind”, and to ascribe human characteristics to all kinds of animals.
For Ashby, though, there’s another dimension to explore: the line between animal art and creativity. He describes observations of a crow sliding down a roof on a bottle top, for no apparent reason other than enjoyment. “They appear to be playing, and that’s a form of creativity.”
It’s clear the curators’ intentions were to ask more questions than they answered. So while I’m no closer to defining what art is, I certainly enjoyed giving it a bit more thought. After all, the beauty of art is that it’s open to interpretation.

Art by Animals, part of the Humanimals season at the Grant Museum of Zoology at 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE, is open Monday-Friday, 1-5pm until 9 March.

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