Palette of the Apes

Posted November 25, 2009 in Arts & Culture

We were told as kids to “stop acting like monkeys.” Because monkeys, of course, were undignified wild creatures and there was no room for such behavior at the dinner table. But, despite what our mothers told us, monkeying around isn’t such a bad thing and there is plenty of room for it at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont. 


Through multiple video installations, artist Rachel Mayeri’s “Primate Cinema” (part of the museum’s ongoing “Project Series”) does just that, monkeys around—sometimes quite literally and sometimes through juxtaposition. Mayeri’s exhibition compares monkey and human behavior suggesting that while we are different, there are many similarities and sides to a story.


By emphasizing the cognitive processes involved in behavior, Mayeri provokes understanding in Baboons as Friends. Created in 2006, the two-channel installation juxtaposes footage of baboon mating behavior first created for scientific study and Mayeri’s staged footage of human mating behavior in a bar in film noir style. While she admitted during her Nov. 3 artist lecture at the gallery that the piece provoked some negativity towards men, pitching male behavior as stereotypical “animal” behavior, the installation was never meant to put men down. In actuality the piece was created to and does provoke understanding of another perspective. While looking at baboon behavior, it is easy to stereotype the baboons without fully understanding why it is that they behave the way they do, similar to how most of Mayeri’s audiences ended up stereotyping male behavior in the juxtaposed footage.


From there, Mayeri sought to clarify her message and created a six-minute installation, How to Act like an Animal in 2008. The piece simultaneously looped footage of a nature documentary on monkey feeding behavior with footage of Scripps College performers. The first loop is in sync with the performer’s reactions to the documentary. They were then told to imitate the footage, which is captured in the second loop. And lastly, the performers took on individual roles and re-enacted the documentary, each performer embodying a different monkey—literally monkeying around. But the piece is more than just that, it takes on the philosophical idea that we may be just one of many—like looking in the mirror for the first time—and that there may be many perspectives we may not yet understand, just as the performers tried to understand while playing their monkey parts.


The newest piece of the exhibit interposes footage of monkeys with that of the sitcom Friends. Mayeri’s concept for the piece stemmed from the idea that someone watching Friends years from now would view it as how humans behaved as friends in the 1990s just as scientists use footage of monkeys today to analyze their behavior. 


Mayeri’s exhibit draws on monkey behavior to suggest that there are multiple views on life. So, while mom never understood that banging forks and spoons in anticipation of food was our way of celebrating dinner time, “Primate Cinema” provides some comfort that our behavior was not completely outrageous.  


Project Series 39: Rachel Mayeri’s “Primate Cinema” at Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Way, Claremont, (909) 621-8283; Thru Dec. 20, Tue-Fri, noon-5PM, Sat-Sun, 1-5PM.


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