Pracownia Portretu, Lodz, Poland
16 April – 5 May 2016
From the window of my old fourth floor flat, and if the wind was blowing in the right direction, I could sometimes hear the lions and tigers roaring in the zoo nearby. We were neighbours, in our quiet Dutch neighbourhood.
Heads brings together a collection of new sculptural and film works. Through focusing on power, control, empathy and care the works address the relationship(s) we have with ourselves, each other, and with non-human animals.
The human head is a symbolic component of our existence. The centre of thought and perception, the head contains the human visual system (the brain and the eyes) and is how we perceive, communicate, understand and empathise with The Other, and by extension therefore how we understand ourselves.
The sculptural series Heads are suspended or sat on the floor, appearing as either having been violently decapitated (the body having been removed) or as just freely hanging (the body is absent). A Lidl bag. A Biedronka bag. Cheap all-purpose bags. “I am recycled plastic, please reuse me” one tells me. I will! The bags are filled with food and litter pellets for domestic pets, and adorned with female accessories, eye masks and rain hats. All of the materials are cheap and artificial.
The two film works presented, Tank and Deer, are both short looped pieces of hand held footage. The thin divide of the aquarium’s Perspex tank creates a transparent barrier; a surface onto which the starfish has ‘chosen’ to attach itself. It is the fourth wall, the one we peer through and feel protected behind. In its fabricated and fictionalised home, the Perspex wall is as good a surface as a rock for this starfish.
The deer seem to inhabit only a small part of their enclosure. They run in a loop towards and away from an unseen target. This repetitive behaviour appears at first absurd and then sad. The deer’s distressed, looping movements expose the limits of their freedom. As with the starfish, we become aware of our own position through perceiving the boundaries of theirs: we are at once complicit and compromised.
The history of the zoo’s emergence is connected with the history of colonisation. As the desire to travel, discover, trade and conquer grew, non-indigenous animals became like any other exotic commodity: both novel and lucrative. Zoos now exist primarily as scientific research facilities, focussing less on parading the spoils of Empire, and rather on conservation, education and entertainment.
With wild and domestic animals, humans struggle to not anthropomorphise – imagining how an animal might be thinking or feeling as if it were a human. Nature documentaries insidiously encourage these human-centric narratives to be applied to the natural world, often taking them to emotional extremes. Audiences are now presented with the same stories of love, loss and high drama that can be found in any (other) form of entertainment.
The Heads sculptures create a projected feminised identity, one which is devoid of freedom or agency; one which, like the deer and the starfish, is always available, always willing. Within the exhibition there is a sense of reliance and dependency that is not born of free will. Animals contained and domesticated, women idealised and sexualised. The aspect that is perhaps most disturbing is that the treatment of both has now become so pervasive, it is quietly accepted and therefore normalised. Violently decapitated or freely hanging?