Creature Discomforts

Posted December 3, 2009 in Arts & Culture

“I killed my identical twin sister,” volunteers a character in Harmony, Jim Trainor’s single-channel DVD. “It happened in the burrow; but since I was only an animal, I kept looking for her everywhere.” Trainor’s phrasing can be jarring, but it points to an odd kind of anthropomorphizing, a manner of turning the world on its head. What hyena possesses such poignant self-awareness? To unnerving effect, Harmony —part of the “Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art” exhibition at the UCR Sweeney Gallery in Riverside—presents a series of vignettes that play off the template of nature films. Trainor’s animations depart from the tradition of wildlife documentary in their point of view. The narrator speaks in the first-person, rather than as the objective observer. If the documentary attempts to create empathy for the other, with humans alternately in the role of protectors or destroyers, Trainor makes animals the center of their own world.


Mixed in with Trainor’s tales of animal fratricide, incest, mass murder and gang rape are two segments deriving from the myths and rites of passage of indigenous peoples. And this is the most perplexing part of Harmony. The segment entitled The Lartna Men references a rite of passage of the Arunta people of Central Australia. “Lartna” is part of a male circumcision ritual that is unsettling at best, but which held profound meaning for the Arunta. Whether Trainor intends to equate this initiation rite with the practice of a male lions killing the offspring of their rivals, or the sexual habits of the pygmy chimpanzee, or any of the other animal behaviors in Harmony, which, when judged within the context of human cultural norms are repugnant, is unclear. What does seem clear is that Trainor is interested in holding a mirror up to humanity. He seems to ask: How it is that we develop social mores? When did the awareness of taboo dawn on us as species, and where are the limits?


Although “Intelligent Design” aims, according to the curatorial literature, to “challenge the anthropocentric view of the world,” one must ask what distinguishes humans from other animals. Rachel Mayeri’s two-channel video installation, Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends, turns up a resounding “not much.” Mayeri’s video juxtaposes the mating rituals of baboons with bar room mating behavior—complete with primatologist commentary. However, the fact that we, as a species, can offer self critique of our competition for mates speaks volumes. Funny enough, “Primate Cinema” does not reflect the complexity of how social class, economics and emotional intelligence interact with the biological drive in the human competition to mate—factors which one might hypothesize affect success more than any display of brute strength.


Meta-cognition—thinking about thinking—and language distinguish humans, and this is where “Intelligent Design” offers the greatest challenge. Along with the curators’ humorously provocative adaptation of the term, intelligent design, which is an Orwellian creation, the artists in “Intelligent Design” offer work which is ambiguous and subject to interpretation. 


Hilja Heading’s video installation, The Bonkers Devotional, explores the nuances of power, physical presence and dominance, and the gap between species, under circumstances so thoroughly perilous to the artist that watching the work produces physical discomfort. In what plays out like a tension-fraught domestic scene, the artist sits on a bed within an arms length of a substantial black bear. It is enormous next to Heading, who huddles a bit as she strokes its fur and very conspicuously avoids eye contact. Heading’s movements are awkward as she tries to fit herself into the space around the bear. Constant little indications of the presence of the bear’s trainer—a spoken command, praise, or a prop—reinforce the idea that the tension is real, and in a few instances the artist involuntarily responds, in tandem, to a verbal command. We are left to wonder if the light slap on the face is a sign of aggression or playfulness. We are also left with the sobering realization that our power is illusory.


“Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art” at the UCR Sweeney Art Gallery

3800 Main St., Riverside, (951) 827-3755; Thru Feb. 6.


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