The Animal as Muse


By: Miah Artola /

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A specific anticipation enters a gallery where an animal image occurs. It captures the eye much as nudity will; animals unclothed, mysterious, likewise represent what is not seen in public. Throughout the contemporary art world, animal imagery is pervasive. Damien Hirst, Cai Guo-Qiang, Adel Abdessemed, Paul McCarthy, Matthew Barney regularly incorporate animals into their work. There are those contemporary artists who have at some point focused on animals such as Sebastiao Salgados, Bruce Nauman, Mike Kelley, Joseph Beuys, David Hammons, Jannis Kounellis or Gerhard Richter. It is in fact difficult to find a known artist who has not at one point brought an animal into their work. Artists with less name recognition, such as Anna-Lena Tsutsui , Beth Cavener Stichter, Michael Ballou, Wendy Klemperer, and Karin Andersen also work with animal forms.

I propose that two main assertions drive these works.

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First, the outcast status (or even underclass status) of both the wild animal and the artist. The prevalence of animals in the gallery clearly acts to remedy the loss we collective feel for our estrangement with the animal world, but it also reflects the artist’s’ sympathetic stance towards the animal. Artist Wendy Klemperer writes: “Often the animals depicted in my work are endangered, representing disappearing species. Decimated on purpose or inadvertently, they differ from extinct species: not erased completely, they survive on the fringes of the developed world. Presence and absence fluctuate in my sculptures: networks of steel lines draw the form, insubstantial as the ephemeral glimpse of a wild creature. Environment pierces the negative space between lines; emptiness infiltrates the work, echoing the absence of the animal.

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Second, these artworks are made to encourage compassion, attempts understand the animal, creation as an act of communion and empathy. The act of communicating with animal forms in the creation of art is an act of communion, nearly theriomorphic on the part of the creator as the shapes and behavior of the animal body have to be known and felt. In a sense it is in fact as if the actual animal is present. In “The post-modern animal”, Steve Baker declares: “…animal rights and post modern thought increasingly find themselves in alliance.” (Baker 174 )








An expression of our absurd cruelty towards animals can be found in “Baby dolls”, a wall size projected video loop by Anna-Lena Tsutsui .“Baby dolls” displays puppies in bright colorful boxes for sale which are stacked on top of each other as if in an enormous exaggerated tick tack toe. These boxes were actually shot individually at a store in Japan and made to appear as if they are displayed on top of each other.

An Artblog- Cologne review describes it: “Fitted into this architecture, the rigidity of the almost squared boxes raises to the unbearable as well as the restlessness of the maniacal and clumsy movements of the puppies, which are in intense opposition to the boxes. Caught in this tied form, the animals lose every sign of self-determination: Their movements become purely mechanic, an absurd ballet of externally controlled marionettes.”

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Abdessemed’s controversial “Don’t Trust Me” (2008), is a projection of a man in Mexico using a sledgehammer to bludgeon a series of farm animals which are being killed for consumption.

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In a review Jerry Saltz discusses Facebook comments regarding Abdessemed: “Within minutes scores of comments poured in, almost all of them saying that this work was evil, despicable, 100 percent cruel. The conclusion of many was that ‘art should be moral.’ That’s when I started to get uncomfortable.” (Saltz ). People and animals are slaughtered and transported against their will every day. Arguably, Abdessemed is not doing anything to animals that we do not already do to both animals and people. Our dismissal of this fact is one he substantiates to grand effect.

In “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?”, Abdessemed displays taxidermy.Animals of all kinds are compiled together in a wall sized piece whose dimensions correspond to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”.

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They are also burned with fire and give off a smell, as do many of his pieces. Abdessemed explores death, and demands we acknowledge it, by smell, sight, spirit. He is specifically concerned with cruel, violent or reckless/meaningless death by human hand. Animals are not the only way he showcases this theme; they are though, the most effective expression of this theme. In these works the primary role of the animal is innocence and vulnerability and Abdessemed is doing the hard work of refusing to look away.






Unlike Abdessemed, Cai Guo-Qiang is not controversial or criticized: he is universally revered. This, however, does not mean his work is not provocative. only that his methods are far more socially acceptable. Guo-Qiang’s installations are extravagant and mesmerizing and tend towards visual allegory of specific historical events.

Like Abdessemed, Cai Guo-Qiang employs life-size and life-like animals but his are not real live animals.

In Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation “Inopportune: Stage Two”, he stages nine life-like tigers pierced with many arrows. Some are suspended (as are many of Guo-Qiang’s animals) or propped up on the floor to appear directly in front in us.

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We are able to view these animals from all angles, granting us the opportunity to literally regard them from new perspectives while indulging our desire to look at them closely. “Inopportune: Stage Two” is based on a twelfth-century Chinese folktale. It tells the story of Wu Song who saves his village from a man- eating tiger. Meredith L. Skaggs describes this piece: “As Cai retells this traditional story, he permutes the original implications of the tale. What would usually extol Wu Song becomes a tragic event at the expense of the tiger. ….Just as the scenes unfold in traditional Chinese hand scrolls, Cai is using nine tigers to illicit the movement of one tiger in its various stages of anguish.”(Skaggs 26) Not unlike Abdessemed, Guo-Qiang is concerned with violence and seeks to reveal and remedy our immunity to violence.








In “Head On”, Cai Guo-Qiang presents 99 life-like wolves moving into a suspended mid-air loop until they crash into a glass wall. He uses wolves to demonstrate the idea of pack mentality in order to express Nazism (or Fascism).

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Using animals to demonstrate not just a trait but a political gesture provides a mirror that we can safely look at. Using specific animals to address one thought is a common use of the animal form. A new media example could be “The Treachery of Sanctuary” by Chris Milk. This interactive installation explores the creative process in three stages. First is the moment of conception; second is the critical response, doubt, or critical attack; the third and final panel is transcending the death of doubt into ecstasy

Utilizing the animal presence in a contemporary art context re-introduces their particular intelligence for consideration and commands a certain respect and New Media artworks feature animal imagery and interactive animal human experiences to a startling degree. From Mapping to Max MSP and Kinect installations to holograms, there is an overwhelming emphasis on animals and the natural world.

On the very high end, there are productions such as “İnanılmaz 7D Teknolojisi” which was created with the aspiration to help reduce the need for animals to stay in captivity. If we create works such as theses we allow a mediated experience of the animal without the need for zoos or parks such as sea world.

The number of video installations that feature animals and nature are too numerous to list but one of my personal favorites is Diana Thater’s “The Sympathetic Imagination”. This film is placed in run down and abandoned buildings, exploring the tension we live with between the wild and the domesticated, as well as natural and mediated environments.

Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination from LACMA on Vimeo.

Children are benefiting from animals in new media as well. “The Impossible Animals Interactive Museum” Installation was created by Inc. and the Manitoba Children’s Museum to encourage children to engage directly with imaginary animal world wherein hybrids are created and they enjoy joyful and affectionate relationship with animals.

Performance artists working with animal themes include Jacqueline Traide, had animal products tested on her to protest animal testing. She was, I am glad to report, acting and not in true pain. The effect was none the less moving.

If one purpose of art is to reveal the unseen, bringing animals forth not only help us fill the void of their absence but demonstrate an attempt to understand and acquire knowledge from them. Their very present represents a desire to understand. Throughout human history we have utilized animals to help us navigate the world and perceive what we cannot. This is true of actual physical life as well as the life of myth and legend. It seems clear that we are collectively moving into a new philosophical stance regarding our relationship to the animal. Every art work and installation that addresses this theme moves us that much closer to a larger understanding.

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See my full research report and presentation at the below links:

Research paper:

Presentaion: password: Muse


Works Cited:

1. Anderson, Karin. The Presence of Animals in Contemporary Art as a Sign of CulturalChange.

Https:// 22 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

“Anna-Lena Tsutsui.” Anna-Lena Tsutsui. 1 Oct. 2008. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.

2. Baker, Steve. The Post Modern Animal. London: Reaktion, 2000. Print. “Adel Abdessemed Explained.” Adel Abdessemed Explained. 2012. Web.22 Mar. 2016.

3. Cornell, Lauren, and Ed Halter. Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: MIT, 2015. Print.

4. Cryer A B. Web. 27 Mar. 2016. Adel Abdessemed Explained Les ailes de dieu/Le ali di dio, cat. exp., Turin, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, 2009, p. 23.

5. Hurn, Samantha. Anthropology, Culture and Society: Humans and Other Animals: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Interactions. Pluto, 2012. Print.

6 Kerr, Dylan. “Art 101: My Cat Could Do That: A Brief History of Animals in Contemporary Art | Artspace.” Artspace. 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.

7. Lion.”DigitalCommons@CalPoly. Clemson University, 1992. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1811&context=bts

8. Müller, Sabine Elsa. “Anna-Lena Tsutsui.” Baby Dolls 2008. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.

9. Nayeri, Farah. “Adel Abdessemed: Tackling Themes of Everyday Cruelty and Extremism.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

10. Saltz, Jerry. “Saltz: Adel Abdessemed’s Fighting-Animal Video Sparks Art- World Uproar.” Vulture. ARTSY, 04 May 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

11. “Wolves in Japan: Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Head On” at the Yokohama Museum of Art.”Deutsche Bank. 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

12. Skaggs, Meredith. “Fluidity and Transformation: Positioning the Art of Cai Guo-Qiang.” OhioLINK ETD: Skaggs, Meredith L. 1 June 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2016. Ohio

University Thesis and Dissertation Center

13. The Salt of the Earth. Dir. Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Perf. Sebastião Salgado. Decia Films, 2014. DVD.

14. “Wendy Klemperer.” Wendy Klemperer. 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.

15. “Head On — Cai Guoqiang.”Teachartwiki -. 2006. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.


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